Welcome to the Decade of Concern

We’re looking at that big bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it, and probably thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question.

— Brian McKeon, Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy [2016
 
The most dangerous concern is [the use] of military force against Taiwan… My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think.
—John Aquillo, Admiral, Indo-Pacific Command  [2021]

The 2020s do not look good.

This weekend I read two large reports that look at the present and future of the U.S. military’s force structure. Together they present a disturbing picture of the decade to come. Both of these reports are squarely focused on the United States military and a constellation of problems it will soon face. Neither is written by an expert in Asian military affairs; both write with shared assumptions about the nature of “great power competition” with China, but neither report is about China. Neither attempts to contrast their predictions for the United States with likely developments across the Pacific. But it is precisely those developments that make the trends traced in Mark Cancian’s U.S. Military Forces in FY 2021: The Last Year of Growth? and Mackenzie Eaglen and Hallie Coyne’s The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch so alarming. In particular, the trends described in these reports should have alarm bells going off in Taipei. Taiwan—and any country that might be called on to defend it—is entering a dangerous decade.

Defense planning talk can lead eyes to glaze over. Little surprise! Debates over this topic quickly get bogged down with acronyms, accounting terms, and references to opaque production and planning cycles. One helpful way for ordinary citizens get a handle on these issues—at least, for ordinary citizens of my generation—is to think of defense planning as bit similar to a real time strategy (RTS) computer game, like Warcraft or Age of Empires. Games of that sort force the player to decide how they will spend constrained resources. Do you spend your gold or vesper gas (or whatever else it is the game uses in lieu of money) on the production of new fighting units, the development of new technologies that will improve your kingdom, or on increasing the scale of resource extraction? That is the usual tradeoff present in most RTS games, though some games will add in additional wrinkles. Gamers know that the right balance between these three is key: if they choose poorly at the beginning of a gaming session, they will be dealing with the consequences of their bad investment for the rest of their game.

Though far larger in scale, the senior officers and civilian leaders in charge of the Pentagon’s purse strings are not that different from Starcraft e-sports stars. Like the RTS gamer, these leaders must plan over time in a world of constrained resources. Tradeoffs are inevitable.

Defense planners find themselves trying to balance three competing priorities. The first of these is the development of new technologies and fighting platforms. To fight with the technology of the future, one must pay for its development now. In defense planning lingo, this is usually called “modernization.” You might think of this as the ‘research tree’ found in most RTS games.

The next category is the procurement of new platforms that have already been developed. Sometimes these purchases mean an absolute increase in the number of platforms fielded; other times it simply means buying new vehicles or ships to replace those that are retiring from service. This is spending on “force structure” — the idea is that your military force is properly structured to accomplish the strategic goals laid out for it. Again, there is an easy analogue here with the RTS gamer, who must carefully choose which units will be the most valuable additions to their army based off of the type of enemy they are fighting.

The next item does not have such an easy analogue in most RTS games (though you do see a similar mechanism featured in many turn-based strategy games). This category includes the costs of maintenance, training, and operations. Maintenance includes regular repairs needed to fix the wear-and-tear of normal use, but also technological upgrades—say, installing a new weapons system or radar array on an aircraft that has been in service for many years. It also includes the cost of training exercises and other measures (such as fueling, inspections, deployment, etc.) that keep these platforms and the military units they are attached to “ready” to join the fight. Thus in peacetime this category is often described with the word “readiness.” However, combat operations are also usually included as part of this category when budgets are being drawn up. Depending on the tempo and intensity of the war in question, combat operations might swallow up this entire section of the budget (and much more besides). Defense planning documents often call this the “operations and maintenance” section of the budget.

There are other factors that might determine how money is spent— for example, the desire to have a resilient industrial base or please a Senator—but the vast majority of spending decisions are an attempt to try and balance out the competing demands of modernization, force structure, and readiness. A military branch that spends all of its money on modernization will have superior technology in the long term but nothing to fight with in the here-and-now. A military optimized for force structure, on the other hand, risks mortgaging the long term away for the sake of near-term gains. But even those near-term gains might not be near enough: because new platforms are expensive and slow to construct, a military too focused on optimizing force structure might find itself blindsided and unprepared if it has not spent an equal amount of money on maintaining readiness and upgrading old legacy platforms while new ones are being built. Finally, a force that spends all of its money on the maintenance and operations of the minute will be ready for a fight today, but will struggle to compete with advancing adversaries in the future, and may be overwhelmed by the rising costs of operations as technology and platforms begin to age.

I apologize to experienced nat-sec hands for this introductory, simplified overview, but this issue is important—important enough that Americans outside the defense industry need to understand it. That small backgrounder should be enough context for these two reports to make sense.

Mark Cancian’s report is the more sober of the two; he does not argue a case so much as identify current trends and explain the sort of tradeoffs facing each of the U.S. military’s main branches. Eaglan’s report is just as well sourced as Cancian’s, but more argumentative. She and her research assistant believe a crisis is around the corner. They want you to believe it too. Eaglen is also more willing to endorse specific solutions to the crises she sees. However, the two reports’ findings are complementary and I will quote liberally from both of them below.

