Experts Urge US to Develop China Deterrence Strategy

The US government needs to take a closer look at what could deter a war with China as the Pentagon shifts its focus to security in the Indo-Pacific region and competition between world powers, defense experts told House lawmakers Jan. 15.

Modern deterrence theory is largely modeled on ideas honed in the Cold War, and are based on the threat a nuclear stockpile poses. But with China growing dependent on cyber and space capabilities like the US, and with a different set of motivations than Russia in play, some say America can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to discouraging aggression.

Deterring China requires input from across the federal government, with creative thinking and an eye on how China’s Belt and Road Initiative for global development could affect security, said Michèle Flournoy, a co-founder and managing partner at WestExec Advisors who served as under secretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012. 

She argues the Defense Department’s top priority in great power competition should be drawing clear lines with Beijing to avoid dangerous missteps.

“While I believe neither the United States nor China is likely to deliberately start a war given the dire costs involved, we could nevertheless stumble into conflict if the Chinese leadership were to miscalculate the ability or willingness of the United States and our allies to respond to provocations or outright aggression,” Flournoy said in written testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.

“The risk of miscalculation is greatest in the next 10 years—when the United States has telegraphed its vision for the future force but has yet to procure and deploy all of the technologies and systems necessary to fully translate this vision into fielded capabilities.”

Michael McDevitt, a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses and a retired rear admiral, said the Pentagon’s China strategy needs a firmer backbone. He pointed to the Defense Department’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, suggesting the president’s signature and congressional backing would give it more clout as a path forward.

That outlook could be one piece of a whole-of-government approach to studying and countering China. Deterrence should also consider issues like Hong Kong independence, a stronger Japan, a unified Korean Peninsula, and the economic strength of world powers, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said during the hearing.

Unlike US-Russia relations, nuclear weapons would play a smaller role in the balance of power between the US and China, whose arsenal is dwarfed by American assets, Flournoy said. Nuclear weapons can stay in the background so the specter of nuclear war still looms, but the US should rein them in via arms control agreements and consider forms of conventional deterrence that can ward off bad actions in the South China Sea or toward America’s regional allies. The Pentagon can better balance its money between nuclear modernization and development of other options, she said.

It can also find new ways to measure how effectively the US is holding China at bay.

“Numerical targets like 355-ship Navy, X number of Air Force squadrons, those are the metrics of the past,” Flournoy said. “If we hold to those, we will get this wrong. … The right things that we should be measuring are the time and scale of outcomes we can achieve that contribute to deterrence. Can we hold the Chinese fleet at risk, at scale, in a 72-hour period?”

That would force the military to rethink its roles and tools, she said, like flying Navy munitions on Air Force aircraft, or shifting Army or Marine Corps artillery missions to pose new problems for adversaries.

Flournoy suggested the special operations community could take on a greater role in gray-zone, irregular warfare, to hone skills that have been a lower priority for the past few decades. Cyber deterrence is also key: “Establishing norms of behavior in cyberspace would bolster deterrence by setting collective expectations and enabling collective action when red lines are crossed,” she wrote.

Deterrence theory will also have to consider the use of developing technologies like hypersonic weapons.

McDevitt said the Pentagon’s pursuit of strategic hypersonic missiles can be puzzling. Those weapons make sense at a tactical level, he said, but the military doesn’t need any more intercontinental ballistic missiles, which already travel five times faster than the speed of sound.

“If we’re going to focus on hypersonics, we ought to focus on what is tactically usable,” he said.

Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while hypersonic weapons may not be critical to a fight, they would open new options and make adversaries think twice about how fast and where the US could strike.

McDevitt added that DOD’s combat options can include growing the number of submarines in the region to as many as 15, and deploying land-based, conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles to the western Pacific.

“DOD should be encouraged to make this a priority in order to begin to offset the unchallenged advantage that China Strategic Rocket Force currently enjoys,” he said.

Experts and lawmakers also stressed the importance of a command and control system that can pull all the assets together and understand the state of play.

Command and control is one of the Pentagon’s biggest problems going forward because every asset relies on that network performing well, HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said. Such a network has to be cybersecure and could rely on artificial intelligence and quick upgrades to stay relevant. The Air Force is leading a push toward what is now dubbed joint, all-domain C2 to pursue that vision.

“The services are asking to shift money to these efforts, whether it’s the Air Force moving $9 billion towards this, whether it’s requesting your help for spiral development and experimentation,” Flournoy said. “It’s tough because it’s taking money away from legacy programs, but … we’ve got to move serious money into this area if we’re going to make progress on the time and scale that we need to.”

C2 networks also make good targets, McDevitt said.

“Without their ability to surveil the open ocean, they can’t use their anti-ship ballistic missile. They don’t know where to vector their diesel submarine. They don’t know where to launch their land-based aircraft, or what direction,” he said of China. “We should not wring our hands and say [facing China is] too hard. All we have to do is make that system not work.”