In the Aftermath Of the Balloon Crisis

The twenty-four hours following yesterday’s US shootdown of an unmanned Chinese intelligence balloon off the South Carolina coast has produced the expected litany of accusations and counteraccusations between the United States and China. The Chinese government strongly condemned the US for ‘using force to attack civilian unmanned airships.’ Beijing chose to leave out the fact that the US was entirely within its rights for taking the action it did. The balloon violated the airspace of the United States and was being used to conduct reconnaissance of strategic locations. Recovery efforts continue today as US Navy divers are working to obtain debris from the balloon. Once the post-mortem gets underway more information on the balloon and attached devices and sensors will become available.

China’s intent with regards to future signals intelligence gathering over US airspace remains unclear. China is a sovereign nation and obtaining information about rival states is something sovereign nations do. However, once in a while an incident becomes public and one side inevitably walks away with egg on its face. In this case, China is the guilty party. In the coming days it will alternate between protesting and feigning ignorance until the balloon saga is wiped from public memory on both sides of the Pacific. Xi Jinpeng might score some points with his domestic audience by playing up perceived US aggression, but on the foreign front there’s little to be gained.

As for the already deteriorating Sino-US relations, the balloon drama will not alleviate tensions. It will bring up specific questions about China’s intelligence-gathering operations inside of the United States and hopefully help convince the US government that more measures must be taken to safeguard strategic installations from prying airborne and spaceborne eyes. This is not China’s first foray into US airspace with a balloon. Over the past few days past incidents have come to light. To try and push the focus away from this, Beijing might look to turn up the heat on Taiwan in the coming days with increased air and naval maneuvers around the island-nation. Such a move will send a stern message to Washington that any future incidents such as the balloon crisis that embarrass China will bring about consequences for Taiwan in response.

In The Absence Of Doctrine

As expected, the China war prognostication talk ramped up over the weekend following a memo released on Friday by Air Mobility Command’s commanding general urging his officers to prepare for a war against China in the near future. Now on Monday morning, some US politicians are coming out in support of the AMC memo while the first signs of Chinese discontent are appearing on pro-China internet news sites. Recently, a handful of former and current US general officers have publicly warned that China appears to be moving nearer to using its military power against Taiwan and perhaps in other areas of the Western Pacific as well. It remains to be seen if these warnings will assimilate into a wakeup call for the United States or if they will go unheeded.

Realistically speaking, the prospect of a military conflict between the United States and China continues to rise with every passing week. Although the US has been preparing for a potential war with China in the Western Pacific, the arrangements have so far lacked a unifying element comparable to what was found in US military doctrines during the later years of the Cold War. Specifically, I’m referring to the US Navy’s Maritime Strategy and the combined US Army/USAF Airland Battle 2000. From the start these doctrines identified the Soviet Union as the adversary in the North Atlantic and in Western Europe respectively. Ten years ago, US attempts to fashion a doctrine for wartime operations in the Western Pacific created AirSea Battle, a combined US Navy/USAF plan to counter China’s increasing anti-access/area deniability. AirSea Battle evolved into JAM GC, the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. JAM GC was intended to build upon the foundation of AirSea and finalize a doctrine for conducting operations against determined, capable, and elusive opponents who avoid U.S. strengths, emulate U.S. capabilities, attack vulnerabilities, and expand operations beyond physical battlegrounds.

Despite all the work done on AirSea Battle and its successor concept, the US has little to show for it at present in terms of an effective warfighting doctrine for a conflict against an increasingly aggressive and militarily capable China in the Western Pacific. In the absence of such a formal doctrine, the services have developed their own concepts, ostensibly for incorporation into JAM GC. However, it is unclear if the concepts will connect successfully and produce a war plan that will bring success in a future Sino-US war. Time is not on the side of the United States in this regard. With Ukraine still dominating attention, the prospect of the United States not being prepared to counter a Chinese attack against Taiwan remains real. General Minihan predicts such an attack will come around 2025. But it could also come sooner and if so, the US will not be as ready as it needs to be.