Let us start with Eaglen. She describes the basic problem quite dramatically:

Fleets of ships, aircraft, vehicles, and other equipment are reaching the end of their service lives, hitting the edge of their upgrade limits, and losing combat relevance. As great-power competition accelerates, the United States is offering a free and open window of opportunity and advantage to its adversaries. Unless policymakers take concrete steps now, defense leaders will continue America’s sleepwalk into strategic insolvency and its consequences. The aptly named “Terrible 20s” have arrived. The intention of this report is not to propose ideal or preferred defense investments. Rather, it aims to deliver an unvarnished overview of the existing modernization bill before the Pentagon today, forcing an overdue confrontation with reality…. In 2016, popular military blogger and Navy Cmdr. CDR Salamander (ret.) coined the phrase “Terrible 20s” to describe the modernization challenges before the US military this coming decade. He offered an ominous overview of the next 10 years as “that horrible mix of debt bombs, recapitalizing our SSBN [ballistic missile submarines] fleet, and the need to replace and modernize legacy aircraft, ships, and the concepts that designed them.” It is a bracing and accurate summary of the following analysis.[1]

She also includes a fun graphic to illustrate the problem: 

Figure 2,  The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch (2021)

 How did this happen? It started with a Clinton era decision to focus on upgrading legacy platforms instead of developing or purchasing new ones:

By the end of the Bill Clinton administration, the Pentagon had laid out a strategy to update and replace the Reagan-era fleets. This plan hinged on justifying end strength reductions across the services with the increases in combat power delivered by new and improved military technologies.

When explaining this reasoning for the American Enterprise Institute in 2007, Robert Work used the example of advancements made to the shipboard vertical launch systems (VLS) In 1989, 108 large surface combatants carried 1,525 VLS cells, with an aggregate magazine capacity of 7,133 battle-force missiles. By 2004, the Large Surface Combatant (LSC) fleet shrunk to 71, but it carried 6,923 VLS, with a fleet magazine capacity of 7,539 battle-force missiles. More revolutions in satellite-guided weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, missile defense systems, and improved targeting and radar technology are also cited as demonstrable examples of key new battlefield technologies from the Clinton years, even as modernization spending on procurement and R&D plummeted from its peak in FY85 to a new low a decade later. [2]

During the Bush years, force structure was focused on winning the war at hand, and modernization was once again put off:

In the 2000s, Pentagon leaders focused understandably on the wars but did so while planning too optimistically in realizing ambitious technology transformations that would take decades to materialize. As a result, not enough investment was made in the conventional platforms required to maintain a ready force and strong conventional deterrent through the 2020s. In fact, rosy assumptions about revolutions in military affairs and the promises of technology solutions tomorrow became a justification to drastically slash those same aging fleets and inventories of ships, aircraft, and vehicles the troops use every day to sail, fly, and drive to accomplish their missions. Now the military is facing a decade of staggering modernization cost.[3]

Then came Robert Gates’ fight against “Next War-itis” and the sequester years:

Politically vulnerable because of outside pressures, new programs stood no chance and were killed en masse by the new administration. President Obama felt liberal pressure to curtail the military-industrial complex and defense spending, while Gates took personal offense at a military bureaucracy still focused on preparing for conventional conflict instead of pouring its full energy into the ongoing counterinsurgencies and counterterror operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bureaucracy scaled down its plans below its own requirements and sought to shield programs from permanent death by keeping their pilot flames lit. These choices created a second round of cancellations near the turn of the decade that dwarfed the Rumsfeld cluster….

In 2011, following the hollow buildup of the 2000s, Congress and the president’s failure to agree on entitlement and other reforms resulted in the BCA. Two years later, the BCA led to the sequestration of 2013, which swung a budgetary axe mostly on discretionary funding, half of which sustains the US military. The Pentagon responded largely by canceling dozens of pro-grams permanently and delaying almost everything else except for present-day needs. Leaders calculated they could accept risk in the mid to long term, as long as large swaths of troops were still engaged in ongoing conflicts and another large part stood ready to fight on a moment’s notice.[4]

Thus for three decades America traded out modernization and longer-term force structure procurement for the sake of maintaining readiness and battlefield operations. The long wars forced some of this trade off on the services (cue Eaglen: “Today, the US military is in the middle of a future that was mortgaged to pay for the wars of yesterday”), but political foolishness played just as large a part.[5] The thing to emphasize here are the long term consequences of poor decision making by national elites. As procurement and development programs run so long, mistakes made in 2003 or 2013 reverberate decades later. Today we the enter the 2020s with a military built during the 1980s.

But as Cancian makes clear, the temptation to further defer force structure procurement and modernization lingers with us:

From the service perspective, the key tension for force structure will be between the desire to cut size to invest in modernization and the need to maintain day-to-day deployments for crisis response, ongoing operations, and allied and partner engagement. If the forces get too small, then the operational tempo required to maintain these deployments will stress personnel. This would hurt sustainability of the all-volunteer force, particularly if the economy recovers and recruiting and retention get more challenging as a result of competition for labor. The Biden administration, like every administration before it, will pledge to support service members, so it will need to heed complaints about stress…. 

The Biden administration will be particularly conflicted here because of its often-stated desire to reassert U.S. global leadership. The United States cannot be a global leader if it pulls its forces back from global deployments. Some strategists have argued that a “virtual” or intermittent presence from the United States can substitute for forward stationing or continuous rotations. However, critics point out that virtual presence is actual absence. Knowing that a carrier is in Norfolk does not have the same impact as seeing 90,000 tons sail into one’s harbor.[6]

Deferring modernization and procurement like this carries a financial cost. Eaglen explains why:

As a result of failing to undertake necessary modernization, the military instead pays for aging platforms to stay in the force. In fact, the problem mirrors our broader national challenge with net interest. Just as a quarter or more of debt growth over the next decade will be net interest on the debt itself, the military has begun to pay more to keep old equipment running, which makes it increasingly difficult to invest in new platforms. It’s a vicious cycle, often called an “acquisition death spiral. [7]

The fiscal consequences of this can be seen in the percentage of current expenditures that go towards maintenance and upgrades of legacy systems: 

 

