Elbridge Colby wrote to Asia Times in the early 2000s asking to meet the pseudonymous essayist “Spengler,” a nom-de-plume I employed while directing Wall Street research departments. I revealed my identity to no one at the time, but made an exception for Bridge; he is the grandson of former Director of Central Intelligence William Colby, who was for a time the business partner of my old mentor at the Reagan National Security Council, Norman Bailey. We met at the Jacques Brasserie on East 85th Street in Manhattan. Bridge had studied with Samuel Huntington at Harvard and was about to start law school at Yale. He asked me what I thought about waterboarding. I told him, “I prefer a blowtorch and pliers.” We hit it off immediately, and stayed in touch over the years; I praised the national security strategy he authored as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Force Development in 2017, and I interviewed him for Asia Times on a recent webinar.
It pains me to write that his much-heralded and widely-praised book is a disappointment—not only a disappointment, but a dangerous amalgam of dodges that points down the slippery slope towards war. Colby claims that we 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 the First World War, 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? Bridge 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 eighty 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 the 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) set a precedent for many. 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 we are 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 just 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 preempt 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 to avoid a catastrophic disadvantage—and this is how great powers “sleepwalk” (Clark) into wars they do not want and cannot win.
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 Straits 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 2021, “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 U.S. 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 a hundred American airframes in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Israel probably would have lost without emergency resupply from the US. In 1982, a combination of American avionics including look-down radar and Israeli drones reversed the position, destroying nearly a hundred Russian airframes over the Beqaa Valley.
China has invested massively in technologies that well may determine the outcome of any future war in the Western Pacific. These include “1,250 ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers,” according to the cited Allison study; the DF-21 and DF-25 surface-to-ship missiles, with an estimated 350 mobile launchers on the mainland and a range of up to 3,600 kilometers; missiles and ground-based lasers that can blind or blow up American GPS and communications satellites; new AI-driven methods of submarine detection; and electronic warfare and cyberwar capabilities at which we only guess. China has sixty diesel-electric submarines of a type that has snuck up on American carriers several times in NATO exercises. None of this merits a mention in Colby’s book. Allison’s view is not unanimous among defense analysts, to be sure, but Colby owed the reader an evaluation of the military balance.
China also fields the Russian S-400 air defense system with a range of up to 400 kilometers, covering the skies above Taiwan. We do not know whether the S-400 can effectively target stealth aircraft like the F-22 and F-35.
Worst of all, China has successfully tested hypersonic glide vehicles that fly low at several times the speed of sound and probably can evade all our existing anti-missile defenses, including the Aegis system that protects American ships. We still do not have anything comparable. Raytheon CEO Gregory Hayes avers that “we are at least several years behind” China.
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, our far-flung battle line incorporating more than 700 foreign bases projects power around the world which we have used to fight the 21st-century equivalent of colonial wars. We are ill-prepared to take on a technologically sophisticated adversary with the home advantage of short logistical lines.
The late Andrew Marshall, the long-serving head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, told me in 2015 that Chinese missiles could destroy American carriers. Admiral James Stavridis, the distinguished former commander of the Pacific Fleet, depicts such a scenario in his novel 2034: China sinks an American fleet carrier and the war escalates into a nuclear exchange. The issue is simply absent from Colby’s account.
Of course, America in theory could emplace anti-ship missiles (for example Lockheed’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile) in Taiwan, mine the Taiwan Straits, or deploy other anti-access/area denial weapons. To assume that 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.
“The closest the world has come to the brink of general nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Colby comments. Some might disagree. We missed nuclear war by a whisker during Operation Able Archer in 1983, when Russia viewed a highly realistic NATO drill for nuclear war as the commencement of the real event, as Nate Jones documents in his 2016 book on the exercise. The background to Able Archer is relevant: In 1982, America began deploying the Pershing II intermediate-range missile in Germany and Italy, with a four-minute flight time to Moscow. That gave NATO the option to retaliate against a Russian invasion of Europe with a nuclear strike from Europe. Would Russia then attack America and risk an annihilating American second strike? Russia pondered the option of preemptive war in response to the Pershing II deployment, but demurred. Moscow had already learned in the Bekaa Valley that American avionics would control the skies, and it saw in America’s digital revolution a host of advances that Russia could not hope to match. If the United States deploys anti-ship missiles and other area denial weapons to Taiwan, China is all the more likely to take preemptive action. That is the “Sleepwalkers” scenario: One side mobilizes, and the other has no choice to mobilize to attain their aims.
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 just 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. He returns repeatedly to the notion of limited war, but offers nothing but a bland reassurance that war will not break out of its limits: “Compared with the prospect of losing everything to Soviet Communism, the American stakes in preventing China’s hegemony in Asia may not seem so high. As a result, strategies of uncontrolled warfare are even less appealing or credible in today’s Sino-American competition than they were in the Cold War. This makes limited war more plausible, which in turn makes limited war strategies more necessary.”
“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 counterescalation.” 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 deescalate 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.
When asked whether Israel had one of history’s great armies, Moshe Dayan is supposed to have replied, “How should I know? We only fought Arabs.” For the past thirty years, the US military has fought the equivalent of colonial wars, in Serbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It spent $6 trillion on the two latter wars with nothing to show for it. By contrast, when we prepared for war against the technologically-sophisticated Soviet Union, we transformed warfare by inventing the digital age. Fast and cheap microchips, optical networks, GUI displays, the Internet—every component of the digital age—all began at DARPA.
Like the British in Asia in 1941, we have 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 that our 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. Our military is hollowed out. Every general officer now serving was promoted for doing things the wrong way. Our commitment to technological advancement 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 our flag officers have become probationary lobbyists for the defense industry. We have coasted on our Cold War success for thirty years while China has devoted enormous resources to preventing us from projecting power to its coastline.
We should recite daily the opening verse of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Lesson”:
Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should,
We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good.
Not on a single issue, or in one direction or twain,
But conclusively, comprehensively, and several times and again,
Were all our most holy illusions knocked higher than Gilderoy’s kite.
We have had a jolly good lesson, and it serves us jolly well right!
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. We need 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 us. We need to step back, take stock, and prepare.