November 09, 2023

Rolling the Iron Dice

The Increasing Chance of Conflict Protraction

Executive Summary

The prospect of a Sino-American war looms on the horizon. No scenario for such a conflict has garnered more interest than the potential invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the United States, discussions have focused on the early days of a conflict, in particular sinking the PRC’s amphibious fleet. Both the United States and the PRC place great emphasis on offensive military operations that heavily use the fruits of the precision strike revolution (PSR).

This focus on early offensive action leads immediately to considerations of forces and weapons. U.S. defense planners are unsurprisingly most comfortable with the dynamics of short, sharp wars, having spent the past decade focused on deterring or defeating adversary faits accomplis, short and often opportunistic campaigns of aggression. Speed, political sophistication, and immediate military overmatch seemed to be the key ingredients for victory. Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 was seen as a template for other future aggressors to follow. Prolonged wars of attrition, particularly those involving the United States, were thought no longer possible. Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2022 turned this vision on its head, demonstrating the military and political consequences of trying and failing to obtain a similar fait accompli on a larger scale.

The ongoing Russian experiences in Ukraine indicate a need to reevaluate such thinking and consider the potential of protraction in the context of a hypothetical U.S.-PRC conflict. Most work on this topic has considered only the initial days and weeks of hostilities, usually over Taiwan or in the South or East China Seas. There has been comparably little discussion of what comes after.

There are three key concepts that inform the following discussions: exhaustion, sanctuary, and protraction. Exhaustion is the point when large-scale offensive operations are no longer possible as offensive military capabilities have been used up. Afterward, some period of reconstitution and recovery is needed. This requires sanctuary, the relative freedom from attack sufficient for the rebuilding of military forces and capacities. Protraction occurs after at least one cycle of exhaustion and recovery. It is closely tied to pre-conflict leadership beliefs about the length of the looming war. A simplified definition of a protracted war is a conflict that lasts longer than leaders expect; it is a mismatch between political-military expectations and reality.

Doctrinal developments in both the PRC and the United States, influenced by improvements in technology, place significant emphasis on the early stages of conflict and rapid, offensive operations. The emphasis by both the PRC and the United States on the early stages of the conflict can be seen in the PRC’s system destruction warfare and United States’ denial-centric concepts that aim for rapid decisive results. These approaches focus almost exclusively on the operational level of war, ignoring strategic factors animating the conflict and shaping its termination. Should PRC President Xi Jinping commit the PLA to seizing Taiwan by force, enter a war with the United States, and “roll the iron dice,” protraction appears increasingly likely, contrary to most contemporary military thinking and preparation.

There are four characteristics of any potential Sino-American conflict that increase the likelihood of protraction:

  1. The Quest for Decisive Conventional Victory: The United States and PRC are reliant on theories of victory that stress the ability of advanced conventional weapons to destroy and disrupt the other’s combat power. Both sides confront geographic and operational realities that make it possible for each to significantly hurt the other but lack mechanisms capable of achieving a knockout blow. Furthermore, peer states historically have struggled in pursuit of such aims through military force. Both the United States and the PRC conflate operational objectives with strategic effects.
  2. The Sanctuary of Mutual Exhaustion: Both the United States and the PRC would expend tremendous quantities of munitions during the opening phases of conflict, creating a key condition for protraction: sanctuary—that is, freedom from attack, to rearm. While non-kinetic and economic tools may disrupt and constrain reconstitution and preparation for further military activity, they cannot fully prevent it. Mutual exhaustion increases the likelihood of protraction.
  3. The Peril of the Strategic Nuclear Cliff: Nuclear weapons would have a significant paradoxical impact on any U.S.-PRC conflict. They would both constrain and accelerate the conflict as both sides engage in tacit bargaining over acceptable conventional targets while attempting to maintain escalation dominance. The nuclear “cliff” places constraints on conventional military operations while promoting risk-seeking behavior to maintain escalation dominance. Balancing the conventional and nuclear conflict dynamics increases the likelihood of protraction.
  4. The Gulf Between Culmination and Termination: Fighting would continue long past the point where one may rationally conclude it should end. Put another way, military culmination would not immediately lead to political termination. The nature of the conflict, information warfare, and cognitive factors combine to prevent the belligerents from reaching a negotiated outcome. Leadership and the public are unable to seek peace because of either misperceptions or inaccurate information about the true state of the conflict.