Why these costs are so severe makes more sense when you see just how old many of our principle military platforms really are. For one example, here is Cancian’s tally of the Air Force fleets:

Some fleets are in relatively good shape: the transport fleet (21 years, on average) because of acquiring C-17s and C-130s, the special operations fleet (12 years) because of its high priority, and the UAVs/RPVs (6 years) because of large wartime purchases. Other fleets are old: fighter/attack (29 years old), bomber (42 years), tanker (49 years), helicopter (32 years), and trainers (32 years). All the older fleets (except for some specialty aircraft) have programs in place for modernization, but the programs have been delayed, are expensive, and may take years to implement fully. [8]

But now this system of pushing platforms just one more decade past their due date has reached its limits. Many of the old legacy systems simply cannot be rolled through one more decade of use. Even if they could, the money spent on drawing out the life of a legacy system would be better spent on modernization and force structure changes. This is the logic behind the US Marine Corps’ decision to get rid of their tank battalions, for example. Theirs is a purposeful attempt to shed platforms that the service does not think will be useful in a conflict with China. But other draw-downs are simply the product of poor planning.

Consider the Navy’s hopes to drastically increase the number of nuclear attack submarines they can put to water: 

 

Cancian explains what you see:

Attack submarines (SSNs) receive strong support from strategists because their firepower and covertness are useful in great power conflicts. Thus, they are likely to receive strong support in the next administration, whether that is a Trump or Biden administration. However, submarines are expensive (about $3.3 billion each in the current version), so increasing production is difficult…

Numbers dip in the late-2020s and early-2030s, bottoming at 42 boats as Los Angeles-class boats built during the 1980s retire. Secretary Esper said that the new plan intends to extend the service life of additional older submarines, but the Navy tends to retire old ships early in order to buy new ships…

The obvious solution is to build more submarines, but having two submarine construction programs operating simultaneously puts pressure on both the shipbuilding account and the submarine industrial base. The FY 2020 Navy 30-year shipbuilding plan showed a capacity for three total submarines per year, attack (SSN) or ballistic missile (SSBN) submarines, although the Navy did not always fund to the total capacity. Esper called for building three Virginia-class submarines per year in addition to SSBNs as soon as possible, but the industrial base will need a lot of funding and lead time to get to that level of production….The Navy cannot build enough new submarines quickly enough to significantly mitigate the trough. What it can do is accelerate the rate at which it gets to its target level. [9]

 If you are familiar with the war games and simulations American military officers run to game out Taiwan contingencies, Cancian’s info-graphic should disturb you. Attack submarines are widely viewed as a crucial component of the American conventional deterrent in any potential cross-straits dust up. Stealthy and submersible, nuclear submarines are one of the few platforms we expect to reliably pierce the A2/AD death zone that will project out thousands of kilometers from the Chinese coast. Yet their numbers are set to fall through most of the 2020s. Worst of all, there is very little we can do about it. The time to have averted this crisis was back in 2015.

Another set of platforms American strategists anticipate U.S. forces will rely on to pierce the A2/AD bubble are our stealth bomber fleets. Here is what Cancian has to say about that:

Since no new aircraft are being produced, the bomber force continues to age (currently 43 years on average), though various upgrade programs keep the aircraft flying and operationally relevant, for example, new engines for the B-52s and a new defensive system for the B-2s. The Air Force would like to divest some of the B-1s early but has run into congressional opposition. The B-21 Raider program continues in development, with budget demands seeming to stabilize: $2.9 billion in FY 2020 and $2.8 billion in FY 2021 and remaining at that level through FY 2025. Because the B-21 has a mid-2020s fielding date (“Initial Operating Capability”), the legacy B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s will comprise the bomber force for many years to come. Details are uncertain, however, because the B-21 remains a classified program. [10]

Here the pattern repeats. Eventually the B-21 will go online and be purchased in large numbers. But purchases in small numbers will not happen until the mid-2020s at earliest, and the fleet will, as with the submarines, require time to slowly grow in size. Until then we can only expect the stealth bomber fleet to degrade as the the existing systems age and the Air Force tries to remove the oldest platforms to save on cost.

 All of this is assumes that the money can be found for the post-2030 expansion of the bomber and submarine fleets. Yet part of the reason we got into this mess in the first place is because we spent the last decade pitching plans like these, which project growth in force structure—but only in the far away future. Representative Mike Gallagher rightly complained about this sort of thing back in 2019:

Yet, the Navy’s FY20 shipbuilding budget represents an overall decrease of1.5 percent from the previous year. While the Navy submitted a 30-Year Ship-building Plan along with its budget that reached 355 ships for the first time in more than two decades, much of this growth happens in the outyears—the Pentagon’s version of “the check is in the mail.” Despite reaching 355 ships roughly 20 years faster than the FY19 shipbuilding plan, the new document only adds one additional ship over its first five years compared to last year’s plan. [11]

But even if the money can be found the problem I am highlighting here will not go away. Consider the US Marine Corp’s transformation from a “tip of the spear” ready-force able to deploy anywhere in the world to a long-range artillery force to be stationed on the islands of the West Pacific. This transformation does not require any extra money from Congress. What it does require is time. The USMC have called their plan “Force Design 2030.” Perhaps their force design really is the perfect ticket for deterring the PLAN—but if so, it will not be complete for another decade.

Similar things could be said about the US Army’s attempt to obtain more long range munitions, the Navy’s plans to remake the surface fleet as a more distributed force centered on lighter tonnage ships, or the surplus of unmanned submersibles and aircraft that are supposed to sustain the Navy and Air Force’s lethal edge through mid-century. In each case, the modernization of the future force is gained by slimming down the current one. This is necessary, but it comes with a catch: that future force doesn’t fully arrive until the 2030s.

