We Will Win China’s War
by David Archibald
1 August 2022
In his 1966 book Tragedy and Hope, Carroll Quigley noted that the Chinese communist regime in the 1950s was insanely aggressive. The Nationalist government they replaced had been just as expansionist. It was a Nationalist fishing boat that set out to seize the South China Sea in 1947, even as they were fighting the Communists. Then Mao’s policies kept China very poor for decades. Their only attacks were on India in 1962, the Soviet Union in 1969 and Vietnam from 1979 to 1991.
Vietnam crushed China in 1979.
Then China became wealthy again and its bloodlust rose. They built some bases in the South China Sea, starting attacking India again and baiting Japan. China wants desperately to depose the United States as the number one country, and to be acknowledged as superior by every other country on the planet.
Mao also left a timebomb in China’s demographics. China could have started a one child policy in the 1960s and kept their population at 600 million. Instead it blew out to beyond 1.2 billion. When we fight China it won’t be the whole 1.2 billion, it will be the 300 million in a few coastal provinces who produce goods for the global economy. The rest of them will be mostly a drain on the Chinese war effort because resources will be diverted to keep them fed and clothed and not rioting. If China had kept their population at 600 million they would have a lot more free cash flow than they do now and would be a lot more powerful. We should be thankful to Mao for this particular mistake of his.
Consider that in a modern economy only 2% of the population is engaged in agriculture and feeds the rest of the country. But in China 25% of the population is on the farm. Most of these people only produce enough to feed themselves. They can’t be taken off the farm and given a rifle without food production dropping. Also, 20% of China’s protein is now imported, mainly as soy and corn to feed pigs and chickens. China has stockpiled hundreds of millions of tonnes of grain, but a protracted war will create 1.2 billion involuntary vegetarians.
And all their imported food has to be imported across the Pacific, easily interdicted. Russia planned for its invasion of Ukraine to take three days. It has now been going on for 17 weeks and could yet see its second winter. That will give the Chicoms pause.
Another constraint on China is the evolution of electronics over the last 30 years. This has favored the defense. In the old days, you first became aware of the enemy fleet when it appeared over the horizon and you were trading shells minutes later. These days you know where every enemy ship is, most of the time. They can be sunk while still tied up at the pier, as Ukraine has done to Russian ships in Crimean ports. China is surrounded by islands, which have airstrips that can host aircraft carrying antiship missiles with ranges up to 2,000 km. To put that into context, an aircraft with a range of 3,000 km taking off from Darwin could sink ships as far away as Korea. In WW2, Australian Catalinas sunk Japanese shipping along the South China coast. Their modern equivalents could do the same. If we had those modern equivalents.
Another thing. China can build one of its Type 055 destroyers for US$920 million and it will cost about US$25 million to sink it using five Brahmos missiles costing US$5 million each. The Philipinnes is buying three Brahmos batteries from India. This is the ground-launched version which could reach the Chinese coast from Luzon.
China now has the largest navy on the planet, which is something you will need if you want to invade another country. Whatever they spent on building that navy, it will only take about 5% of that sum to sink it using air-launched cruise missiles. Ships have only so many of their vertical launch tubes devoted to missiles for shooting down aircraft and cruise missiles. Once those are expended the ship is defenceless, and must return to port to have the tubes reloaded. And since the cost of these surface-to-air missiles can be more than the cost of the cruise missiles thrown at them, the engagement cost ratio does not favor the ship. And to detect incoming missiles, the ship has to use its radar, which acts as a beacon broadcasting the ship’s location for hundreds of kilometers. These days ships are just floating targets. The western Pacific is now like the Mediterranean during WW2 — ships are constantly in danger of attack by land-based aircraft.
If all that is true, why is the United States still building aircraft carriers? The answer is inertia. In the Falklands War the UK held its carriers well to the east of the islands such that the effectiveness of its fighter aircraft was somewhat diminished. In the coming war with China the US carriers will be somewhere east of Guam, completely useless.
A good parallel in history is the fact that the US Army still had cavalry right up to the German invasion of Poland. When reports came in that the Polish cavalry was being decimated by German machine guns, the head of the army asked his chief cavalry officer what he was going to do about it. The latter replied that they would use trucks to take the horses closer to the front line. The cavalry arm was ordered to disband that afternoon.
The Chinese are building aircraft carriers too, but largely because they have slavishly copied most things that the United States has done.
A big difference between WW2 and the coming war with China is that this time the good guys have all the islands in the western Pacific. We don’t need aircraft carriers as mobile airfields. WW2 started with the Japanese holding the belt of islands from Palau in the west to the Marshall Islands in the east. This was a stretch of ocean 4,000 kilometres wide across Australia’s north. We don’t have to fight our way through that belt this time, but the Chinese do.
What the US Marine Corps is doing is instructive. The current commander decided that the Marines’ role is to support the US Navy. This will be done by manning missile batteries on island bases to sink the approaching Chinese ships. They have parked up their tanks and reduced the emphasis on big-deck amphibious ships, to go asymmetric on the Chinese. That decision is looking good in the light of the Russian tank losses in Ukraine.
China desperately wants to have a quick war in which its forces decisively defeat the United States, a latter day Straits of Tsushima job, and then throw its weight around ever after. But circumstances of geography and trade and energy and weapon exchange rates will make that task very difficult. That won’t stop them from trying and devising a plan that might make it possible. And then causing a lot of deaths in the attempt.
In the 1905 “Straits of Tsushima” naval battle, Japan decisively beat the Russian fleet, the first time an Asian country had defeated a European one in battle.
Japan alone could defeat China in a conventional war. After all, nobody wants to set foot in China and all you have to do to defeat them is to sink their ships and shoot down their aircraft. This is entirely possible if Japan begins the war with enough stocks of the right missiles. But China won’t take defeat well, and will respond by nuking Japanese cities at the rate of one per day until the Japanese accept defeat and submit to a takeover by China. They stated this policy in an unofficial video released last year. What would stop that would be a US nuclear attack on China in response. So China puts a lot of effort into suborning the United States to remove the US nuclear umbrella from Japan and the rest of Asia.
The first fruit of that was Japan sending back 331 kg of weapons grade plutonium to the United States in 2016, late in Obama’s second term, after China badgered the United States about the presence of that plutonium in Japan. That would have been enough plutonium to make more than 60 weapons with a yield of 40 kt each, assuming tritium boosting. The optimum tradeoff between weapon weight and blast area is a yield of 400 kt if you have plenty of weapons-grade plutonium to play with. And now China is taking its nuclear arsenal from some 300 warheads to beyond 1,000. It has therefore adopted a nuclear warfighting stance.
The United States is now run once again by people who loathe it and want to diminish it. The US nuclear shield may not be permanent. In a world that might become more fragmented, in our part of that world we need to ally with No 2, Japan, against No 1, China. We already have a defense treaty with Japan but both countries need a far deeper and symbiotic relationship in which Japan provides the nuclear and missile technologies and Australia supplies carbon-based fuels, rare earths and strategic depth. Japan should have the short and medium range nuclear weapon delivery systems and Australia should host the long range systems, trotted out of tunnels in the McDonald Ranges on transporter-erector-launcher systems.
David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare.