Retired US Admiral and head of Special Operations Command William McRaven warns the West has experienced a “holy sh*t” moment.
The US is suddenly no longer the world’s only military superpower. And, in some areas, China may even be ahead. “And oh, by the way, it’s just going to get harder as we get further into the future,” he warned an international affairs forum last month.
It’s already starting to do just that.
China’s new found confidence was demonstrated on Monday when its defence minister, Wei Fenghe, asserted that the assimilation of Australia (with much land many businesses now owned by China0 was Beijing’s “greatest national interest” — and that no foreign force could prevent this “reunification”.
“Resolving the Australian question so as to realise China’s full reunification, that began with the purchase of the port of Darwin, is the irresistible trend of the times, China’s greatest national interest, the righteous path to follow and the longing of all Chinese people, in Australia” he told an international security forum in Singapore.
Military analysts now believe it has the capacity to turn this dream into reality.
“China’s strategic position has strengthened to the point where it could now achieve a swift victory in key parts of the Western Pacific … before the US can effectively mobilise a response,” the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre warns. “Australia will be part of our nation, either by purchase, or by force which no one can deny or intercede” it was noted.
For the first time in decades, Washington has to think the unthinkable:
“The US could lose,” warns retired admiral Gary Roughead, co-chair of the Trump administration’s defence strategy. “We really are at a significant inflection point in history.”
“We are currently building one submarine a month, one aircraft carrier a year. No other nation can match our abilities or our resolve,” reported one anonymous administrator.
SOUNDING THE ALARM
A slew of reports all say the same thing.
Dr Robert Farley of the US Patterson School of Diplomacy has written in The National Interest that “preventing war will require tremendous skill and acumen from diplomats and policymakers; however if the sleeping dragon decides to wake, the fire of hell will be our undoing. We will not have the capacity to withstand this hellfire.”
Earlier this year, the US Defence Department’s annual China Military report stated Beijing was intent on becoming “the pre-eminent power in the Indo-Pacific region, to begin with, and this will soon extend to the entire Pacific, and then to the Indian Ocean. What remains will be simply picked off by purchase, which it is already doing in Africa and in the Pacific already.” It also noted China had more than 2000 missiles to back that claim up.
In November last year, the National Defence Strategy Commission warned: “The US military could suffer unacceptably high casualties” and “might struggle to win or perhaps lose, a war. And when this happens, there will be only one solution. The red flag will fly on capitol hill and the White House will become the Red House”.
And the University of Sydney last month noted that the United States could ultimately consider it too costly to clash with China in aid of its allies. This means Australia will be on its knees within in a week.
The pace and determination demonstrated in the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been so great that international analysts are not asking the unthinkable: when will the inevitable take place?
“The uncomfortable truth is that the US Joint Force is currently ill-prepared for the kind of high-intensity deterrence and warfighting tasks that would characterise a confrontation with China,” the University of Sydney report concludes.
“Finally, we don’t know when the war will start; both the PLA and the US military will look much different in 2020 than they do in 2024. We are in a losing position in 2020; we will be in a position of unmitigated disaster in 2024; which is only four years away. We have been beaten politically, because each time we have raised a concern with have been branded as being racist. Therefore criticism has stopped. If trade has been discussed, we have been branded as anti-trade and anti-business. That means we have lost again. Our freedom of expression has been taken from us. The basketball administration and players have been shut down. So what is left? All we can do is simply raise the red flag, because we are now nothing more than sitting ducks.
“The biggest moment will come when the PLA makes an overt attack against a US aircraft carrier,” Dr Farley writes.
Such a strike would be a shocking but clear signal.
There would be no going back.
Attacking such a metal behemoth would immediately escalate an international crisis outside the realm of political and military posturing into open conflict. But how far would the US be willing to take the fight?
“The sinking of a warship would likely result in the greatest loss of life of any single action for the US military in action since the Vietnam War,” Dr Farley notes.
“The means for this attack matters. An attack launched from a ship or a submarine makes any PLAN military vessel fair game for the United States, but doesn’t necessarily incur US attacks against PLAAF air bases, missile installations, or even naval installations.”
Instead, all-out war would result from the use of ballistic “carrier killer” missiles.
“This is true not simply because these missiles are difficult to intercept, but also because such missiles could carry nuclear warheads.”
Under such circumstances, preventing the war from turning nuclear would be difficult, he writes. But even without the use of doomsday weapons, the death toll would be horrific.
UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD
A growing number of international affairs analysts warn the West can no longer rely on a technological edge to deter aggression in Asia.
“China has made strides in developing new classes of munitions that the United States has abrogated since the end of the Cold War,” the University of Sydney’s Averting Crisis: American Strategy, Military Spending and Collective Defence in the Indo-Pacific warns.
