Commentary

The war with China, as I saw it

Ten years ago, as China’s rise accelerated, I sounded out several fellow authors of informed military fiction, proposing that we collaborate on a World War Three-style series about a new Pacific conflict. I would handle the action at sea, they the land, air, and space aspects. I thought such a series might serve as a warning, in the same way fiction had alerted us in advance of previous dangers.

They begged off, one saying there was zero possibility of such hostilities.

Unconvinced of that, I proceeded to craft “The War With China” on my own. This six-book series was published by St. Martins/Macmillan. It recounts how a near-future war might unfold, on land, at sea, in the air, in space, cyberspace, and on the all-important home front.

Today, a decade later, the likelihood of such a conflict is the topic of everyday discussion and, no doubt, of detailed planning. Force structures, acquisition, and training are all being hastily revised against just such a contingency.

I lay no claim to clairvoyance. But I’ve spent many years researching how such a conflict might evolve. I had my scenario development and defense analytical experience to call on, but based everything on open-source materials, buttressed by historical studies. I was also helped by dozens of serving and retired military members, both junior and very senior, who contributed ideas and vetted my drafts.

U.S. Marines take positions during an amphibious landing operation with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force at the Dawn Blitz 2015 exercise at Camp Pendleton, California, in September 2015. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
What war with China could look like

A host of scenarios could push China and the United States into some kind of conflict.

To begin with, I assumed such a war would start much as all America’s wars have: with surprise, unreadiness, and disaster. The United States would blunder into it, preoccupied with domestic discord, over-generaled, under-resourced, and equipped for the last war, not a new one.

The first book recounted the transition from tense peace to the heat of battle. “Tipping Point” began with a terror attack retriggering conflict between India and Pakistan. When it escalated to a tactical nuclear exchange, China intervened to prevent Pakistan’s defeat, while the United backed India.

In a replay of 1914, nation after nation was sucked in. The U.S., Vietnam, and India lined up against China, Pakistan, and Iran, along with various puppet states created as China rampaged through Asia. Japan, Europe, and the Philippines chose the sidelines, while Russia sold energy and weapons to both sides. The surprised and destabilized Allies were blinded by a takedown of satellite and surveillance assets, sending them reeling back on all fronts.

In the second volume, “Onslaught,” China lashed out again. Directed by a seemingly omniscient strategic AI named Jade Emperor, an explosive offensive overwhelmed Allied forces. The first Pacific island chain was conquered. American and Korean forces crumpled as Chinese troops fought their way across the strait to invade and conquer Taiwan. Cyberattacks and other sabotage crippled the United States’ ability to regenerate forces.

In “Hunter Killer,” my central protagonist, Daniel V. Lenson, commanded an antisubmarine task force, fighting marauding enemy wolf packs in the central Pacific. Meanwhile, the Allies, including ground forces from Vietnam and Indonesia, advanced in the South China Sea. That counteroffensive, a CIA-supported revolt in Xinjiang, and a raid on North China derailed the Opposed Powers’ plans for a second wave of expansion.

In “Deep War” both antagonists traded body blows. The U.S. government cracked down on separatism and revolt. The insurgency in western China grew into an incipient revolution. Japan joined the Allies, and the ground campaign began with an invasion of North Korea and a landing in Taiwan. The invisible battle in cyberspace between the two opposing AIs, Jade Emperor and the U.S. Battle Eagle, reached a climax.

The fifth novel, “Overthrow,” detailed the titanic final campaigns, with an Allied thrust into Hainan and Hong Kong and a massive Chinese riposte as both antagonists strove to finish the war without a massive nuclear exchange.

The final volume will be released this November. “Violent Peace” depicts the aftershocks of battle as China and the United States, both deeply wounded, struggle with revolt, famine, and disease. At the same time, new actors — Indonesia, Vietnam, a newly united Federated Republic of China, Russia, and a rightward-lurching Germany — compete for the spoils, commencing a new rivalry for regional and world hegemony.

The many lessons I’ve taken away from a decade of research and thought are set forth in the books themselves. If I were forced to summarize them, I’d say we’ll probably stumble into war through miscalculation or foolhardiness, rather than intent on either side. When hostilities begin, we’ll lose many early battles, for a simple reason — no enemy will attack unless what Machiavelli calls “the distempers of a State” signal weakness. It will take years to rebuild our industrial and military infrastructure, which has decayed to near irrelevance. Allies will be essential to our effort. Though, as we saw in 1860 and 1914 and 1939, wars tend to spiral out of control, sucking all the belligerents down into mutual destruction. At the end of that spiral lies the ultimate horror. No one yet knows how a war between two nuclear powers could be brought to an end short of a central strategic exchange.

My overall impression, as this long project nears its completion, is that if the U.S. and China should go to war, raw staying power may count far more toward final victory than whatever force is in being at the commencement of hostilities. Weapons will swiftly become outmoded, if history is any guide. Technology will make astonishing leaps. Tactics and strategy will advance under forced draft.

Therefore, if I have any takeaways to impart, perhaps we should be paying more attention to:

• Growing smart diplomats as well as smart generals

• Revitalizing our defense industrial base with commercial-sector prime contractors

• Integrating civilian science and technology, rather than segregating defense from the rest of our economy

• Developing rapid prototyping and acquisition, using digital twinning and decentralized manufacturing

• Cementing strong relationships with traditional coalition partners, and attracting new allies through trade agreements, development and military assistance, and other mechanisms of multinational cooperation

• Reconstituting a robust civil defense program (perhaps under FEMA, to enhance resilience against natural disasters as well)

• Cyberproofing domestic transport, communications, and energy infrastructure

• And finally, preparing a larger portion of our youth to serve through universal military training and universal health coverage, while making the military more inclusive and attractive as a career.

I’ll admit to enjoying the long process of imagining and writing this series. If the books serve as nothing more than entertainment, I’ll be satisfied.

And if they’re taken as a warning? Well then, so much the better.

Capt. David Poyer’s military career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, Middle East, Pacific, and the Pentagon. He holds a bachelor’s in naval engineering from the Naval Academy and a master’s in defense analysis from George Washington. His novels are available in St. Martin’s Press hardcover, trade paper, ebook, and audiobook formats. Poyer’s work has been required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at the U.S. Naval Academy, along with that of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville. He currently teaches in the MA/MFA writing program at Wilkes University, and lives in Virginia with fellow writer Lenore Hart. More at www.poyer.com.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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