The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Preparing the Battlespace: The Potential for Conventional War Between the US and China

  • Published
  • By Maj Megan Tonner-Robinson, Maj Benjamin Johnson, Maj Zachary Mason

I. Introduction     

China’s rise and its determination to carve out a place for itself on the world stage often evokes debate as to whether the United States, for so long at the top of the international order, will seek to swat China back down the ladder. These debates reduce great nations to no more than two alpha dogs fighting for supremacy. Though international relations and inter-country dynamics are much more complicated, it is undeniable that there is friction where Chinese and US prerogatives intersect. Strained relations and multiple potential flashpoints indicate that not only is a large conventional war between the US and China in the next 25 years possible, but it could escalate to be a long, bitter war and would utilize and test the abilities of all warfighting domains and instruments of power.

II. Potential for War between the United States and China

There is debate amongst scholars, journalists, and political scientists about whether the US and China would ever engage in a large conventional war. Although large-scale conventional conflict between two nuclear powers has not occurred in the nuclear age, those who suggest that the two countries would refrain tend to rest their reasoning not on the presence of nukes but on the reasoning that war is unlikely due to it being extremely bad for both countries' economies. Trade and debt intertwine the US and China to the point of interdependence and harming one nation automatically harms the other.1

It does not pay to ignore the possibility of conflict, however, when there are so many friction points. A review of any news source offers incidents that, without care, could be a harbinger of worse things to come. Just this month, the US publicly accused and condemned China for committing crimes against humanity and genocide against their Uyghur Muslim population and other minority groups.2 Another friction point is the US freedom of navigation operations, which could incite a Chinese response that spirals out of control. Alternatively, a dispute between China and Japan over the Senkakus island chain in the East China Sea could draw in the US, or tension could escalate over the Korean peninsula.3 There could be a cyber or space warfare incident.4 Finally, China could invade Taiwan.5 Whether it’s human rights violations, cyber-attacks, an escalation in disputed territorial waters, or conflict over territory, possible flashpoints abound.

As there are too many flashpoints to address adequately, or which drives the US response, this paper zeros in on one particular source of conflict: Taiwan. China’s government and military are working to prevent Taiwan’s independence, which could easily include an invasion if Taiwan declared independence and elicit a US response.6 As recently as January 2021, the Chinese defense ministry publicly stated that Taiwan’s independence would mean war; the US responded with a statement supporting Taiwan.7 Although the US also asserted an optimism that there were no reason tensions over Taiwan would lead to a conflict, when one side clearly states an action would lead to war, it is best to listen and prepare accordingly.

The US response above to China's statement indicates what the immediate US counter would be after any potential flashpoint: diplomatic attempts to resolve the conflict without military action. Depending on the situation, both nations may initially resort to diplomatic channels to deescalate or impose economic sanctions as a means of conflict without military intervention.8 If those efforts are unsuccessful, military action is the next step. The duration and severity of any military action are dependent on innumerable factors, but it is clear from the economic and military power of both countries that any conflict between them has the potential to brutally and lengthy expand. However, it is unlikely to escalate to nuclear weapons unless one nation saw its loss as bringing total defeat, including losing its sovereignty. Barring escalating the end goals to that extreme, mutually assured destruction would likely hold as a deterrent to nuclear war.9

With the abundance of potential flashpoints described above, it is foolhardy to ignore the possibility of conventional war between the US and China. Below is an analysis of how the US would prepare for such an engagement and how that engagement could play out.

III. Preparation for War

Once the initial flashpoint occurs while other elements of the DIME model attempt to circumvent war, the military must already be planning its first steps should it be called to action. The three primary issues the military must have resolved before any engagement are: logistics, coalition building, and designing the desired end state.

Logistics – A mobility action to provide a force laydown of troops, assets, and supplies in the INDOPACOM area of operations (AOR) is a major operation on its own. There is much material to move and a considerable distance to cover, and such details can win or lose wars.10 The logistics of military buildup consists of three stages: current assets, buildup and forward positioning, and sustainment. 