Brief Weekend Update 28 Jan, 2023: USAF General Warns Of War With China In 2025

On Friday, General Mike Minihan, US Air Force sent a memorandum to the officers in his command and predicted the United States and China will be at war in two years. Minihan is the commander of Air Mobility Command, a large command with over 100,000 airmen and officers in it. In the memo, Minihan wrote “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me will fight in 2025.” He also urged his officers to start preparing now. Minihan points to 2024-25 as China’s window of opportunity since both the US and Taiwan will be holding presidential elections and presumably be distracted. To be fair, the purpose behind the memo was not to lay out a personal World War III scenario. Minihan pointed to the prospect of war breaking out twenty four to thirty six months from present as the motivation for command-wide preparations, planning and training. From the military side, Minihan’s memo comes across as sensible in that it urges AMC to prepare for conflict against a specific real world enemy in an area of the world where said enemy is presently flexing its military muscle and acting provocatively while contending with growing issues on its domestic front. Obviously, naming China as the likely opponent was sure to attract attention from the media.

 China will also undoubtedly have something to say about Minihan’s prediction in the coming days.

It’s Not Just Taiwan

Late last week and into the weekend China and the United States each had a carrier group training in the South China Sea. On Thursday the USS Nimitz carrier strike group entered the South China Sea to conduct exercises. Within a day of arriving, the Nimitz group was being shadowed by PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) vessels. China also dispatched the aircraft carrier Shandong and her escorts into the South China Sea shortly thereafter to conduct combat-oriented exercises. The move was undoubtedly in response to presence of the Nimitz group in a region which China increasingly claims as nothing less than territorial waters. The significance of the South China Sea to international trade is a main factor in the US 7th Fleet projecting a meaningful and consistent presence there.  

In a time where Western Pacific tensions are centered on Taiwan it is important to remind ourselves of the South China Sea’s importance to both the West and China. Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims there, its encroachment on islands claimed by its neighbors and the untapped natural resources beneath SCS waters make it clear China will not pump the brakes on its activities there. Add to the mixture the importance of the sea lanes there and it is clear that a crisis there, either by design or accident, could spiral out of control and lead to a major conflict.

Yet most Western and regional analysts continue pointing the finger at Taiwan as the main flash point in the region and the true objective of China’s designs. It hardly seems to be the case that China’s massive naval buildup in recent years is intended just to help bring about a successful conquest of Taiwan and nothing more. The Chinese strategic plan goes beyond Taiwan Strait and the island-nation south into the SCS and east to the First Island Chain. Eventually, the Chinese appetite will extend beyond these points and into the Indian Ocean and the waters of the Pacific beyond Philippines. Japan recognizes this to a degree, and it is assuredly one motivating factor present in Tokyo’s plans to enlarge the Japanese military.

The bottom line is that China’s strategic goals extend beyond Taiwan. The sooner the United States and its allies apply this to their plans for challenging China, the better. Long story short: It’s not only Taiwan we need to think seriously about.

US Military Warns Current Weapon Production Cannot Sustain Both Ukrainian AND US Needs

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro has warned publicly that the US will not be able to continue providing weapon and material support for Ukraine unless weapons manufacturers increase production in the next six months. SecNav’s comments came in response to a reporter’s question about remarks made by Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Caudle had said the US could be forced to decide later this year whether to arm itself or Ukraine. Doing both might not be possible.

This was bound to happen sooner or later. In all likelihood the warnings have been on the radar of the White House and Pentagon for some time. Now the time is approaching when action must be taken. Del Toro stated the US is not to that point yet, but the supply chain will be stressed if the war in Ukraine lasts another six months. To be fair, the estimate should be more along the lines of 4 months in expectation of a possible major offensive by Russian forces in the spring.

The Pentagon has been pressuring defense contractors to increase production for some time now but the shortages continue and by recent accounts seem to be worsening. Let’s be fair. Keeping Ukraine supplied in wartime is a task that is causing problems and concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. A number of European nations have practically emptied their ammunition and weapons lockers and sent everything they could spare east. And then some. The flow of weapons and material to Ukraine has slowed, due in part at least to the reality that many European nations can’t afford to part with additional weapons, ammunition and other wartime materials.

Now US commanders and Pentagon officials are hinting that a similar situation could loom ahead for the US military. Not surprising in the least. But in the face of promises to assist Taiwan’s military buildup and the prospect of a clash with Chinese forces being accepted as possible, this is not the time for the US to contend with weapon delivery delays and such. At the end of the day, US national security trumps that of Ukraine.