Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Even a Short War Over Taiwan or the Baltics Would Be Devastating

Scenarios and war games rarely take full account of civilian losses.

By , the director of the U.S. program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
KMT supporters rally in Taipei
Thousands of people attend a political rally in Taipei on Nov. 11, 2018. Alberto Buzzola/LightRocket via Getty Images

False promises are at the heart of making war. In August 1914, German and British soldiers were sent to the front on the false promise they would be home by Christmas, as were American soldiers shipped to Korea 36 years later. The Vietnam War and Iraq War were both started and sustained by false promises of purpose and outcome. In the 1960s, U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland spoke of a “crossover point” to victory in Vietnam, and during his presidency George W. Bush promised “peace in the greater Middle East” by means of war in Iraq. The “global war on terror,” as Bush termed it, came with its own false promises, including the idea that so-called precision airstrikes could kill only terrorists—and not families attending a wedding party.

As the United States emerges from the shadow of the forever wars into a new era of superpower competition where war between the great powers is thinkable again, it seems to be preparing for the next war on the basis of a particularly dangerous false promise: that large numbers of civilians, including in major population centers in Asia and Europe, won’t be affected by it.

The modern augurs of war are war games, exercises, complex estimates, and even fictionalized yet realistic sneak previews of the future. A bounty of think tank reports, public accounts of war games, speculative analyses, entire magazine issues, and at least two popular novels—2034 and Ghost Fleet—together provide a terrifying glimpse into the most likely and consequential flash points, actions, and reactions involving a conflict between the United States and either China or Russia. Each follows a slightly different path that depends on the assumptions made by the authors or scenario designers. Despite difference in the details, most involve a rapid, if unintended, escalation from gray zone operations (such as cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, disinformation campaigns, and other forms of hybrid conflict) to amphibious or overland invasions, airstrikes, and, in some cases, major missile attacks. The most common scenarios of a U.S. war with China involve a confrontation over Taiwan or a dispute over territory in the East China Sea, such as the Senkaku Islands. A potential NATO confrontation with Russia usually involves conflict in one of the three Baltic states. The scenarios are similar in that few make any meaningful reference to the effects of war on civilians and civilian infrastructure, even as the scenarios expand first to regional and then global levels of destruction.

False promises are at the heart of making war. In August 1914, German and British soldiers were sent to the front on the false promise they would be home by Christmas, as were American soldiers shipped to Korea 36 years later. The Vietnam War and Iraq War were both started and sustained by false promises of purpose and outcome. In the 1960s, U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland spoke of a “crossover point” to victory in Vietnam, and during his presidency George W. Bush promised “peace in the greater Middle East” by means of war in Iraq. The “global war on terror,” as Bush termed it, came with its own false promises, including the idea that so-called precision airstrikes could kill only terrorists—and not families attending a wedding party.

As the United States emerges from the shadow of the forever wars into a new era of superpower competition where war between the great powers is thinkable again, it seems to be preparing for the next war on the basis of a particularly dangerous false promise: that large numbers of civilians, including in major population centers in Asia and Europe, won’t be affected by it.

The modern augurs of war are war games, exercises, complex estimates, and even fictionalized yet realistic sneak previews of the future. A bounty of think tank reports, public accounts of war games, speculative analyses, entire magazine issues, and at least two popular novels—2034 and Ghost Fleet—together provide a terrifying glimpse into the most likely and consequential flash points, actions, and reactions involving a conflict between the United States and either China or Russia. Each follows a slightly different path that depends on the assumptions made by the authors or scenario designers. Despite difference in the details, most involve a rapid, if unintended, escalation from gray zone operations (such as cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, disinformation campaigns, and other forms of hybrid conflict) to amphibious or overland invasions, airstrikes, and, in some cases, major missile attacks. The most common scenarios of a U.S. war with China involve a confrontation over Taiwan or a dispute over territory in the East China Sea, such as the Senkaku Islands. A potential NATO confrontation with Russia usually involves conflict in one of the three Baltic states. The scenarios are similar in that few make any meaningful reference to the effects of war on civilians and civilian infrastructure, even as the scenarios expand first to regional and then global levels of destruction.