  1. Current Assets: INDOPACOM’s AOR covers 14 time zones, half the world’s surface area, and half its population.11 It currently hosts a steady force of 370,000 American defense personnel, more than 2,000 aircraft, and 200 ships and submarines mostly stationed in Japan or South Korea.12 There are also currently prepositioned critical stocks of equipment stored in partner nations and afloat tagged for future use.13 
  2. Buildup and Forward Positioning: In anticipation of conflict, the US must further build up forces to show commitment and capability to sustain long-term operations. The prioritization of force requirements is critical. Limited forces can be moved quickly through airlift, but sealift should move most equipment for cost-effectiveness and asset availability. There is an increased necessity for fighter presence in the area; therefore, a massive movement of combat aircraft is necessary to project the mass into the AOR using air refueling coronets and air bridges. This requires the mobilization of reserve forces and the logistical movement using primarily airlift and sealift capabilities. Given the likelihood of the logistical demands on the transportation requirements, USTRANSCOM would need to activate the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to augment the strained transportation system.14 
  3. Sustainment: In an ongoing conflict, fielded forces require consistent resupply, especially during combat action where forces expend massive fuel and ordinance. Per one article, “Agile sustainment includes nesting all the precepts of theater sustainment and commodity management. It encompasses munitions, fuel, strategic lift, contingency contracting, medical, human resources, engineering, and materiel readiness.”15 Only through the basics of the current laydown, enhanced through the buildup and forward positioning phase, and with sustained support can the US hope to field the consistent force necessary to maintain a war against China.

Coalition – In addition to the physical needs met through logistics, the US must build a coalition of international partners to present a unified front against China. The US would likely enjoy the benefits of a large Pacific coalition during a large-scale conflict against the Chinese. Each country would judge the merits of its involvement based on the specific nature of the conflict. Japan would likely provide amphibious warships, submarines, surface warships, and aircraft-backed Marines given their Mutual Defense Pact with the US.16 Additionally, several East Asian states would mostly side with the US in varying degrees.17 Such support would range from permission to use bases to the possible commitment of troops. The most likely participants would be Australia, whose quality troops would be of significant military value, New Zealand, and the Philippines.18 Other East Asian nations would likely provide more limited support due to their strong ties to China or significant Chinese population: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, for example. China, on the other hand, would likely not benefit from the overt participation of many nations. However, it is conceivable North Korea and Russia would find ways to increase US military risks and burdens.19 Finally, the international community as a whole would be extremely vocal about ending the conflict as swiftly as possible, given the possibility for the devastating exchange of nuclear weapons, however unlikely. The formation of a large coalition could play a deciding role in determining the outcome of a large-scale conflict.

Desired End State – Gaining the support of a coalition will require advocacy for what the US hopes to achieve. Limiting that end state to Chinese cessation of whatever action preceded the conflict will encourage coalition partners' participation. A conflict should never start without first confronting the difficult question of the desired endgame.20 Unfortunately, this lesson was consistently ignored by the US over the past century; wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to name just a few examples. Unlike smaller nations, there is almost no chance of achieving China's unconditional surrender. Because of China's size and population, any peer-to-peer conflict with the massive nation will end in either negotiated settlement or nuclear Armageddon.21 Knowing this, the US must clearly define, and perhaps document, its acceptable terms for de-escalation. For example, if China attacks Taiwan, the US must clearly articulate the desired end state before engaging in military operations. This end state could be the full withdrawal of Chinese forces or a less ambitious goal of a cease-fire with the promise of future negotiations. Ensuring there is no ambiguity surrounding the motive for military action will prevent misunderstandings and unnecessary escalation. Conflicts are easy to start but can be impossible to stop if the desired end state is not clearly defined.

IV. Large-Scale Conflict

Once preparations are complete, and other instruments of power have failed to avoid war, large-scale conflict is entirely possible. According to John Warden, “the objective in war at any level is to make the enemy’s behavior compatible with the planner’s objectives at an acceptable cost.”22 Warden further describes looking at the enemy as a system to upset and change the dynamic in the direction of the planner.23 Given this conflict's limited goals, the objective should be to render China unable to offensively attack US allies and pursue peace without dismantling the country. Thus, the US effort's focus should primarily focus kinetic attacks on Warden’s second, third, and fifth rings (the process, infrastructure, and fielded forces) and only psychological operations on rings one and four (the leadership and population).

