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China Confronted

Tod Lindberg

With the publication of his first book, The Kill Chain, Christian Brose establishes himself at the forefront of a new generation of American thinkers on defense and national-security policy. The individual and the moment are well-matched. In recent years, Washington has been awakening to the return of great-power competition, especially from a rising China defying a generation of conventional wisdom about its eventual liberalization. Brose offers the most serious effort to date about the security and defense implications of this shift in the geopolitical landscape.

Brose spent nine years working for the late Senator John McCain, the last four as the staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Outside Washington, if people think of defense experts, they probably think first of senior military commanders, next of executive branch officials, third of professors and the think-tank demimonde, perhaps certain members of Congress, and not at all of senior congressional staff. This is a mistake. The expertise and influence at the staff level on Capitol Hill are enormous. Indeed, this fact led McCain himself, Brose reminds us, to amend Eisenhower’s famous valedictory warning: It’s the “military-industrial-congressional complex” toward which vigilance is necessary.

Brose used his time on Capitol Hill wisely, developing there a thorough assessment and critique of U.S. military capabilities, which he lays out in The Kill Chain. The title is a term of art, describing the three-stage process of the essential act of war-making: “The first is gaining understanding about what is happening. The second is making a decision about what to do. And the third is taking action that creates an effect to achieve an objective.” Success on the battlefield consists of “closing the kill chain” rapidly and disrupting the ability of the enemy to do the same.

For Brose, the potential enemy in question is China. He is a “China hawk” par excellence, concerned not only with China’s growing power in all elements—military, ec-onomic, diplomatic—but also with what he sees as the malevolent ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and its pernicious ambition for “totalizing dictatorship” at home and dominance abroad. This view is subject to an emerging strain of elite disdain for approaches to the problem of China’s rise that are deemed too ideological. See, for example, Fareed Zakaria’s December 2019 Foreign Affairs article, “The New China Scare.” But Brose’s specialty is defense policy, and at a minimum, it would seem prudent to vest authority in this area in those who take an expansive view of Chinese ambitions.

Brose’s description of evolving and increasing Chinese military capabilities is persuasive. A quarter century ago, in response to Chinese missile tests menacing Taiwan, President Clinton ordered two U.S. aircraft carriers to the region, one of which, along with an amphibious assault ship, transited the strait separating Taiwan from the mainland. Brose wonders whether an American president would give such an order today. The reason, quite simply, is that since roughly that episode, China has been building a military with a view to an eventual fight with the United States.

Successfully so, it appears. Brose reports that “over the past decade, in U.S. war games against China, the United States has a nearly perfect record: we have lost almost every single time.” He describes playing out a speculative exercise on what such a war would be like with McCain one evening, at the conclusion of which he remarked to the senator: “Imagine how that meeting in the Situation Room would go…if a future president, whose name could well be Donald Trump, came to realize that the only available options are surrender and lose or fight and lose. The bigger question at that point would be whether that future president would even be willing to go to war at all.” That, in turn, would mean the collapse of the U.S. position in the Pacific, the end of our alliance system there, and sea lines of communication under the control of the Chinese navy.

Alarmist? Brose does bear a certain burden of proof here. The United States will spend about $700 billion on the military in 2020, well over twice what China spends and 10 times Russia’s spending. The United States remains the only military with the capacity to project power anywhere in the world.

And that, to Brose, is exactly the problem. The United States has become all too accustomed to its offensive prowess in the absence of a “peer competitor.” U.S. power projection rests on its ability to mass a force safely and according to its own timetable out of the reach of any potential enemy, to use its considerable intelligence assets to achieve unmatched reconnaissance, and then to strike in such a way that precludes effective defense while minimizing the danger from any counterattack.

China is aware of this and has been working to exploit the weaknesses currently inherent in the projection of U.S. power. With the U.S. relying on existing military bases and such large platforms as aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships full of Marines, China has countered with the development of substantial and abundant missile capabilities as well as satellite reconnaissance systems that will allow missiles to target American carriers well outside the range from which flight operations can hit Chinese targets. The problem in a nutshell is that aircraft carriers are expensive and missiles are cheap.

The tech aspects of this problem are also of keen interest to Brose, who left Congress for a Silicon Valley startup developing new combat systems. Imagine swarms of drones attacking U.S. ships or “hypersonic weapons, which can maneuver unpredictably, fly at five times the speed of sound, and strike their targets within minutes of being launched” at U.S. bases.

The emergence of a “peer competitor” in China means that unfettered U.S. power projection in the Pacific is no longer a foregone conclusion. The Defense Department must shift priorities rapidly to the development of defensive military capabilities that will prevent China from pushing the United States out. This will preserve the U.S. position in the Pacific and deter war with China: large numbers of decentralized systems that can readily communicate with each other to close the kill chain. Unfortunately, the vast Pentagon procurement bureaucracy is not built for quick shifts and remains largely vested in legacy systems China is working rapidly to counter. A better system of incentives is a must.

“The wide margin of error that America once enjoyed in the world is gone,” Brose writes. Perhaps he overstates. But there’s a case for alarmism when, as he demonstrates, the trend is alarming.

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