Can we wait that long? I am not sure we can. When Captain James Fanell (ret.), intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy, labeled the 2020s as the “Decade of Concern” based on his projections of the PLA Navy’s growing capabilities, he was treated as something of a pariah.[12] But now that Admiral Philip Davidson, INDOPACOM’s outgoing commander, just declared that he believes the PLA will be capable of assaulting Taiwan within six years, Fannell’s judgment seems prescient.[13] The 2020s will see both the growth of Chinese military power to new heights and a temporary nadir in American capacity to intervene in any conflict in China’s near abroad.

The “temporary” part of that equation is important. Historians of the First World War and the Pacific War trace the origins of those conflicts to pessimistic assessments of the changing balance of power.[14] The belligerency of imperial Japan and Wilhelmine Germany rested on a belief that their position vis a vis their enemies could only decline with time. Any statesman who believes that a temporary military advantage over an enemy will soon erode will have a strong incentive to fight it out before erosion has begun.

And that is the problem. Commander Salamander’s “Terrible ‘20s” and Captain Fanell’s “Decade of Concern” are the same decade. In the mid 2020s the United States will be struggling to pay the Pentagon’s “modernization crunch.” The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force will be midway through a transition to a new, counter-China force structure. The number of attack submarines and stealth bombers that the United States can put in the field will be at an absolute low. 

It is at this moment we project the PLA will be capable of executing a cross straits invasion.

This does not make conflict inevitable. But if the Chinese have concluded that military means are the only way to bring about Taiwan’s integration into the People’s Republic of China,  Beijing’s leaders will soon face powerful pressure to escalate towards war. Waiting until the 2030s or 2040s to sabre rattle is to wait for the U.S. military’s counter-China modernization and procurement programs to run their course. There will be a terrific temptation to “resolve” the problem before these programs have been implemented.

If you are Taiwanese the implications of all of this should be obvious. The clock is ticking. The terrible ‘20s have begun. 

 

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For more of my writing on U.S. force structure and strategy, see my posts “Questions on the Future of the U.S. Marine Corps” and “Against the Kennan Sweepstakes.” If on the other hand it is Taiwanese military affairs that has caught your interest, consider reading “All Measures Short of a Cross Straight Invasion,”Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power,”  and “Losing Taiwan is Losing Japan.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1]  Mackenzie Eaglen and Hallie Coyn, The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch (Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 2021), 1, 3.

[2] ibid., 7.

[3] ibid., 5

[4] ibid., 18, 22.

[5] ibid., 22.

[6] Mark Cancian, U.S. Military Forces in FY 2021: The Last Year of Growth?, CSIS Defense Outlook (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2021), xi

[7] Eaglen and Coyn, Tri-Service Modernization Crunch, 15.

[8] Cancian, U.S. Military Forces, 80.

[9] ibid., 53-54.

[10] ibid., 85

[11] Mike Gallagher, “State of (Deterrence by) Denial,” Washington Quarterly 32, no. 2 (Summer 2019), 35.

[12] The most mature statement of this position is found in James Fanell, “Now Hear This—The Clock Is Ticking in China: The Decade of Concern Has Begun,” Proceedings, October 2017; for Fannell’s most recent assessment of the PLA Navy’s growth and development, see James Fanell, “China’s Global Navy—Today’s Challenge for the United States and the U.S. Navy,Naval War College Review 73, no. 4 (2020): article 4.

[13] Malory Shelbourne, “Davidson: China Could Try to Take Control of Taiwan In ‘Next Six Years,’” USNI, March 9, 202.

[14]  See David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 2005), ch. 1; David Herrmann, The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Leave a Comment

29 Comments

An excellent read, as always, if rather grim (though it's certainly not your fault that the facts are grim!) There's no use crying over spilt milk, of course, but to think of all the blood, money, and time spent on Iraq only to help potentially expose the US to a moment of stark vulnerability against a rising peer competitor with regards to arguably our most important security commitment of all; well, it's hard not to be more than a little frustrated! I suppose we will have to hope that allies can be found to help bridge the gap, and that diplomacy can stave off the CCP.

I'm not sure I fully buy the reasoning, because even though the US will have an objective power-dip in the late 2020s, the relative strength of China's military should only continue to increase, at least for the next ~30 years.

Someone tell me, it is my first time here, so, what is the end goal of China? Be the supreme power of the east? So the world will be dividend between a china dominate east and usa centric west? That it's?

I've been reading versions of this 'window of opportunity' logic for a while now and they just don't convince:

1) The Chinese establishment time and again have led us to believe that they see time as being on their side on account of major factors and trends playing to their favor. Not small, micro-level projections in one or two specific areas. Firstly economic convergence means the US certainly can't drown the Chinese industrially the same way they did Imperial Japan. Nor can it isolate the world's largest trader. Secondly, distance is a devil for US forces who have a few very public locations to choose under the glare of China's A2AD bubble. You can try to spread assets out as much as you like but land is limited.

Even if the US has China-specific countermeasures within 1-2 decades, the Chinese likely know what they will be (who doesnt), wont stand still and this will likely ensure that the marginal deterrent effect of each platform is as minimal as can be . We will end up with a game of cat and mouse that could conceivably drag on until a technological revolution that decisively favors either offense or defense (I highly doubt autonomous platforms are this game-changing revolution).

2) The Germany/Japan logic falls flat purely because in both those cases there were clear windows: For Germany the prospect of a nation 10x larger, with 2-3x the population and infinitely more resources, rapidly industrialising meant that many high-profile Germans could see second-power status looming well before mid-century. As for Japan, the oil embargo very much put their navy in a now-or-never scenario.