Regarding infrastructure, the US military would focus its forces on roads, bridges, rivers, ports, and airfields. The need to focus on fielded forces is self-explanatory. Developing process ring targets requires evaluating China’s vulnerabilities. China imports 60 percent of its oil and only has a reserve of approximately 10 days.24 This makes the oil industry a strategic target in the conflict regardless of the intensity or duration. The Chinese Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems are the next priority target. The majority of the A2/AD systems are located in mainland China and are the backbone of its defense.25 It consists of multiple layers of anti-aircraft, anti-naval, and intermediate ballistic missiles, most of which can be deployed to barrier islands to increase their range further and limit the US and its allies' capabilities and inhibit freedom of movement.26 If China used these systems effectively, they would easily overwhelm the current Taiwanese defensive systems and even overwhelm US bases in Japan and Guam.27 Once the A2/AD systems are degraded or defeated, further attacks on roads, airfields, and ports become easier. Such attacks raise the cost of war for China, thereby increasing the likelihood of negotiations.

All domains will come into play in any conflict between the US and China. The land and sea domains will be used heavily, but this paper's scope is focused primarily on air, space, and cyberspace. While land forces will undeniably be vital, this conflict will not likely be a land war.28 Regarding the sea domain,

The air domain will be vital in striking the Warden targets described above. Throughout the last two decades, the US has initially captured then maintained air supremacy in conflicts. However, the US cannot easily attain air supremacy in a conflict with China. As previously discussed, the A2/AD systems within China provide a blanket of multi-layered coverage that makes US offensive action difficult. Initial actions for the US in the air war are to provide defensive coverage of US interests in the area.

A conflict over the Taiwan Strait area poses additional challenges for the US. The US is limited to a handful of bases that can reach the area and will need air refueling to maintain combat capability, while China boasts approximately 40 bases able to launch approximately 1,000 fighters for unrefueled operations within Taiwanese airspace.31 To counter the threat of Chinese airpower, a RAND study in 2015 theorized that two full wings of fighter aircraft in a defensive counter-air role would need to be airborne continuously over Taiwan. Considering travel distance, on-station time, maintenance schedules, and pilot availability, 996 to 2,153 total fighter aircraft, more than currently owned by the US, would be needed to match the airpower China could surge into Taiwan effectively.32 Thus the US Air Force cannot be assured of air superiority and would have to limit operations to create limited, temporary air superiority situations as accomplished in Vietnam. Then, accurate and timely intelligence would allow a surge in defensive operations to counter any expected mass concentration from Chinese fighters.

The overwhelming number of fighter aircraft available and integrated air defense systems incorporated within the A2/AD system makes a conventional attack from US fighter and strike aircraft unrealistic. US stealth bombers, the B-2 and B-21, may have enough advanced technology to sneak past the A2/AD systems and strike targets within the mainland to disrupt Centers of Gravity (COGs) such as command centers, runways, fuel depots, and power grids. As sections of the A2/AD system are destroyed or degraded by stealth bombers, pockets of vulnerability are created for the US fourth and fifth generation of fighters to exploit and attack. The fight for airspace control would be brutal and costly on both sides, and the victor could easily be the nation that can survive the longest in the air. However, systematic incorporation of stealth attacks and long-range cruise missile attacks, in conjunction with suppression of enemy air defense aircraft and cyber-attacks could tilt the airspace control to US advantage.

Space will also be a kinetic warfighting domain. For many years, the Chinese have viewed American space systems as a critical COG. There is little doubt they will consider space assets a primary target for kinetic strikes. Recent history proves the Chinese are fully capable and willing to conduct offensive space operations against American satellites.33 The space domain has become so important to the Chinese military that they believe it is the domain that will most directly impact victory in future wars.34

The US also understands the value of space and its inevitable militarization. The newly created US Space Force released doctrine last year confirming the offensive and defensive nature of space warfare.35 Control of space assets directly impacts a military’s ability to visualize and communicate on the battlefield. The importance of this control cannot be overstated. It has been argued that the aim of warfare is no longer primarily to annihilate the enemy's effective strengths but rather to destroy and paralyze the enemy's battlefield knowledge and information systems in order to effectively control information flow, thereby achieving the goal of controlling the battlefield.36 Knowing this, it is evident that space, the ultimate high ground, will become a kinetic environment of increasing importance.

