The DEFCON Warning System™

Ongoing GeoIntel and Analysis in the theater of nuclear war.  DEFCON Level assessment issued for public notification.  Established 1984.

Where the Wargames Weren’t: Assessing 10 Years of U.S.-Chinese Military Assessments

Over the past 10 years, the U.S. defense community has produced a tremendous volume of analytical work on the military balance between the United States and China. Think tanks, scholars, and military institutions have weighed in, contributing valuable insights. Unsurprisingly, though, there remain noteworthy disagreements, gaps, and unquestioned assumptions within this vast body of research. Highlighting and addressing these points will help the United States better meet the challenge it faces in the Indo-Pacific.

Two major schools of prescriptive thought have evolved on how to respond in case of Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific. Those in the “direct approach” camp favor penetration of anti-access/area denial systems to enable U.S. forces to contribute directly to the conflict. Adherents of the “indirect approach” favor a variety of peripheral strategies to frustrate Chinese aims, hold assets at risk, or apply pressure through various means outside of the main theater of operations. Recognizing these schools can help sharpen the debate between them. This will benefit U.S. policymakers seeking to craft the optimal strategy while possibly creating further ambiguity for those seeking to craft a response in Beijing.

Even as the literature on a potential U.S.-Chinese conflict grows, topics such as proactive conflict termination and alliance dynamics remain understudied. Understanding the conditions, short of capitulation, in which a conflict might be brought to a conclusion will prove critical to managing escalation. Likewise, modeling the complexities of multinational military operations dispersed over thousands of kilometers is as important as understanding various operating concepts. Incorporating these strategically critical concepts into holistic assessments of the military balance is necessary to appreciate how they affect, and are affected by, more straightforward elements of military operations and strategy. 

Finally, studies to date have suffered from several failures of imagination. While scenarios envisioning a direct invasion of Taiwan have received no shortage of analysis, other plausible roads to war get little or no attention. Further, the existing analyses overwhelmingly suppose that war will arise as the result of deliberate calculation — a historically reckless assumption. Nuclear dynamics in a high-intensity conflict likewise receive a narrow treatment, with analysts tending either to dismiss the possibility of nuclear use or confine it to a handful of readily avoided scenarios. 

Read more at War on the Rocks

Ongoing Geointel and Analysis in the theater of nuclear war.


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The DEFCON Warning System is a private intelligence organization which has monitored and assessed nuclear threats by national entities since 1984. It is not affiliated with any government agency and does not represent the alert status of any military branch. The public should make their own evaluations and not rely on the DEFCON Warning System for any strategic planning. At all times, citizens are urged to learn what steps to take in the event of a nuclear attack.