The role of military strategists in America’s defense apparatus isn’t to establish policy that leads to war, nor is it to inform the politics that surround one. Strategists are tasked with identifying potential conflicts and developing strategies to mitigate, manage, or win those conflicts if they were to manifest. This is why the media occasionally drags out stories about “plans” to conduct military operations on foreign soil as though they’re evidence of some nation-level ulterior motive, when the truth of the matter really is that you need to have a plan to act on the day a conflict arises. If you wait for the conflict to arise before establishing a plan, you’ll be fighting from your heels.

This approach to strategy is why the American people have seen such a shift in emphasis toward countering Chinese military expansion within America’s national security apparatus (and accompanying media). The intent is not to go to war with China, it’s to ensure America remains too formidable an opponent to the Chinese to allow such a conflict to develop. In many ways, what kept the Cold War cold (or at least lukewarm) was, in large part, the understanding on both sides that open war between the United States and the Soviet Union would just be too costly for everyone involved. With such terrible losses looming, both parties hesitated when it came to pulling the trigger, and that tiny bit of hesitation was enough to stave off a world-ending nuclear war on at least one occasion.

Despite the media attention Russia tends to garner with doomsday weapons and far-out claims about science-fiction technology, China represents the most formidable threat to American interests abroad in the 21st century. Its massive military presence at sea, which exceeds 600 vessels when its maritime militia and coast guard are brought to bare, would already present a formidable challenge to America’s massive Navy, and with continued expansion and modernization efforts ongoing, China promises to become the dominant power in the Pacific within the coming decades. In fact, according to some American defense experts, they are already on the verge of having the military capacity to defend their aggressive claims over the entirety of the South China Sea.

China’s claim over the South China Sea shown in red (WikiMedia Commons)

With tensions rising in the Pacific and in light of an ongoing trade dispute between the U.S. and China, one might be inclined to think that war with China may be fast approaching. Objectively, such a fight still seems rather unlikely in the short term, but military strategy is a game of decades, not months or years. So if a war with China is a possibility within the next 50 years, strategies need to be established that assume it’s an unavoidable certainty.

How would such a war play out? Likely very differently than previous ones have. The world has not seen a great war between global powers in a very long time—so long, in fact, that technology has changed the very ways we fight wars. A war with China would likely not see a massive land invasion like in the European theaters of World War II, largely because such an invasion would put the United States and its allies at a distinct disadvantage. China’s massive naval presence combined with an immense standing army would make warfare inside China’s borders difficult to reach and harder still to win. Fortunately, by not sending an invasion of troops into China, the U.S. could effectively neuter China’s massive Army, as they lack the troop transport capabilities to amass their troops elsewhere.

Instead, a war with China would be fought (at least at first) by very specific elements of the Air Force and Navy. Because China’s quickly developing hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles present an existential threat to America’s fleet of carriers, the U.S.’s most potent means of force projection would be stuck outside China’s “area-denial” bubble. In effect, carriers couldn’t come close enough to Chinese shores to engage targets without a significant risk of being sunk, so something would have to be done about those anti-ship platforms.

Each American carrier can deliver more military power than some entire nations can muster, but they need to be able to close with Chinese shores first. (U.S. Navy)

The first waves of an American war with China would undoubtedly come from submarines that would surface, launch Tomahawk ballistic missiles at anti-ship weapons platforms, and submerge again. Those strikes would be bolstered by long-range bomber flights of America’s stealthy B-2 Spirit or (depending on when such a conflict took place) the forthcoming B-21 Raider. Once intelligence suggested that most of China’s anti-ship capabilities had been neutralized, carrier groups would close in, undoubtedly fighting their way through a sizable flotilla of Chinese ships ranging in size and capability from a general nuisance to destroyers believed to be in every way comparable to America’s own. Once the carriers were within striking distance, F-35s carrying only internal weapons would be launched to engage with and neutralize remaining anti-ship weapons as well as anti-air assets.

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christine Groening)

If all went according to plan, within days, China’s ability to launch missiles at ships or aircraft would be significantly limited, allowing the F-35s to switch to their “third day of war” external loadout configuration (often referred to as “Beast Mode“) where they could be accompanied by ordnance-laden fourth-generation fighters like the forthcoming Block III Super Hornet for continued air strikes.

Where the war would develop from there would be based on a long list of variables, but this approach would at least allow for America to bring its greatest force-projection assets back into striking distance. Victory would still be far from assured, but then, that’s why preventing war, rather than jumping into it, is always the preferred outcome.