A war between the US and China would be fought in the cyber domain by all accounts, with guaranteed attacks on military operability and possible attacks on civilian targets. Experts agree both sides should expect significant impacts to their network-enabled weapons and command and control links, as China and the US would see these targets as attractive COGs to attack. Initially, a sharp and sustained degradation in military operability would occur due to recent cyberwarfare advancements by both nations.37 Reaction and adaptability to this degradation will be a significant factor in determining which nation's military can successfully sustain combat operations. The likelihood of jamming, loss of GPS functions, ground facility attacks, and dazzling are all realities both militaries must adapt to and overcome.38

Additionally, both nations’ civilian sectors may face cyber-attacks. Once the barrier between military-operational cyberwar and national-economic cyberwarfare is crossed, the cyber-attacks could spin out of control affecting national economies, critical infrastructure, the Internet, and even commercial systems.39 While these impacts are impossible to predict accurately, it is evident they could be substantial on both sides. Some estimates claim cyber-attacks could cost the US economy close to $900B, and China potentially more.40 The barrier against civilian-economic cyberattacks would likely be first broken by the Chinese, based on their minimal capability to attack the US homeland with conventional weapons directly.41 Overall, it is clear cyberattacks and each nation's reaction to them will play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of a large-scale conventional war.

V. Conclusion

The scenario described above—of a conventional war between the US and China over China's military action in Taiwan—could escalate to a long, bitter battle between two global powers that only ends when one party has economically exhausted itself. As one journalist put it, “This war does not end with a surrender signed on a battleship. Instead, it ends with one participant beaten, embittered, and likely preparing for the next round…war is unlikely to change the long-term trajectory of Chinese growth and assertiveness.”42 War does not end with all parties walking away happy. A key to precluding an overlong war with high potential for loss of life and suffering is for the US to provide messages from the start telegraphing its political end-goals and that it does not seek the toppling of the Chinese government. Instead, a limited goal of returning to the status quo allows the US to live up to its international agreements and China to withdraw while saving face, free to continue its forward economic trajectory.43

To place the US military in the best possible position to face a peer fight in 25 years, the process must start now. The risk the Chinese A2/AD presents cannot be overstated or overprepared for. Preparations should include more platforms that can survive and counter it. This requires research and funding now.44 Additionally, the US military must present a unified front, encompassing all domains seamlessly—air, space, cyberspace, land, and sea. This requires working now on training and exercising in a truly joint environment. Finally, we must cultivate our allies in the area, to shore up those relationships and build bases, imbed troops, and preposition materials as much as possible.45 A war between the US and China within the next 25 years is not pre-determined, but is possible, and it is no exaggeration to say that the well-being of the world rests on the ability of the US military to prepare decades in advance for a fight that may never come.

Major Megan Tonner Robinson
Major Megan Tonner Robinson is the Staff Judge Advocate for the 14th Flying Training Wing at Columbus AFB, MS. She has served in various legal roles throughout her career, including as an Assistant Staff Judge Advocate at the 633rd Air Base Wing Legal Office at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, as an Area Defense Counsel, Legal Advisor to the 601st Air Operations Center, and as an Executive Officer to the AFMC Command Counsel. Most recently, she was a member of Air Command and Staff College’s AY21 class. She received her BA in English (Literature) and History from Miami University (OH) and her JD from the University of Cincinnati.

Major Ben Johnson
Major Ben Johnson is an Instructor in the Department of Leadership at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College (ACSC). Prior to instructing at ACSC, Maj Johnson was a member of ACSC’s AY21 class. He is a prior-enlisted Civil Engineering troop. He received his commission from OTS and after graduating pilot training at Columbus AFB, MS, Maj Johnson was assigned to fly the KC-135 while stationed at MacDill AFB, FL followed by an assignment as a T-1A Instructor Pilot at Vance AFB, OK. Most recently, he was the Chief of Command Post at MacDill AFB, FL. Maj Johnson graduated with a BS in Criminal Justice and MS in Public Affairs from Park University. He is a senior pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours in the KC-135 and T-1 aircraft. 

Major Zachary R. Mason
Major Zachary R. Mason was a member of Air Command and Staff College’s AY21 class and is the incoming 15th Wing Comptroller Squadron Commander at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Most recently, he served as Chief, Data & Emerging Systems Branch in the Air Force Budget Program’s Engine Room in the Pentagon, where he led and assisted the integration and defense of the Department’s Program Objective Memorandum and President’s Budget submission to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and United States Congress. Major Mason, a native of Whitehall, New York, graduated from Siena College in 2008. Throughout his career, he has served in a variety of Financial Management positions at the Wing, Major Command, and Secretary of the Air Force levels, as well as deployed locations.


1 Robert Farley, “We Asked an Expert to Imagine a U.S.-China War. We Wish We Hadn’t,” The National Interest, 17 October 2019,; David Gompert, Astrid Cevallos, and Cristina Garafola, War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable (RAND Corporation, 2016), 41,; Terrence Kelly et al.,  “Developing a U.S. Strategy for Dealing with China - Now and into the Future,” RAND Corporation, 2014,
2 Jennifer Hansler, “US Accuses China of 'Genocide' of Uyghurs and Minority Groups in Xinjiang,” CNN, 20 January 2021,
3 Todd South et al., “What War with China Could Look Like,” Military Times, 1 September 2020,
4 South, “What War with China Could Look Like.”
5 Kris Osborn, “Who Would Win a U.S.-Japan vs. China War? A Recent War Game Presents Some Clues,” The National Interest, 10 August 2020,; South, “What War with China Could Look Like,”; Kathy Gilsinan, “How the US Could Lose a War with China,” The Atlantic, 25 July 2019,
6 South, “What War with China Could Look Like.”
7 “China Warns Taiwan Independence 'Means War' as US Pledges Support,” BBC News, 28 January 2021; South, “What War with China Could Look Like,”; Farley, “We Asked an Expert to Imagine a U.S.-China War.”
8 South, “What War with China Could Look Like,”; Farley, “We Asked an Expert to Imagine a U.S.-China War.”
9 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolo, War with China, 11, 29, 31.
10 Charles R. Hamilton and Aaron J. Shattuck, “Shaping a Sustainment Community From Half a World Away,” in Army Sustainment (Army Sustainment, Superintendent of Documents, 2018), 14–17.
11 Hamilton and Shattuck, “Shaping a Sustainment Community," 16.
12 Department of Defense, “The Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region” (Washington, D.C., 1 June 2019), 19,
13 Hamilton and Shattuck, “Shaping a Sustainment Community”
14 “Defense Travel Regulation Part III: Chapter 302 Pre-Deployment” (US Transportation Command, April 2017), 3–5, 4500.9-R.
15 Hamilton and Shattuck, “Shaping a Sustainment Community.”
16 Osborn, “Who Would Win a U.S.-Japan vs. China War?”
17 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolo, War with China, 59.
18 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolo, War with China, 59.
19 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolo, War with China, 59.
20 Andrei Lungu, “The US Needs an Endgame Before It Plunges into the Next Cold War,” Foreign Policy, 24 September 2020,
21 Lungu, “The US Needs an Endgame.”
22 John A. Warden III., “Smart Strategy, Smart Airpower,” in Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd, ed. John A. Olsen (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 102.
23 Warden III., “Smart Strategy, Smart Airpower,” in Airpower Reborn at 105–6.
24 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolo, War with China, 7.
25 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolo, War with China, 19.
26 Sam Tangredi, Anti-Access Warfare : Countering Anti-Access and Area-Denial Strategies (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 73–75.
27 Thomas R. McCabe, “Air and Space Power with Chinese Characteristics: China’s Military Revolution,” Air & Space Power Journal 34, no. 1 (2020): 33.
28 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolo, War with China, 11, 15.
29 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolo, War with China, 77.
30 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolo, War with China, 77.
31 Eric Hedinbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015), 75.
32 Hedinbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard, 83.
33 McCabe, “Air and Space Power with Chinese Characteristics,” 29.
34  McCabe, “Air and Space Power with Chinese Characteristics,” 29.
35 Headquarters United States Space Force, “Spacepower” (Space Capstone Publication, June 2020), 21.
36 Sam Rouleau, “China’s Military Space Strategy: A Dialectical Materialism Perspective,” Space & Defense 11, no. 1 (2019): 9.
37 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafola, War with China,  39.
38 South, “What War with China Could Look Like.”
39 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafola, War with China, 49.
40 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafola, War with China, 49.
41 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafola, War with China, ix.
42 Farley, “We Asked an Expert to Imagine a U.S.-China War. We Wish We Hadn’t.”
43 South, “What War with China Could Look Like.”
44 Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafola, War with China, 69–70.
45 South, “What War with China Could Look Like.”

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