Neither of those instances apply today to China.

You can argue that demographic imbalances, rising debt and frustratingly low productivity could drag down Chinese growth, but still, we have to acknowledge that even in that extremely favorable (for the US at least) scenario, China would still be bigger and stronger than all of the nations combined within its vicinity. Its only real potential rival, India, is a developmental laggard with a quickly diminishing demographic dividend (16-17% of the population 60+ and declining working-age population by 2040). The US with its falling birth rate, visible social fractures (especially around immigration) and extremely high government debt will start to look more like a textbook European country and could very well have the capabilities/appetite to match. In short, China is not exactly likely to face a scenario where its own relative power is plummeting alarmingly.

A Tech embargo could potentially place a cap on Chinese power in the same way the oil embargo did with Japan, but its too much of a long shot, too complex and with too many nasty consequences for the US to fully attempt.

3) Finally, the central plank of this argument seems to be that Chinese generals/admirals will see the 20s as the decade where their capabilities will be, relatively speaking, as good as its going to get and that marginal advantage will slip going forward. I think nothing can be further from the truth. One only has to look at the procurement spree the Chinese have been on for the better part of 20 years and the rising calls for more 'human investment' to see that the Chinese leadership believes it lacks the caliber of soldiers to handle the constantly-evolving shiny new machines. As I said in point 1), I'm sure the Chinese will continue their tech revolution (hardware-wise) too but as the years pass, the gap between the new systems and the technical capabilities of the soldiery handling them should narrow (in very crude terms, I think today's PLAN sailors may even struggle working 2000-era weapon-systems).

The flip-side also holds. Even if, unlikely as I think it is, new US countermeasures prove decisive (on paper) of hampering China, how long will training/acclimatization take once US sailors/soldiers have the shiny new systems on-hand? 5-10 years? Maybe that widens this imaginary window even further?

Relative military power is obviously important, but I wonder how CCP political warfare might factor into the timing of a Taiwan invasion scenario. April 2022 seems like a dangerous time; the 2022 Beijing Olympics in February could be used as cover for invasion preparations. Media covering the Olympics would have to repeat CCP propaganda masking the buildup or risk being unable to report on the Olympics. The U.S. military wouldn't be fooled, but it would prevent the U.S. government from preparing the American people for war.

"Someone tell me, it is my first time here, so, what is the end goal of China? Be the supreme power of the east? So the world will be dividend between a china dominate east and usa centric west? That it's?"

Yeah, that's basically it. Tanner Greer and people like him are constantly advocating for war against countries like Russia and China, and they can never give a coherent, compelling reason. Of course, no consideration whatsoever is given to what the Americans who will pay for and die in these far off wars think, or how the rest of the world feels.

Looks like it would be far cheaper to let the Chinese have the island. Hard for me to understand what the US is doing guaranteeing Taiwan's security in the first place–or why we would want to continue to do so– what do the American people get out of it? You know– the taxpayers? Nothing as far as I can see. Ego strokes for the fools in Washington, but nothing for any of the rest of us. Ditto for our mindbogglingly expensive security guarantees in Europe, etc. Let them defend themselves. How is it any skin off of the US taxpayer's nose if it is Merkel or Putin running things in Berlin? Hard to see how Putin could screw Germany up more than she has…

Seems like 'we've defended them for 70 years' isn't a good explanation for why we need to keep defending them for another 70 years. They got a 70 year freebee. Which in my opinion was about 100 years too long. We've been meddling in Europe since 1919, time to call it quits. And ditto for Asia too.

Taiwan and Europe and Japan and Korea should grow up and either figure out how to defend themselves, or knuckle under.

I'm no expert but seems to me Taiwan could just buy a couple 1000 nuclear missiles — from Israel, say, or the US, we sure aren't using ours– and ship them to drop boxes in the top 20 or 30 Chinese cities– via regular commercial freight. The Chinese start to invade, the Taiwanese could trigger them remotely. Or rather, trigger a third of them remotely. Trigger another third and the last third as required. China can't know if there are rounds 4, 5, 6, still in place ready to go off, so, it continues to be a deterrent even if all of them are exploded.

Or Taiwan could build a zillion drones, that can fly low under the radar, and ditto. If they throw enough of them up all at once, its going to overwhelm China's defenses– even if the Chinese shoot down 99% of them, it would still be enough to bomb China back to the stone age. You say China would retaliate, and it would be mutual assured destruction for China and Taiwan both ? Exactly. Which is why all Taiwan has to do is –explode some nuclear 'test' bombs and launch a few 10,000 drone drone swarms as a 'military game' … then everyone knows the score. Start making noises like you are going to invade, and mutual assured destruction, so shut up. Taiwan is good at mass production– they could ramp up some cheap and dirty drone mass production pdq. If they didn't build them as mil-spec gold plated wonders, they could pump them out for about $500 a pop, easy.

Either that, or they should sucks it up, and knuckle under. Hard to believe life under Xi would be all that much more unpleasant for them that what they've got right now. It's not like people in Shanghai are setting out to sea in leaky boats to try and escape from being ruled by Xi. Why would it be any worse in Taiwan?

@Unknown –

While certainly a coherent and fair analysis, it seems predicated on the assumption that China will continue to experience consistent economic growth for decades to come. This is certainly a possibility, but given its own skyrocketing debt still driven by increasingly unproductive infrastructure investments, a coming need to provide stronger social welfare amidst a demographic crash, and its anemic financial reforms, it is equally possible to envision a scenario in which Chinese growth & capability to invest ever-increasing amounts in its military stagnates towards the end of the decade, at which point it is entirely possible that US & allied capabilities vis-a-vis China's become more robust in the 2030s and beyond than in the 2020s.