These characteristics are the reasons why conflict protraction appears to be increasingly likely in a future Sino-American conflict involving the adversaries’ core interests. This study offers both recommendations and follow-on questions. The following recommendations are deliberately broad, as this initial effort does not possess sufficient analytic precision to provide specifics. Future efforts aim to provide that detail. The U.S. defense community should:

  1. Plan for “After Denial”: Defense planners must expand the conversation beyond achieving immediate military denial to better consider what comes afterward: ultimate strategic victory. The United States must build a durable strategy for confronting the full scope of the military challenge the PRC poses. By only focusing on a narrow, albeit vital, set of operational challenges and conditions, the United States foregoes other potential sources of strength and deterrence.
  2. Consider Protraction Pathways: Part of understanding the likelihood and impacts of protraction is to consider a wide array of different pathways that end in a protracted conflict. There is an urgent need to consider this array of U.S.-PRC conflict scenarios to answer three fundamental questions. First, what are the potential U.S.-PRC conflicts that could protract? Second, how likely is protraction? Third, what is the nature of the protracted conflict that ensues? This effort would allow the United States to create a range of resilient deterrent strategies.
  3. Scale the Industrial Base: The U.S. defense industrial base presently lacks the ability to support largescale combat operations for a prolonged period. This includes replacing spent munitions, reconstituting lost military platforms, and scaling production of new capabilities. Greater support for the defense industrial base, broadening the potential supplier base, and exploring novel pathways to increase industrial fungibility all may offer new options should conflict protract.
  4. Align Targets, Weapons, and Strategy: There is a lack of fluency in operational and tactical matters in the strategic analysis community. Simultaneously, many working at the operational and tactical levels lack understanding of the strategic dynamics at play. Helping decisionmakers at all levels to understand this trade space and make informed decisions is needed when considering U.S. options in protracted conflict.
  5. Achieve Humility in Analysis: Conflict protraction against a near-peer competitor is more complicated than the defense planning scenarios used since the end of the Cold War. Strategic and campaign analysts must recognize the limitations of their tools and communicate them to decision-makers adequately and concisely. Analysis can reveal interesting and potentially dangerous challenges but is unlikely to provide the precision or detail that many desire.

Accompanying these recommendations are four areas for further inquiry:

  1. Nuclear Brinksmanship and Conventional War: What limits will both sides place on their conventional operations out of fear of, or respect for, the other sides’ nuclear options? U.S. scholars need to consider the connectivity between conflict protraction and nuclear brinksmanship. It is not clear that the United States and the PRC share a similar vision for the role of nuclear arms or their influence on conventional conflicts, heightening the chances for misperceptions and inadvertent escalation.
  2. Information Denial and Conflict Termination: What will the impact of information warfare be on ending a conflict? There is an urgent need to study the impacts of information warfare and strategic blinding on conflict termination. How leaders and the broader population perceive and understand the future battlespace or, as the case may be, misperceive and misunderstand, will determine the potential for conflict termination.
  3. Deterrence by Attrition and Wars of Endurance: How do deterrent approaches need to change to reflect the potential for long wars of endurance? There is a need for new defensively dominant warfighting approaches to prevail in a long war of endurance combined with a model of deterrence by attrition to forestall conflict.
  4. Long Wars and Competition: How will the next war shape the follow-on strategic competition? Wars between nuclear armed peers are unlikely to end in the total strategic defeat of either side. U.S. strategists must consider how gains and losses in the next conflict may impact the United States’ subsequent position in strategic competition with the PRC.