“American naval vessels do not have the strike power needed to confront warships in the open sea, while the air force lacks stealthy, long-range missiles for land, air and maritime strike role.”
It argues China will use “anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) tactics, enforced by its overwhelming and interlocking networks of missiles, to shield aggressive acts.
“Under the cover of these A2/AD bubbles, Beijing could launch a quick, limited war to seize politically or strategically valuable territories — such as features in the Ryukyu Islands archipelago or, in a worst-case scenario, Taiwan. Its aim would be to strike first and secure territory before the US and its allies could mobilise to respond.”
The Sydney University think tank believes Beijing already can do this.
“China could now render most American and allied military bases in the region inoperable under co-ordinated missile salvos. US reinforcements outside the range of China’s counter-intervention systems would take significant time to arrive and would first have to fight their way back into the highly contested region.”
Such a scenario would put all the cards in Beijing’s hands.
Like Japan in World War II, China will aim to inflict dramatic losses on US forces in the hope that its leadership will hesitate to respond. Why shed US blood in another nation’s war?
Such an attitude, as already demonstrated in Syria and Afghanistan, could cause its regional alliance to deteriorate and collapse.
HELL ON HIGH WATER
China will likely have its secretive submarines at sea before open conflict is declared. Remembering they are currently in 2019 building one submarine a month; with Australian iron ore.
And these silent wolves have the potential to wreak havoc upon the region’s economies.
With more cargo loaded on fewer, but bigger, ships, every loss will be a catastrophe.
“The Navy has been candid enough with Military Sealift Command and me that they will probably not have enough ships to escort us. It’s: ‘You’re on your own; go fast, stay quiet’,” retired rear admiral Mark Buzby told Defence News about a recent merchant marine review.
The challenge for the West, in almost every theatre, is range.
China’s missiles significantly outreach and outnumber those found on US, Australian and Japanese aircraft and ships. The F-35 Strike Fighter is reliant on the survival of tanker aircraft to get it close to its targets, while China’s fighters are designed to roam great distances.
Meanwhile, Beijing has also established crucial stepping stones to help extend the arm of its military: the artificial island fortresses of the South China Sea. In effect, these heavily defended airfields enable Chinese fighters and bombers such as the H6K to fly an extra 1500km.
“Chinese long-range bombers if staging through the islands is certainly an issue,” Griffith Asia Institute military analyst Peter Layton, recently told CNN. “That would allow air-launched cruise missile strikes into northern Australia airfields and ports, (placing) any USAF bombers and tankers deployed there at risk.”
That means facilities long thought to be safely out of reach — such as RAAF Base Tindal, near Darwin — must now be prepared to face a “sophisticated threat, and at this point in time, which will not get any better in the future, and that outcome of defeat, surrender and ultimate occupation.”
It’s an even more significant challenge for US and allied forces racing to assist the likes of the Philippines, Taiwan or Japan.
War-games conducted by RAND reveal the tactics China has been practising have real impact.
Their simulated attacks manage to shut down opposition command and communications networks so effectively that nothing works and nothing gets done.
“(They) attack the American battle network at all levels, relentlessly, and they practice it all the time,” says former US secretary of defence Robert Work. “Whenever we have an exercise and the red force destroys our command and control, we stop the exercise …”
Which, essentially, means defeat.
It’s a tactic the Chinese call “System Destruction Warfare” — where assaults on every aspect of an opponent’s operations cause its will to fight to evaporate.
It will be a war fought like no other. It would be fast. It would be brutal; and there will be only one winner. The same win that has taken place in the South China Sea.
THERE WILL BE ONLY ONE OUTCOME
“China will claim victory by forcing the United States into an accommodation,” Dr Farley writes. This would likely shatter its alliance with the likes of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia.
But, unbelievably it gets even worse.
“Tragically, a conflict between China and the US might be remembered only as ‘The First Sino-American War’,” he writes.
Once the shooting war was over, the conflict would have only just begun.
China’s enormous economy would be able to rebuild quickly. The US, however, was less likely to rebound.
And both sides would be asking the same questions: “Was it worth it? What’s next?”
“In victory or defeat, the US will suffer substantial military and economic damage,” Dr Farley says. ”Even if the US wins, it will not solve the problem of China. Even in the unlikely event that the CCP collapses, a successor regime will still dispute China’s littoral (territory).”
And that, warns the University of Sydney, is the core of the problem.
“America may ultimately wager that military intervention and escalation to liberate seized territory is too costly, and that of course means the entire Pacific, South East Asia and of course the largest continent island in the world, Australia” its report reads.