Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development Elbridge Colby sees the potential for a limited war with China. Image: Facebook

Elbridge Colby’s much-heralded and widely-praised book “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict” is a disappointment – not only a disappointment, but a dangerous amalgam of dodges that points down the slippery slope towards war.

Colby claims the United States can fight a limited war with China, but gives us little reason to believe him. We read the accounts of the summer of 1914 and shudder at the obliviousness of European leaders as they set in motion World War I, and ask ourselves: What could they have been thinking? If they were sleepwalking, as Christopher Clark put it, what were they dreaming? Didn’t they have a clue about the consequences of their actions?

Colby’s book helps us understand the obliviousness of 1914 all too clearly. 

Colby proposes that an American-led coalition impose a strategy of denial on China, blocking China’s ability to traverse the 80 miles of the Taiwan Strait. How to put the bell on the cat?

“Defending forces operating from a distributed, resilient force posture and across all the war-fighting domains might use a variety of methods to blunt the Chinese invasion in the air and seas surrounding Taiwan.”

The US and its allies might “seek to disable or destroy Chinese transport ships and aircraft before they left Chinese ports or airstrips. The defenders might also try to obstruct key ports; neutralize key elements of Chinese command and control … And once Chinese forces entered the Strait, US and defending forces could use a variety of methods to disable or destroy Chinese transport ships and aircraft.”

Colby leaves what means we might employ here to the imagination.

There follows a peroration about Gettysburg, Charles XII of Sweden, the Trojan War, the American invasion of Okinawa, the Maginot Line and other bits and snatches of war history – but little about the likely nature of warfighting today.

It isn’t so much that Colby gives the wrong answers. He fails to ask pertinent questions about Chinese intent and technological capability. Instead, he gives us a pastiche of generalities that obscure rather than clarify the strategic issues at hand.

In brief, Colby depicts China as an expansionist power eager to absorb territory, citing alleged Chinese designs on the Philippines and Taiwan on a half-dozen occasions – as if China’s interest in the Philippines were equivalent to its interest in Taiwan.

But China’s strategy is not a board game whose goal is power aggrandizement as such. China is not a nation-state but an empire in which Mandarin is a minority language, and one “rebel province” (as Beijing characterizes Taiwan) sets a precedent for many.

This fleet of Chinese ships has sparked a diplomatic row last year after parking at a reef off the Philippines for weeks. Photo: AFP / National Task Force-West Philippine Sea

Whether China really wants to control the Philippines may be debated, but the eventual integration of Taiwan is a Chinese raison d’état, an existential issue over which China will fight if it must.

One recalls Clausewitz’s maxim that war is a continuation of politics by other means. Colby has nothing to say about the politics. Nowhere does he mention the One China policy, the basis of Richard Nixon’s 1972 restoration of diplomatic relations with Beijing.

China in his account is simply an expansionist blob indifferent to whether it ingests Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam or Malaysia. To be sure, China for centuries has taken the posture of an imperial suzerain towards countries on its border, and its bullying of the Philippines and Vietnam raises the risk of war in East Asia.

But Taiwan is a different matter. China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea follows the maxim, “kill the chicken while the monkey watches.” If the US is willing to fight over uninhabited atolls in the South China Sea, Beijing says in so many words, all the more so will we fight over Taiwan. 

Never does Colby ask why China would take the risk of invading Taiwan. As long as the West adheres to the One China policy, Taiwan’s eventual unification with the mainland is all but assured.

Western analysts make a great deal of China’s demographic problems, but Taiwan’s are far worse. With a total fertility rate of only one child per female, Taiwan will run out of workers in a generation and will have to import people from the mainland.

If the West abrogates the One China policy and promotes Taiwanese sovereignty – for example, by attempting to make the island impregnable to a Chinese invasion – China will pre-empt Western efforts to reinforce the island and exercise its option to use force before it expires.

There is a close analogy here to the outbreak of war in 1914. An American attempt to deny China access to Taiwan would have the same effect as the Russian mobilization that triggered the conflict, in Christopher Clark’s authoritative account.

If one side mobilizes, the other must also to avoid a catastrophic disadvantage – and this is how great powers “sleepwalk” (Clark) into wars they do not want and cannot win.

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army take part in a military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the PLA, at the Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, on July 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Stringer
Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army take part in a military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the PLA, at the Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, on July 30, 2017. Photo: Agencies

China’s tech advantage

On the development of military technology, Colby has only this to say: “But the need for an attacker to have something approaching naval and air dominance before undertaking an invasion by sea is even more acute today, under what has been termed the ‘mature precision-strike regime.’

This phrase refers to the great advances in modern militaries’ ability to strike precisely at targets, including moving targets, at greater ranges and under more conditions.”

He appears to envision American F-18 Hornets or submarines picking off Chinese landing craft as they chug across the Taiwan Strait towards Taipei. He appears to presume that China will not sink American fleet carriers, or blind American GPS and communications satellites, or destroy the American base at Guam with long-range missiles, or neutralize Taiwan’s military resources with massed missile attacks, but, rather, will fight a limited war according to rules amenable to Washington.

This, I believe, is delusional.

Missing entirely from Colby’s account is the revolution in military technology during the post-Cold War era, or indeed any substantive discussion of the decisive role of military technology.

It is irresponsible to discuss strategy with respect to China without first taking stock of the technological balance.

Graham Allison and Jonah Glick-Unterman published a commendable summation of the military balance for Harvard’s Belfer Center in December 21: “The Great Military Rivalry: China vs the US,” including Chinese missile, AI and other high-tech capabilities.

