Wargaming A US-China War

Wargaming A US-China War

As if the US and China don’t have enough problems, now they’re eyeing each other like two high school jocks competing to be Big Alpha Male on Campus. Oh, they’re not exactly enemies. Actually, they’re kind of friendly with each other. One loans the other money, and the other uses that money to buy cigarettes from the first guy. But beneath the bromance, both are steeling themselves for a rumble to decide who’s the biggest, baddest dude at Pacific Ocean High.

This has prompted the US to change its strategic focus. Post-1945, America’s main concern was stopping a Soviet tank blitz of Western Europe. Then for the last decade, we have been obsessed with the Global War on Terror (though Terror has yet to surrender). Now the Pentagon is preparing for a confrontation in the Pacific. The question boils down to who is allowed to play in China’s backyard. A quick glance at a map shows that the Western Pacific is a lot closer to Beijing than Los Angeles. But the US has allies over there: Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam (who’d have believed it?), and the biggest flashpoint of all, Taiwan. China regards Taiwan as a renegade republic that must be reclaimed for the Fatherland, while the other nations claim resource-rich waters and islands that resource-hungry China also calls its own. Considering that China versus its neighbours, with the possible exception of Japan, is like Mike Tyson versus Tiny Tim, America is the only power that can stand up to the biggest kid in the neighbourhood. It’s not a question of altruism. The US has its interests. So does China. Much mayhem may ensue.

The new US doctrine — the guiding principles of how the US would fight — are embodied in a new concept called Air-Sea Battle. As the name suggests, Air-Sea Battle envisions a Pacific war as a contest of ships and aircraft, which is logical: until they build a Star Trek transporter or a 10,000km San Francisco-Shanghai bridge, tank divisions and infantry battalions are useless in a trans-oceanic war without sea and air transportation to move them to where they’re going. This is good news for swabbies and zoomies: the War on Terror has mostly been an Army/Marine/Special Forces war, with the Air Force and Navy as supporting players (Air-Sea Battle also happens to be great timing as the services compete for shares of a shrinking defence budget). For its part, China has vastly increased its defence spending, including advanced jets, missiles, subs, and even a pathetic ex-Soviet carrier.

Air-Sea Battle — and a US-China War — would be primarily a missile war. China would use its vast arsenal, including carrier-killing ballistic missiles originally designed to carry nukes, to target the platforms that project US power: airbases in Taiwan, Japan, and islands such as Diego Garcia and Guam, as well as the mobile airbases that are the US Navy’s aircraft carriers. If China can neutralise American airpower, it will render American ground and sea forces (except for subs) impotent, and then Beijing can go about its business as it invades Taiwan or the Spratly Islands. Under Air-Sea Battle, America would use its own missiles to destroy China’s sensor network; if China can’t detect the carriers in the wide-open ocean, it can’t shoot at them. Then American forces would destroy own China’s missile forces, and then… who knows how this war would end.

I would be interested in seeing a game that realistically simulates ground combat as practiced by the People’s Liberation Army, which seems to moving away from human-wave tactics to a high-tech Western-style military.

It is a situation that cries out for gaming (and rest assured that places like the US Naval War College are doing just that). But for armchair generals, there isn’t that much out there. Far and away, the most obvious choice is Harpoon, technothriller writer Larry Bond’s naval wargame that has endured in various versions as tabletop miniatures and a computer game for 30 years. I won’t delve into the dispute among Harpoon fans of which computer version is best, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just point to Harpoon 3, which comes in civilian and professional military versions, and does have China War scenarios.

For air combat, while there are plenty of flight sims depicting the Russian-made aircraft used by China, such as the Su-27 Flanker, there aren’t many that feature indigenous Chinese aircraft. There is an add-on for Microsoft Flight Simulator for the J-10 fighter. There are also a handful of board games such as Red Dragon Rising.

Leaving aside the cartoony combat of the Chinese forces in Battlefield 3, I would be interested in seeing a game that realistically simulates ground combat as practiced by the People’s Liberation Army, which seems to moving away from human-wave tactics to a high-tech Western-style military. But that’s the problem. We don’t know how China would fight. Other than Korea 1950-53 and brief border conflicts with India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979, the Chinese military hasn’t fought a war except against its own people. The US has much more combat experience, but how much a decade of chasing barefoot Taliban will prepare us for fighting an enemy with high-tech aircraft and missiles is another question. Any game that simulates a Sino-American War is going to have make a lot of assumptions, from the effectiveness of cyberwarfare and the capabilities of the F-22, to the impact of shooting down the satellites that modern militaries depend upon.

