How to Talk About a Potential War with China

Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Mike Minihan generated international headlines when a memo to his Airmen in which he suggested the U.S. “will fight in 2025” with China leaked to the media. In the days that followed, national security experts and even Airmen themselves have split on the message, with some praising Minihan for his plain talk and others worrying that he needlessly turned up tensions with his rhetoric.

Former National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien wrote on Twitter that Minihan’s memo “demonstrates solidarity with the men & women he leads by telling them the truth that all of us at the senior level know but few are willing to utter. He should be commended.” 

Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, praised Minihan in a LinkedIn post, saying he “should be commended for the clarity in which he delivers his messages, sense of urgency, and speaking as a warfighter—not a bureaucrat, politico, or academic.” 

In an interview with Air & Space Forces Magazine, Deptula deemed Minihan’s memo “wholly appropriate,” and a necessary reminder for AMC Airmen, who are responsible for all the Air Force’s cargo and refueling missions. 

“Air Mobility Command is a combat-oriented command,” Deptula said. “Its day-to-day airlift missions often appear more like a commercial airline mission than an organization in the thick of flying and fighting. But the point that Minahan was making is the violence of combat comes quickly. And he wants his crews to be thinking about that and ready to support delivering devastating consequences to the enemy in a very hostile environment.” 

AMC is not immune to danger, he said citing the noncombatant evacuation out of Afghanistan in August 2021 that involved hundreds of C-17 flights in and out of hostile territory, and the Vietnam War, when the Air Force lost more than 100 mobility aircraft.  

Minihan was rightly “trying to instill this perspective on his Airmen, that they need to be thinking about what’s necessary to succeed in combat against our pacing threat and raise that awareness that it’s not business as usual in that this possibility could come sooner rather than later.” 

Notably, Minihan’s comments are consistent with those of others who have sounded alarm over China, ranging from Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael M. Gilday, who said in October the U.S. should prepare to fight in 2022 or 2023. In 2021, Adm. Phil Davidson, then head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, predicted China might take military action against Taiwan by 2027—a timeline some have since dubbed “the Davidson window.” 

Minihan was “doing what we pay general officers to do,” Deptula said—that is, “to motivate and prepare their forces, and to get them thinking about the potential threats that we face.” 

Some lawmakers have also lauded the memo, praising Minihan for characterizing the situation with China in stark terms. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the chair of a new House Select Committee focused on competition with China; and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, all supported the general.

Predictably, however, others have been critical. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the HASC, said on TV that he worries “when anyone starts talking about war with China being inevitable.” Generals, he added, “need to be very cautious about saying we’re going to war.” 

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, echoed that concern. “We’re awfully cavalier about this idea that we might fight China, right?” said O’Hanlon, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, in an interview with Air & Space Forces Magazine. “We’re talking about World War III. …That’s a not a way we can afford to think, because if this war happens, we’ve already lost.” 

Generals sometimes do get called out for their word choices, with retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis having drawn particular criticism in the past. In this case, O’Hanlon said, China’s growing nuclear arsenal and military might calls for increased “strategic sophistication.” 

“It was one thing when Jim Mattis said it about the Taliban,” O’Hanlon said. They and al-Qaida “did not have nuclear weapons and did not pose existential threats to the United States and potentially could be defeated or at least contained on a battlefield. It’s entirely something else to say this about the world’s number one rising power with several hundred nuclear weapons and a central place in the entire world economy.” 

When officers become generals, they “are no longer just technical facilitators of the application of lethal military power—that’s no longer their only job,” O’Hanlon said. Though Minihan’s memo was intended for an internal audience of Airmen, O’Hanlon said its public impact after its leak shows why generals should exercise caution when crafting broad messages. 

“Damage has been done, because the Chinese have read it and probably taken it as a window into our thinking,” O’Hanlon said. “And to the extent they believe that the United States has settled on a paradigm of the inevitability of a U.S.-China war, that could affect their crisis decision making and make them more inclined to escalate if they think the war is going to sort of happen anyway.” 

Others commenting on social media suggested the AMC commander was saber-rattling. Replying to Deptula’s LinkedIn post, Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Walt L. Moddison cited poor performance by U.S. forces in past war games as reason to tone down such comments. Moddison declined an interview request, saying he was speaking for himself and not his organization. 

Elsewhere on popular unofficial social media sites, Airmen have responded to Minihan’s memo with a mixture of debate and memes, with some arguing that the focus on a near-term war with China takes attention away from problems such as retention and maintenance on aging fleets. 

But Gallagher, a retired Marine Corps intelligence officer, said recent world events show the pressing nature of preparing for a fight with China.

“If we’ve learned anything from Ukraine, it’s that we need to take our adversaries at their word when they
threaten their neighbors and put hard power in their way before it’s too late,” Gallagher said in a statement. “General Minihan should be commended for directing his Airmen to take the threat seriously and preparing with the urgency that the situation demands.”