Strait Talk

Sept. 1, 2002

Before the 1973 Mideast War, Israel picked up many warning signs, but it didn’t act on them. According to The Yom Kippur War by the London Sunday Times, Israel was convinced that, because it had clear military superiority, the Arabs wouldn’t attack. The book said, “Thinking … on this point was so rigid, … it even had a name: ‘The Concept.'”

That concept went down in flames on Oct. 6, 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian forces invaded.

Something like “The Concept” may be at work in American defense planning. It gives heavy attention to the immediate Global War on Terror (Iraq is included) and to far-term Transformation of US forces for post­2015 wars. The danger of medium-term conventional conflict does not get equal rhetorical emphasis.

A prime case is the Chinese military threat to Taiwan. The prevailing view is that China lacks enough lift to invade. Moreover, its troops are poorly trained. Logistics are sketchy. Weapons are ancient (wits refer to the 2.4-million-man People’s Liberation Army as the world’s largest military museum). Thereforeso the theory goesChina, aware of its shortcomings, probably won’t challenge US power in the Taiwan Strait for at least a decade.

This belief suffered heavy damage in two hefty new reports, the 56-page “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” by DOD and the 209-page “Report to Congress of the US­China Security Review Commission,” a panel chartered by Congress. Both were released in July.

Taken together, the studies show that China is busy developing “force multipliers” to enable it to swiftly conquer Taiwan, if it chooses, and thwart a US response. They note that, among other things, China now has:

  • A new doctrine of pre-emption and surprise for war with Taiwan.
  • Some 350 accurate short-range ballistic missiles posing a grave threat to Taiwan’s air defenses and command centers.
  • Cyber-war systems to attack and disrupt Taiwan’s military and civilian communications.
  • A growing fleet of advanced Russian­designed Su-27 fighters to reduce Taiwan’s air advantage over the strait.
  • Improved air transport for special operations commandos.

China’s evident goal would be to knock out Taiwan before the US could intervene. With the US in mind, China has embarked on “Three Attacks and Three Defenses” air defense training. It envisions coordinated attacks on stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, and helicopters and defense against precision strikes, electronic warfare, and air surveillance.

Moreover, China may have acquired high-energy laser equipment for zapping satellites and systems for mass cyber-attacks on US forces. China has acquired Russian­built Sunburn anti-ship missiles capable, it is said, of threatening an aircraft carrier.

Richard L. Russell, a National Defense University professor, conducted what he calls a “devil’s advocate” analysis of the cross-strait balance. His conclusion, as reported in Parameters last fall: “The Chinese could use strategic surprise to compensate for shortcomings in military capabilities.”

The commission was blunter: “China’s leaders believe that the United States, although technologically superior in almost every area of military power, can be defeated.”

No one claims war with China is inevitable. However, Beijing’s moves have stirred profound anxieties. Such a war would place immense demands on US conventional forces, especially Air Force airpower and Navy sea power.

Bush Administration leaders would do well to ponder that fact as they make key budget and force-planning decisions in months ahead.

From the start, the Administration assumed the services could accept more risk and divert funds to Transformation. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, here-and-now readiness moved front and center. Neither effort is optional. However, they do compete with efforts to modernize, recapitalize, and man a force suffering from a decade of neglect.

This is particularly dangerous when it affects air and space power, always in high demand. USAF’s aircraft fleet is growing older, less reliable, and expensive to maintain. Its front-line fighter, the F-15, was introduced in 1974. Bombers, tankers, and special-purpose aircraft all are aged. The US can’t further postpone the replacement of such worn-out equipment.

The Pentagon is in the throes of yet another review of the need for the planned fleet of 339 F-22 fighters. The real requirement is for more than 750 Raptors. When it comes to manpower, the story is much the same. Recent analyses show the Air Force may need to add as many as 40,000 troops to fill out the force. The Pentagon is thinking more like zero.

The real problem is a lack of resources. Even factoring in the recent Bush increases, defense spending accounts for 3.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The figure as recently as 1994 was four percent and much higher during the Cold War.

As the China case shows, the US military’s main missions have not gone away. The danger of big, regional clashes of conventional forces will be around for a while, and the US needs first-class forces to fight them.

It is past time to stop redefining problems, talking about “skipping a generation” of weapons, and trying to stretch overworked forces to cover expanding needs. The Administration should face up to the requirement and provide the resources to meet it. It’s the only concept that makes sense.