There are a lot of question marks here. But the beauty of games is that they let us explore them before the fact. And let’s just hope that a China-America wargame never becomes fact.

Michael Peck is Games Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine and a writer for Training & Simulation Journal at Defense News

Top photo: US Navy/Flickr


  • I think you’re missing the obvious Air-Sea Battle option in the videogames space. Hell, it’s even CALLED Air-Sea Battle, so I’m not really sure how you missed it. It provides what is obviously the most detailed, realistic simulation of what a US – China conflict might look like.

    Take a look – I’m sure you’ll agree: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibFejsipSC8

  • The issue when examining how nations fight is you have to look at their entire military history, not just the latest conflict, because they impart all worthwhilelessons into their troops.
    America also has the Korean war, Gulf War and even the Cold War to draw on for tactics.
    I’m not familiar with China’s combat history but countries as a whole learn on their own and other battles and shape their training around that.

  • All nations have these types of plans, it’s about being one step ahead of your potential enemies; regardless of who they are. Countries develop new doctrines of war to get that edge over the enemy. Blitzkreig was one such doctrine that smash western europe with its new style of war, the Japanese did the same with the carriers in the pacific and final the US coined the term shock and awe with its military doctrine over the last 20 years.

    If you let your battle plans go stagnant you end up hurting yourself. See France 1938

  • This is the reason why Aliens don’t come down to our germ infested cesspool and backwater of the universe we call Earth. We’re still acting like children in a playground and act like barbarians, even if it’s only in thought (thankfully)

    • “Look at me I have a big stick”
      “Oh yeah check out my slingshot”
      “That’s not a slingshot, this is a slingshot”

      Meanwhile aliens look down at us and go, “pfft how can we share our technology and the wonders of the universe with these monkeys? I’m too scared to even shake their hand without fear that they’ll bite it off…”

      • Just what I was thinking.
        Another option is aliens might be looking down on us thinking “well I was going to invade them, but damn those guys are serious about their sling shots. Lets give them some room.”

      • Only if we escape our planet. Unless Earth has something the aliens desperately need, they’ll just let us destroy ourselves and then maybe come and salvage anything worth having that’s left over. (If they’re intelligent) Scavengers (and cowards) are pretty long lived that way.

        • Honestly, if we do manage to leave Earth to colonise the stars, this is probably when they will declare war on us. Think about it, would you let us self centred, warmongering, atomic bomb armed apes leave this backwater of the universe to colonise the rest of the galaxy?

          “Sir, those Hoomans, they are leaving Earth bound for the Centauri systems”
          “Good god, they are peaceful folk without any weapons to defend themselves against those beasts. Prepare to fire”

  • China conducts large scale simulated infantry engagements each year…. I’m certain the US has satillite footage of them.
    Also, I wonder if they gamed out Russias reaction… considering they share a border and have had more than a few conflicts over the years?

  • I seriously doubt that two nuclear superpowers are going to start a war, and besides no two countries with Macdonalds have ever been at war.

  • The scary thought is that their are actually people that might use nuclear weapons in the future if we allow it. i.e. even in a thousand years (If humanity still exist) someone decides to nuke their neighbour because of some disagreement over which is better, shampoo or conditioner….

  • Build a METAL GEAR. A heavily armoured mobile tank that launch long range nuclear missiles anywhere in the world will deter China from launching an attack.

    And no I’m not Liquid Ocelot. [shifty]

  • “Leaving aside the cartoony combat of the Chinese forces in Battlefield 3”

    There are no Chinese forces in Battlefield 3. ..

  • Lol China vs US armchair warriors. Doesn’t matter, no-one will dare tread on the others’ toes since their economies are too closely linked at this point. The Chinese aren’t going to just fly over to Taiwan like Pearl Harbour, they realise that conquest in the 21st century is economic, not warfare. There will never be US/China battles in the same way there was never any direct confrontation with the Soviet Union. Both players are too cautious so at most there will be proxy wars.

  • I have an interesting take, the country that attacks communications from space, and from undersea first, wins the conflict first.

    China makes Allied components, so if you think they do not have a million and one ways to weaken any aggressor, then that would be a big mistake.

    China can provide to it-self more so then the US can if communications are cut.

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