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

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