The fact that civilian losses go all but unmentioned is unsettling because it directly contradicts humanity’s experience in every war in modern history. But it is also surprising given that most of the imagined scenarios involve direct armed confrontations near or in large population centers. One recent analysis speculates that China may already be practicing for a massive bombing raid against Taiwanese air defense systems and military bases. It’s not hard to imagine that this would include Taiwan’s largest naval base, which is in Kaohsiung City (population 2.8 million), and other facilities in or near heavily built-up areas. In other scenarios (examined here, here, and here), China launches strikes against U.S. and other allied facilities in Japan, on Guam, in the Philippines, and/or in Australia. Guam, the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, and the two Japanese cities of Yokosuka and Sasebo, which host likely military targets in these scenarios, together are home to more than 2.2 million people. Meanwhile, a number of contingencies centered around the Baltic states (discussed here, here and here) anticipate Russian attacks on NATO facilities, possibly near or within such cities as Tallinn, Estonia.

While the military is unlikely to intentionally target civilians, it also doesn’t appear to be planning to do all that much to spare them from harm.

Nor are the United States and its allies the only countries with civilians at risk. In a conflict with China, some analyses see Taiwan targeting airfields and ports on China’s coast with its arsenal of high-mobility artillery rocket systems or standoff land attack missiles. Possible targets are located in the densely populated provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang, and Guangdong. U.S. strikes, meanwhile, could target Chinese bases further inland. All told, airstrikes by U.S. and/or Taiwanese forces using missiles of various ranges, payloads, and effects could conceivably fall within the vicinity of tens of millions of people in China. In Europe, according to at least one war game, a NATO counterattack could target Russian military installations near the city of Kaliningrad, Russia, where almost 500,000 people live.

Yet for some reason—and contrary to all historical experience—the millions of people who could be directly or indirectly affected on either side of a great-power conflict don’t seem to play much of a role when tomorrow’s wars are modeled. One storyline sees “salvoes of missiles” launched at the runways of the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and severely damaging U.S. air power, but it makes nary a mention of the fact that the base is situated within less than a mile of kindergartens, schools, and nurseries—all on a densely populated strip of the island. It’s not hard to imagine those “salvoes” (meaning 10 missiles? 100? 1,000?) containing one or more missiles that land astray of the intended target. What’s more, any direct civilian casualties would only be part of the devastation that would befall the civilian population in Asia or Europe in the case of war, including from energy, food, and water disruptions—not to mention the terrible economic fallout.

It’s possible that the lack of concern for civilians in scenarios of future conflict stems, at least in part, from an abiding public faith that the U.S. military will follow the laws of war and act honorably, perhaps unlike some of its potential adversaries. But while it’s true that the military is unlikely to intentionally target civilians, it also doesn’t appear to be planning to do all that much to spare them from harm. Of late, some military officials have even publicly warned anyone looking for restraint and accountability with regards to civilians to look elsewhere. Writing in Just Security, U.S. Marines Lt. Col. John Cherry, British Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Kieran Tinkler, and law professor Michael Schmitt caution that routine policies and procedures to minimize civilian harm, which became commonplace during the era of counterinsurgency operations, will simply be “unworkable” in a conflict among the major powers. Less diplomatically, but no less honestly, a former U.S. Army judge advocate general, retired Lt. Gen. Charles Pede, and Col. Peter Hayden recently issued a stern warning to humanitarians and civilian policymakers who have come to expect “highly constrained, policy-driven rules of engagement.” In the next war, there will be no hesitation; only, according to the authors, “winning swiftly through the efficient use of force.”

In reality, it’s unlikely the American public will apply much pressure for restraint, especially if the United States or one of its allies is attacked first. In a recent survey conducted by my organization, the Center for Civilians in Conflict, and ReThink Media, 61 percent of just over 1,000 Americans polled favored airstrikes against Russia or China in response to an attack on U.S. military assets, even if those airstrikes were to lead to 10,000 civilian deaths. This kind of finding is not terribly new: 67 percent of Americans surveyed after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor supported bombing Japanese cities in response. It may alarm U.S. allies in Asia that more respondents to my organization’s recent survey (37 percent) were willing to tolerate 10,000 civilian deaths due to fighting in an allied Asian country, such as Japan, than in the territory of a European ally, such as one of the Baltic states (27 percent). Combined with recent research on the correlation between racist attitudes and white Americans’ support for U.S. military interventions in other countries, this survey result could serve as a warning that Americans might tolerate more devastating effects of war on Asians—even those living in an allied country—than on Europeans, just as they did during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Today, military commanders and the civilian politicians who might send them to war may be accepting too readily the spurious claim that “sharp wars are brief.” Not only is a major conflict unlikely to be brief, but it also will almost certainly be devastating for millions of people. As the next era of superpower competition heats up, raising the real risk of the country’s political leaders marching headlong into the next tragic episode of human folly, we should make sure that war’s perpetual, inevitable, innocent victims—civilian populations—are not excluded from the policy debate.

Daniel R. Mahanty is the director of the U.S. program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. Twitter: @danmahanty

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