They warn: “If in the near future there is a ‘limited war’ over Taiwan or along China’s periphery, the US would likely lose – or have to choose between losing and stepping up the escalation ladder to a wider war.”

Colby is thanked in the acknowledgments. It is baffling that he ignored these issues in his book.

Advances in technology decided the outcome of numerous wars. Prussians armed with the Dreyse breechloader inflicted a nearly five-to-one casualty ratio on Austrians armed with muzzle-loaders at Königgrätz in 1866.

Four years later Prussia’s breech-loading artillery provided a winning advantage over the French. Radar saved Britain in the air war of 1940.

Japan’s bombers and torpedo planes sank Britain’s older capital ships in December 1941, nullifying Britain’s dominant position in Asia.

Russian surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery shot down 100 American airframes in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Israel probably would have lost without emergency resupply from the US.

Israeli chief of staff in a meeting in the Northern Command during the Yom Kippur War.

In 1982, a combination of American avionics including look-down radar and Israeli drones reversed the position, destroying nearly 100 Russian airframes over the Beqaa Valley. 

There is a strong possibility – in my view a high probability – that in any military engagement with China close to its shores, the United States would be in the unenviable position of the Austrians at Königgrätz, the French at Sedan or the British at Singapore.

Like the British, the US’ far-flung battle line incorporating more than 700 foreign bases projects power around the world which it has used to fight the 21st century equivalent of colonial wars. It is ill-prepared to take on a technologically sophisticated adversary with the home advantage of short logistical lines.

Of course, America in theory could emplace anti-ship missiles (for example Lockheed’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile) in Taiwan, mine the Taiwan Strait, or deploy other anti-access/area-denial weapons.

To assume China would sit on its hands and watch this occur, though, is fanciful. In all likelihood, it would respond the same way Germany and Austria did to Russia’s mobilization in 1914.

Limited war with China?

Colby presumes that brave little Taiwan will fight to the death and that America’s allies will risk war with China by joining our containment effort. In fact, Taiwan requires of its young men only four months of military service.

The American strategist Edward Luttwak tweeted on December 14, 2021: “If attacked, Taiwan must be defended by the Taiwanese with support from abroad not by Americans while Taiwanese watch video games. Feasible if pretty uniforms are cashed in for universal, short, intense military training to defend locally, everywhere with UAVs & portable missiles.”

But Taiwan has deliberately kept its weaponry below the threshold required to offer serious resistance to China because its military has no intention of offering serious resistance.

The first question Colby should have asked is how America might respond if China were to sink an American fleet carrier with the loss of thousands of American lives. 

“A limited war,” Colby declares, “is fundamentally about rules. It may be thought of as a war in which the combatants establish, recognize and agree to rules within and regarding the ends of the conflict and acknowledge or seek to have acknowledged that transgressing those rules will constitute an escalation that is likely to incur retaliation or counter escalation.”

He is after all a lawyer, not a soldier. The trick, he avers, is to stack the rules in one’s favor.

For the United States and any engaged allies and partners to prevail in a limited war with China, three conditions must be met: 1) the war must remain limited in both means and ends; 2) the United States must be able to achieve its political ends by operating within those limitations; and 3) Beijing must agree to de-escalate or end the conflict on terms acceptable to the United States.

But war isn’t an exchange of legal briefs. China could escalate a “limited” war with the United States in a dozen ways that fall short of nuclear attack but nonetheless inflict terrible damage on the United States, including the destruction of America’s satellite network and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.

The whole history of warfare militates against the conceit that the US and Chinese militaries can play a gentleman’s game of graduated escalation. America won the Cold War not because it set out to win a limited war (it lost the only one it ventured, in Vietnam), but because it proved to Russia in the 1980s that the West could defeat Russia in an all-out conventional war.

The Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducts operations in the South China Sea in 2020. Photo: AFP / Samuel Hardgrove / US Navy

Like the British in Asia in 1941, the US has an army that knows how to fight colonial wars, not a high-tech war with a superpower. When Colby advocates limited war, he means the kind of war the US military knows how to fight.

There is an argument for going to war with the army you have, and it is dead wrong. Sometimes the right choice is not to go to war at all. The US military is hollowed out. Every general officer now serving was promoted for doing things the wrong way.

The US commitment to technological advances has dwindled; the federal development budget has fallen to just 0.27% of GDP in 2019 from 0.8% in 1984. The Pentagon buys the same systems from military contractors that it did a generation ago, and flag officers have become probationary lobbyists for the defense industry.

The US has coasted on our Cold War success for 30 years while China has devoted enormous resources to preventing us from projecting power to its coastline.

It will take a trillion dollars of high-tech R&D funding and several years to counter China’s missile, cyberwar and other offensive capabilities. The US needs the visionary approach that defense secretaries like Harold Brown and James Schlesinger brought to the Pentagon, buoyed by a great national goal on par with Kennedy’s Apollo Program or Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

Don’t expect to find this sort of vision in the Washington think tanks that live off scraps from the Pentagon or the defense contractors. It can only come from a president of the United States with an evangelical fervor for national renewal.

If you want peace, prepare for war. If you want war – and a losing war – provoke a powerful adversary without preparation. That is where Colby’s limited-war illusion will take the US. The US needs to step back, take stock and prepare.

Review: The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, by Elbridge Colby. Yale University Press, 2021.

This is a shortened version of a review that first appeared on the website of Law&Liberty. The original can be found here.

Follow David P Goldman on Twitter: @davidpgoldman 

Follow Elbridge Colby on Twitter: @ElbridgeColby