A Red Army of Private Ryans: What Wargaming Says about Chinese Willingness to Strike First and Stay Long
By Major Jesse R. Humpal Ph.D.
A recent strategic wargame that pitted the People’s Republic of China against a U.S. backed Taiwan, resulted in the trading of intercontinental ballistic missiles, a 25-percent drop in the global economy, 10s of thousands of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Americans dead…and a protracted guerilla conflict on the small island. During the adjudication, leaders from both sides–who were played by some of U.S.’s most prominent academics, military leaders, politicians, and statesmen (they were all men)–concluded that their side behaved with restraint while the other acted as provocateur. Absent from their rationale, was an acknowledgment that in global conflict seeking manifest destiny, if just one of the sides actually acted with restraint, they would be steamrolled.
The resulting stalemate should act as a prophetic reminder that wars are not meant to be just, wars are meant to be won divisively. Countries owe it to their populations not to enter into fair fights. When countries enter into global combat with anything other than total victory as their intent, the conflict is already lost. Scholars have argued for a more humane way of fighting wars. Often with the caveat that if the survival of one’s own nation state is at risk, then the rules of just war can be abandoned. Comparable in nature retaliatory strikes or messaging before firing missiles does not make wars less deadly, they make wars protracted and unwinnable.
Wars are getting less violent but more frequent, and more protracted. Wars prior to 1945 almost always ended with regime change or removal of the occupying force. These wars were infrequent, costly, and short comparative to modern protracted conflict. Wars were brutal and lacked the rules that many argue make war more civilized today. This changed in the 1970s when U.S. President Jimmy Carter began willing into existence the idea of global human rights Carter was the first world leader to articulate human rights as a prerequisite for partnership and part of global order. These words shifted the global threat context from one of decisive victory to one of conditional war.
America will soon find itself in a precarious spot. How it responds to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will signal to the world what shape the new world order will take. Strategic wargames and global exercises used to provide decision-makers a range of plausible outcomes continuously show that restrained conflict often only delays one of two outcomes–nuclear war or indefinite insurgency. This matters because the ways in which players explain how and why they wage war is dichotomous to how the games unfold. From these outcomes, China is better positioned to capitalize on all most likely outcomes. Wargames show that China is more likely to escalate first, more comfortable for a mutual destruction scenario, and more equipped for a protracted insurgency.
Critics may cite the several decade long decline in interstate wars globally or the relative stability of international order as evidence against this argument. The critics are wrong. The last two decades of relative peace was not due to the better angels of our nature but rather a once in history global anomaly. Unipolarity with a liberal hegemon has happened exactly once in human history and is rapidly changing. Multifront interstate wars should be expected and trained for. Emphasis on wargaming to train senior decision-makers is critical. Sobering truths about future how future wars will unfold is important—how to aggressively counter is even more so. The trends of these games are puzzling. Blue is unwilling to escalate to decisive victory until it loses the initiative and the game enters a no-victor possible point. The red behavior is different. Through strategic wargaming, Red is generally quicker to make a devastating move. This move either wins the game or takes any option of winning away from blue. This should change.
U.S. weapon development/procurement, military education, and senior leader pronouncements promote what is being observed in these games. There has been a renewed focus on non-kinetic and low collateral effects. Offensive cyber, for example, cripples an opponent’s capabilities but urges their hand to undertake more primitive and escalatory retaliations. When precision fires are rendered ineffective, brute force methods of coercion–such as dumb bombs, incendiaries, and biological weapons–are adopted. Iterative games show restraint early only delays savagery.
Optimists argue in adjudications that a Chinese public that is now over a generation into a one-child policy will quickly grow weary of a protracted conflict. One observer said the People’s Liberation Army is “a Red Army of Private Ryans”, noting that its fighting force is full of the last surviving heirs. By this logic, a Chinese populous with an emerging middle class will stand up against a war in a neighboring island. Despite the logic being there, China–for now anyway–continues to show their tolerance for discomfort especially juxtaposed to the United States. Over two and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government is still enforcing some of the world’s strictest restrictions and lockdowns. Keeping cities like Shanghai under near total lock down signals resolve and a willingness to ignore public opinion in the name of national interests.
America has approached war since 1991 from a privileged and narcissistic position. Ignoring millennia of evidence that subordinate powers don’t play by the artificial rules or under the terms the superpower makes. Just because the superpower conceptually changes the way of war, others don’t necessarily follow suit. The opposite is true, and that is why China security policy seems to show they are preparing to both be aggressive early and also maintain a discipline for a protracted sludge.
America should take the lessons from these wargames serious. If it decides to militarily act against China, aggressive strikes beyond proportional retaliatory ones should be considered early and often. If the U.S. finds this idea unpalatable, perhaps they have no business in the war at all. If the games conclusions manifest, delaying decisive actions likely ends in two ways, neither of which in America nor its allies favor.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, Joint Special Operations Command, or the DoD.