I would also certainly not rule out the possibility of a tech embargo because of "nasty consequences", although I agree that it would most likely not be a good idea. After all, the oil embargo plunged the US into a four-year war with Japan!

@Uknown —

You raise good objections, and at some point I would like to devote an entire post to them. You are correct that with the 东升西降 rhetoric emanating from Xi these days, he certainly believes he has time on his side. But could that change? I suspect a lot will depend on how domestic politics and economic growth in the US go over the next decade. Does America pull itself together or continue to fray apart? If the first, that calculation might change.

But re: "the Chinese likely know what they will be (who doesnt), wont stand still and this will likely ensure that the marginal deterrent effect of each platform is as minimal as can be."

I think we already know the answer to this. Technology favors the defense. This poses a problem for America projecting out towards the West Pacific, but also a problem for the Chinese projecting towards Taiwan or Japan.

here is another 'window' question: what if US makes clear it will station forces on Taiwanese soil? Could that be the thing that tips them over into 'limited window' thinking?

@Anon–

"Hard to believe life under Xi would be all that much more unpleasant for them that what they've got right now. It's not like people in Shanghai are setting out to sea in leaky boats to try and escape from being ruled by Xi. Why would it be any worse in Taiwan?"

Shanghai is the wrong reference point. The right reference point are Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The CPC uses the phrase 分裂分子 "separatist fanatics" to describe Hong ongers, Xinjiang Uyghurs, and Taiwanese pan-greens. How they treat the first two gives you an idea for how they will treat the latter, had they power to do so.

"Hong Kong and Xinjiang"

Both are treated very well by PRC government. HK will get lower housing prices, better growth, better security, less hate. Xinjiang is getting mechanized farming and fancier infrastructure than most of the US (in fact one of your commenters was even critical of this infrastructure for being unprofitable).

Some people have criticized the education system in Xinjiang, but the way I see it is that in Xinjiang, at least the communist brainwashing is free, whereas in the US, a year of communist brainwashing costs 50k USD :p

Very interesting. Do you (or any other readers) have recommendations for books/articles on military procurement reform?

@Anonymous
Somebody should have told the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers protesting in the streets over the past few years that they stand only to benefit from greater integration with the PRC – it seems like they rather thought otherwise!

"Historians of the First World War and the Pacific War trace the origins of those conflicts to pessimistic assessments of the changing balance of power"

Wouldn't this apply more to the United States starting a war with China than the other way around? Not saying that the Chinese are wonderful, but isn't this sort of what we are playing with right now?

The analogy to the beginnings of WW2 is worrisome. The Germans (Versailles) started way behind, but had very little in the way of legacy costs. They had far better tactical (and sometimes operational) organization and used a slight superiority in a few areas : aviation, local command and control (radios in all tanks), and the benefit of a practice run (Poland) to hit far above their weight. Their lack of economic/logistical organization eventually cost them dearly. They were not as overwhelmingly outnumbered as is sometimes portrayed.

The problem if you are China (as far as the analogy goes) is that the United States has been complacent since 1990, but it hasn't been the extreme pacifist that Britain was, nor are we likely to execute most of our officer corp (per Stalin) anytime soon. We are closer to where the French were (whoops! lol), but the Chinese can't be guaranteed that we will mishandle the operational realities as badly as they did, nor are the Chinese noted as being exceptional or particularly experienced in their warfighting skills.

@Russel–

It would, if the United States felt confident that they would perform better in a war now than in six or seven years. But both from reading public documents and from talks with people on the inside: they don't feel more confident now.

The really dangerous situation might be around 2027 or so when both sides believe they are better off moving now than later: Americans, perhaps judging by macroeconomic indicators, the Chinese through hard military ones like those discussed in this post.

@T. Greer

Thanks for the response and apologies for the delay.

1) Re the first point, I agree that America's ability (or inability) to get its house in order is going to have some impact. But far more important, I would think, is the Chinese growth trajectory. America is on the tech frontier and likely can't consistently grow in excess of 2.5% (this year, like the previous year, ought to be discounted), without going on a biannual, Chinese-style, unproductive investment boom to gin up the figures.

China's growth, on the other hand, is likely to be a more reliable bellwether when assessing their ability to challenge the US and on this front, we are dealing with a country only 1/3 as productive as the OECD average and with huge catch-up potential remaining. I think the CCP understand this all too well. If throughout this decade they can pump out 4.5-5% average GDP growth and be expecting ~4% by 2031, then I dare say they will deem themselves to be in a very advantageous position. However, this will require reforms which they have been dithering over for at least 10 years and so isnt a foregone conclusion.

2) I'm aware that i'm going against consensus on this but I dont think that, militarily, technology is necessarily so skewed towards the defensive. At least not for long. If anything, A2AD has probably only another decade left to run until the 'cult of the offensive' once again takes hold with the proliferation of cheap drones, hypersonic missiles and stealth systems that are advanced enough that commanders have sufficient faith in their competence. Right now we seem to be in this weird era akin to the 1920s where the power of the defensive is acknowledged and the leading global minds are actively working to leverage emerging technologies/systems to subvert this.

3) I think this depends entirely on a) how the US wishes to go about it and b) the extent to which Chinese planners expect American involvement. Ultimately, anything short of turning Taiwan into a near-literal aircraft carrier replete with hundreds of American jets, tens of thousands of active personnel, massive stockpiles of missiles and multiple harbors brimming with warships, is not really going to aid Taiwan's immediate defensiveness. Anything short of that will instead be designed to signal resolve, commitment to allies and act as a 'trip-wire' forcing America's hand in the event of military conflict.

