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U.S. Military Theories of Victory for a War with the People's Republic of China

According to a new Rand study, "a denial theory of victory offers the best balance between the desire to maximize the chances of U.S. success and the imperative to manage escalation"


A military conflict between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) would entail escalation risks that the United States has not seriously considered since the Cold War.


According to a new Rand study, the United States may prevail in a limited war with the PRC while avoiding catastrophic escalation.

Conflict between China and USA in Asia-Pacific region - GettyImages

The authors do so by considering theories of victory for the United States in a war with China. A theory of victory is a causal story about how to defeat an adversary: It identifies the conditions under which the enemy will admit defeat and outlines how to shape the conflict in a way that creates those conditions. The authors consider five theories of victory and identify two as most viable: denial (persuading the enemy that it is unlikely to achieve its objectives and that further fighting will not reverse this failure) and military cost-imposition (using military force to persuade the enemy that the costs of continuing the war outweigh the benefits).


The authors maintain that denial offers the best chance for delivering victory while avoiding catastrophic escalation, whereas military cost-imposition has lower prospects of success and higher chances for catastrophic escalation.

Any conflict between the United States and the PRC has the potential for catastrophic escalation, and this requires the United States to think differently about how to fight and win limited wars than it has become accustomed to in the post–Cold War era. A denial theory of victory offers the best balance between the desire to maximize the chances of U.S. success and the imperative to manage escalation.


Following are the authors' conclusions.

"Denial focuses on attriting the power-projection capabilities the PRC needs to seize Taiwan in order to persuade PRC decisionmakers that they are unlikely to accomplish their objectives and that further fighting will not change the eventual outcome. The causal storyline for military cost-imposition, by contrast, aims to convince PRC decisionmakers that the war is too costly to continue and that they should abandon Taiwan to protect their other interests. The central obstacle to military cost-imposition is navigating the Goldilocks Challenge by identifying a sweet spot of targets that are valuable enough to influence Bei- jing’s decisionmaking but not so valuable that they prompt retaliation and unacceptable escalation. For either theory of victory, the United States would use limited means to pursue the limited ends of leaving Taiwan’s independence intact. It would not define victory in terms of a formal settlement that resolves Taiwan’s status once and for all or that forces the PRC to make other painful concessions.


Clearly understanding the range of potential theories of victory for future conflicts is critical, because today’s force structure decisions will shape the decision space for tomorrow’s president. If DoD does not build a robust denial capability, then a future president might have to choose among higher escalation risk options, such as military cost-imposition and brinkmanship. The different theories of victory imply different requirements for force planning and investments. For example, if one believes that the United States could compel the PRC to end an invasion through cost-imposition measures, such as strategic air attacks against key economic targets, then that could create greater demand for heavy bombers and less demand for air base defense for fighters.


General officers, flag officers, and senior civilian officials should prepare to discuss the risks of different theories of victory and the trade-offs between managing escalation risks and prevailing in a conflict. The United States has fallen out of practice with this kind of thinking after three decades of smaller regional conflicts. Shifting mindsets and once again becoming conversant in escalation dynamics is essential to providing the best possible advice to the president. That a denial theory of victory has lower escalation risks relative to the alternatives does not mean that it has low risks in absolute terms, so defense planners till need to think carefully about how U.S. operational plans to implement a denial strategy strike an appropriate balance between operational effectiveness and escalation risks.


Once DoD is confident that it can implement a denial theory of victory effectively, it should then prepare for other theories of victory to provide a spectrum of options to future presidents. Future U.S. leaders might have a diverse range of preferences and face scenarios in which different theories of victory seem more or less appropriate. For example, if the United States intervenes to protect Taiwan from a coercive PRC air and missile campaign rather than an amphibious invasion, a distant blockade might be a symmetrical response that can help manage escalation. The priority, though, should remain on developing the forces required for denial, including denial-by-proxy and pure denial variants. DoD can explore alternative courses of action to provide U.S. leaders with a flexible set of options, but these alternatives cannot slow or displace

preparations for the denial theories of victory".

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