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US will ‘lose fast’ in war with China, Air Force’s simulation shows

Soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/WikiCommons)
March 11, 2021

Last fall, the U.S. Air Force played out a war scenario with China, in which China begins its attack by deploying a biological weapon throughout the Indo-Pacific region. the outcome for the U.S. was not a good one, a new report revealed this week.

“The definitive answer if the U.S. military doesn’t change course is that we’re going to lose fast,” Air Force Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, told Yahoo News. Many details of the war game remain classified and had not been made public until recently.

In the scenario, set a decade into the future, China uses a biological weapon attack that spreads between bases and warships in the Indo-Pacific and then, under the guise of a major military training exercise, a Chinese invasion force is able to launch a speedy air and amphibious assault to take over Taiwan while targeting crippled U.S. warships and bases in the region with a hail of missile strikes.

The simulation was conducted amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic months after aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was temporarily sidelined with an outbreak of the virus.

Hinote described a trend between past conflict and this most recent scenario.

“More than a decade ago, our war games indicated that the Chinese were doing a good job of investing in military capabilities that would make our preferred model of expeditionary warfare, where we push forces forward and operate out of relatively safe bases and sanctuaries, increasingly difficult,” Hinote said. “At that point the trend in our war games was not just that we were losing, but we were losing faster.”

“After the 2018 war game I distinctly remember one of our gurus of war gaming standing in front of the Air Force secretary and chief of staff, and telling them that we should never play this war game scenario [of a Chinese attack on Taiwan] again, because we know what is going to happen,” Hinote continued. “The definitive answer if the U.S. military doesn’t change course is that we’re going to lose fast. In that case, an American president would likely be presented with almost a fait accompli.”

A fait accompli is a French term to describe a foregone conclusion, and is often used in U.S. military strategy contexts to describe a scenario in which an adversary of the U.S. is able to defeat a U.S. strategy before it can even be launched. In the example of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, U.S. military planners sometimes see China’s anti-access area denial strategy (A2/AD) as a fait accompli that allows China to make major territorial gains in the Indo-Pacific while blocking the U.S. from launching a counter-attack. A fait accompli presents a dilemma for the U.S. in whether to escalate conflict further or cede captured territories or objectives to China.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, has been described as a fait accompli, as the annexation was accomplished before the Ukraine our other nations could intervene, and the prospect of retaking Crimea from Russia might then suggest open war with Russia.

Hinote’s comments about the Chinese war game come on the same week U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) commander Amdl. Philip Davidson said China might try and annex Taiwan within this decade and possibly within the next six years.

The use of war games has reportedly helped the U.S. better understand how the Chinese strategy in the Indo-Pacific would play out, but some defense analysts are still uncertain the U.S. is heading in a direction to counter China’s strategies.

“Whenever we war-gamed a Taiwan scenario over the years, our Blue Team [those playing the role of the U.S.] routinely got its ass handed to it, because in that scenario time is a precious commodity and it plays to China’s strength in terms of proximity and capabilities,” David Ochmanek, a senior RAND Corporation analyst and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development told Yahoo News. “That kind of lopsided defeat is a visceral experience for U.S. officers on the Blue Team, and as such the war games have been a great consciousness-raising device. But the U.S. military is still not keeping pace with Chinese advances. For that reason, I don’t think we’re much better off than a decade ago when we started taking this challenge more seriously.”

Ochmanek said China has become increasingly confident in its military and that it is showing its confidence with increased aggression and provocative actions in the Indo-Pacific, such as conducting frequent air operations around Taiwan and closely following U.S. Navy ships operating in the region.

Hinote also said, “We’re beginning to understand what kind of U.S. military force it’s going to take to achieve the National Defense Strategy’s goals, but that’s not the force we’re planning and building today.”