I highly doubt such a 'trip-wire' would deter the Chinese because everything we know about their military modernization (and recent economic policies) indicates that they expect active American involvement in a kinetic Taiwan scenario. In short, they already seem to accept that they might well have to kill Americans to achieve their goal. Instead of introducing a 'window for action' of sorts or changing the CCP calculus, I think it more likely that such a move would limit American room for maneuver and mean that the US would have no choice but to fight over Taiwan (which many serious US DOD and FP-heads realize is not a core issue/determinant for maintaining US hegemony).

> nor are we likely to execute most of our officer corp (per Stalin) anytime soon.

Well, with the Biden regime, who knows.

Nobody seems to have tried to answer the question of "why should the US bother keeping Taiwan out of China's clutches?" So I will; it boils down to 1 thing: TSMC.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company supplies the majority of microprocessors to US tech companies, include 100% of the most cutting-edge chips. If China takes control of it, they will have their fingers on the throat of the US.

I am brutally skeptical of any analysis that speaks in terms of budget levels, which is not dwelled on here but is in much of the rest of the conversation. I go as far as to say there is no way out of our predicament as long as budgets are the framework of the discussion.

I notice that there seems to be something of a gap in talking about American strategic options and investment, and this gap is the "grey zone" which is otherwise much analyzed with respect to Russia's activity. In the Russia case there is lots of discussion about the capabilities and options of all participants, and we have zones of conflict like Syria where it is heavily on display.

Yet while I see that we notice China deploying these methods in the case of Taiwan:

https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/hongkong-taiwan-military/

And we have analyzed grey zone warfare in general:

https://www.soc.mil/SWCS/SWmag/archive/SW2804/GrayZone.pdf

And even China's capabilities in the area (page 27; China even gets higher page count than Russia):

https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2900/RR2942/RAND_RR2942.pdf

I don't see much in the way of American capabilities and options in areas of interest against China.

Some of this is intuitively obvious: the ocean isn't traditionally viewed as an environment of competition here except where already incorporated into Navy and Air Force doctrine.

I feel like more can be explained by the poor state of American alliances in the region, with only Australia and Japan being likely candidates for the level of intense intel-sharing that has to happen for us to keep tabs on everything. By comparison in Europe are located most of our intelligence sharing partners, so Russia is easier to keep tabs on by far.

But what about the areas where we have built up a lot of capabilities of this kind that are still relevant? The War on Terror channeled a fair amount of assets into AFRICOM, which can reach areas where China is making heavy economic bets; we still have the bones of a huge network of such assets in Central Asia, which is in spitting distance of the parts of China they have the least confidence in their control over.

I am certain it cannot be done with business as usual, but I feel like it might be possible to revisit many Central Asia relationships in this context, as distinct from "help the US build conventional military capacity in the heart of Asia" to which Russia strenuously objects.

Speaking of, how are we working Russia into this calculus? China's perspective of the long-term competition with the United States depends on being able to exert economic coercion over most of Asia; surely this leaves Russia as a bigger and more immediate loser. It feels like Russia and the US have a shared realpolitik interest in China's (political) containment.

I mention the grey-zone and diplomatic angles so much because these things are cheap enough and fluid enough that we could plausibly adapt enough to compensate for the conventional weaknesses we now have. By contrast, the conventional weaknesses can't really be resolved without making strategic investments that themselves will have to mature before we see the payoff in terms of force structure or fleet composition. By this I mean systems engineering expertise at the Pentagon and adjusted relationships with the Prime Contractors (or reform of the Prime Contractor system).

"(which many serious US DOD and FP-heads realize is not a core issue/determinant for maintaining US hegemony). "

And they would be absolutely incorrect in that "realization." Jesus. If there were ever strategic territory worth controlling, Taiwan is it. Taiwan accounts for 63% of all semi-conductor manufacturing. You know…that thing that's in practically all technology today. Worse yet, some of Taiwan's productive capacity is inside of mainland China. TSMC basically doesn't have a competitor in the 5nm chip space, and indeed will not have a competitor in the 3nm chip space. Do you know what the lead time is on a transformer? About 6 months. So yeah…if technology is a factor in maintaining US hegemony then you absolutely do need to defend Taiwan. Do you really think the Chinese wouldn't cut the United States out of the semi-conductor supply trade? They would, and they will.

"And they would be absolutely incorrect in that "realization.""

I think you are getting confused or you don't understand the nature of Semiconductor supply-chains and/or processes.

Firstly, any major war over Taiwan spells the very end of TSMC as industry front-runner. Their cutting-edge factories/fabs, engineers and logistics centers are in Taiwan. Any war that turns hot is going to decimate at least one of those planks in such a way that their lead simply evaporates and Samsung takes the helm pretty much overnight. So the idea of China using a newly 'acquired' TSMC to pressure the US is a non-starter because there simply wont be anything left to threaten with! Will there be chaos in the global economy and a Semis shortage many times worse than that today? Possibly. Will China be able to use the husk of a formerly high-tech factory and a skeleton engineering crew to sanction the US? Unlikely.

Secondly, you are misunderstanding the vagaries surrounding TSMC's lead. What are the applications of 5/7nm? Besides smartphones? There seems to be a race to go smaller and the mainstream media is understandably caught up in this maelstrom. But any perfunctory analysis quickly reveals that a lot of the IoT/AI advances (those actually relevant for future productivity, innovation and growth) penciled in for the coming decades can easily be achieved through 10nm+ nodes. Even if the US wants sub-7nm capability at its fingertips, all it has to do is turn to Samsung or start pumping more money into Intel. Its not hard. Both are much easier to do than fight with China over Taiwan simply for Semis access. Especially given that Samsung is almost neck-and-neck with TSMC anyway.

The world is more complex than this simplistic version you seem to be pushing: "A wants X. X is in C. B wants C. Therefore A must fight B to keep C which houses X"

An invasion attempt (successful or not) will likely severely damage TSMC's production capacity post-war. Foundaries could be intentionally (to prevent the winning side from seizing TSMC) or accidentally bombed by either side. TSMC personnel will likely die and their specialized experience with them. TSMC is a Fabergé egg that a war can't help but shatter.

I wonder if it would be possible to study how a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would effect TSMC. A lot of people in this thread have speculated about it, but I figure a deep-dive analysis would be interesting.

A few issues:

1. To what extent is TSMC's technical lead dependent on hardware vs. specific people? If it's specific people, how many of them are really important?

2. Of those important people, would they rather transfer to the US/Japan/Korea or a PRC-ruled Taiwan if given the choice?

3. If PRC attacked Taiwan but didn't specifically target the TSMC fabs, does Taiwan have a contingency for destroying them to prevent capture? Is there a contingency for key personnel to flee the country?

4. To what extent is TSMC already infiltrated by PRC or pro-reunification agents? Presumably it can't be a totally effective infiltration, but I imagine there also must be some mainlanders working in technical roles there.

A lot of the discussions are focusing on TSMC, which is very misleading.

China's obsession with recovering Taiwan dates back to the founding of PRC in 1949. China was preparing to invade Taiwan right before the US 7th Fleet started to intervene right after the breakout of the Korean War. The US and China could not establish formal diplomatic relationship primarily because of the status of Taiwan. The issue could only be resolved more than seven years after President Nixon visited China in 1972, when President Carter finally cut off formal relationship with ROC/Taiwan and recognized PRC as the sole legal representative of the entire China.

So it is really not about TSMC for China. In fact, TSMC only appeared to become an issue in the last few years when Trump administration forced TSMC to stop manufacture chips for Huawei. I bet even if China took over Taiwan, TSMC would still be allowed to do business with US companies such as Apple, AMD, NVIDIA, Intel, because after these companies also have big business with China. Why does China want to interrupt the flow of the business? A lot of the speculations are strictly driven by the US anxiety about anything China.

I don't see why the Red Chinese would invade Taiwan rather than blockading it and forcing a surrender of some kind. A blockade would be much easier and could dialed up or down in intensity as needed. It would also have the advantage of being less overt and provocative to the American electorate. Taiwan is only 100 miles off the mainland coast and everything of value is on the west side of the island so given the Red Chinese possession of long range weapons the PLAN may not even need to deploy many ships to effect a blockade.

People aren't allowing for emotions in the calculations of the Reds. They have been lusting after Taiwan for over 70 years and given that, it seems to me that rather than coolly calculating and waiting for the most propitious moment to strike, they are more likely to strike at the first moment they judge success if more likely than failure. That moment may be now or in the very near future since the US is in the middle of domestic strife not seen before in any of our lifetimes not to mention the military mess we are in.

We must remember too that Mr. Xi is 68 years old. As each day passes the more he risks death striking him before he can become the greatest Chinese in history by taking Taiwan.

Finally we must remember also that we don't really have any advantage in relevant combat experience over the Red Chinese. They don't have a single officer who has participated in full scale naval war and neither do we. They don't have a single officer (to my knowledge) who has any kind of combat experience. We have a few who fought in small wars and as each day passes we have fewer of those. Douglas Murray commented that the tailwinds we enjoyed because of our accomplishments in WWII are about dead now. We should keep that in mind.

I am still utterly unsure why the US gives such high value to the fates of the Taiwanese and Ukrainians relative to their own 350 million people. I leave it there. Just kindly spare me the stories of supposedly aggressive Chinese and Russians.

"I am still utterly unsure why the US gives such high value to the fates of the Taiwanese and Ukrainians relative to their own 350 million people. I leave it there. Just kindly spare me the stories of supposedly aggressive Chinese and Russians."

Great powers always portray their Great Power rivals as "aggressive." The Russians and Chinese see the USA, and each other, as aggressive too. So, that's not really the point. All Great Powers are "aggressive," to some degree. They all seek to influence events, government, trade, culture, etc in their "spheres of influence" or "near abroad" or "Monroe Doctrine area" or whatever,and then often enough beyond those areas as well. Dominant Great Powers often try to limit the sphere of influences of their rivals, or, at a minimum, confine them to that sphere, through the creation and maintenance of "cordon sanitaires." The term was borrowed from public health to describe the French Eastern and Central European 1920s and 30s policy of ringing possibly revenge seeking Germany and the possibly expansionist, revolution exporting USSR with small state allies. NATO, SEATO, CENTO, and the Warsaw Pact can all be seen in the same light. As can the various bilateral treaties signed by the USA and the USSR with their clients/allies.

Ukraine and Taiwan are outlying and "forward," cordon sanitaire type nations, as seen from the perspective of the USA when facing Great Power rivals Russia and China, respectively. The US doesn't give "high value" so much to the "fates" of the Ukrainians and Taiwanese, as it sees them as bulwarks against US rivals Russia and China. They help "contain" those rivals, they keep their sphere of influences smaller than they would otherwise be, and they block possible moves on more valuable, farther "back," actual treaty allies, like the NATO and EU nations with respect to Russia, and Japan, South Korea, and Australia with respect to China.

Of course, this "forward" strategy of containment has its possible disadvantages as well as advantages, and those can be discussed on the level of the general or the particular. And, of course, there are moral considerations of many kinds, and not all pointing in the same direction. But the concern with the fate of people far away and seemingly not central to the lives of Americans is not primarily one of altruism; it's one of strategy.