The potential for a conflict between the United States and China to devolve into a protracted war is disquieting. Most contemporary discussion, planning, and doctrine is mute on how conflicts protract, or what the United States should do if it finds itself in such a prolonged conflict. Ignoring this threat makes it no less real.

Introduction: Protraction, A Harsh Reality

The prospect of a Sino-American war looms on the horizon. While U.S. defense planners have considered the potential threat posed by the People’s Republic of China since at least 2001, it has moved dramatically to the fore over the past five years. No scenario for U.S.-PRC conflict has garnered more interest than the potential invasion of Taiwan.

Current U.S. and PRC thinking about future war places great importance on offensive operations. Most of the discussion in the United States has focused on the early days of a conflict and on sinking the PRC’s amphibious fleet. Both nations seek to capitalize on first-mover advantages seemingly conferred by the precision strike revolution (PSR) to degrade adversary capabilities and cement an early lead in conflict. This impetus for early action echoes the way that European militaries thought about warfare prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.

The American focus on early offensive action and halting the invasion flows naturally into discussions about forces and weapons. It is also unsurprising that U.S. defense planners are most comfortable with the dynamics of short, sharp wars. Over the past decade, U.S. defense planners have focused on deterring adversary faits accomplis, short and often opportunistic campaigns of aggression that obtain operational and strategic objectives before defenders can effectively respond. Speed and political obfuscation seemed to be the key ingredients for potential adversary victory, with Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 serving as the template for other aggressors to follow.

Revisionist states such as the PRC and Russia appeared to see approaches to territorial conquest that stressed subversion and speed as the only viable conventional pathways for achieving their goals. The fait accompli thinking was applied to several major flashpoints, ranging from the oft debated “Baltic Scenario”—a rapid invasion of the Baltic states by Russia—to the potential invasion of Taiwan by the PRC. In these cases, the aggressors’ presumed operational concepts were remarkably similar: seize territory before locally overawed defenders can be supported by powerful distant allies, namely the United States. Beyond the political shock of initial military failures on U.S. allies and partners, retaking territory from entrenched aggressors would leave U.S. leaders facing high casualty projections and potential nuclear threats, thus discouraging them from intervening and locking in the benefits of aggression.

The dominance of fait accompli thinking led to a commonly held belief that prolonged wars of attrition, particularly those involving the United States, were no longer possible. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine turned this conventional wisdom on its head, demonstrating the protracted military and political consequences of trying and failing to obtain a fait accompli on a larger scale than Crimea. Modern, high-intensity conflicts were not expected to last more than a few months. At the time of this writing, the conflict in Ukraine continues in its second year.

Before Russia demonstrated that long wars and attritional conflict remain possible, only a few Western analysts considered what protracted conflict might look like in the 21st century. The approaches of “distant blockade” and “offshore control” scratched the surface. However, they did not fully consider the implications of protraction and instead sought lower-risk, indirect solutions to an inherently high-risk challenge—a potential war with the PRC. Recent studies have more fully considered the potential implications of a “long war” with the PRC, but no study has fully grappled with reasons behind the increasing chances for protraction.

The ongoing Russian experiences in Ukraine indicate a need to reevaluate U.S. thinking and consider the potential of protraction in the context of a hypothetical U.S.-PRC conflict.

It is vital to define three key terms for this study: exhaustion, sanctuary, and protraction. Exhaustion is the point where future, large-scale offensive operations are no longer possible as offensive military capabilities have been used up. Afterward, some period of reconstitution and recovery is needed. This requires sanctuary, the relative freedom from attack sufficient for the rebuilding of military forces and capacities. A simplistic definition of a protracted war is one that lasts longer than leaders expect. It occurs after at least one cycle of exhaustion and recovery. It is closely tied to pre-conflict leadership beliefs about the length of the looming war. There is no set time that makes a conflict protracted. Instead, protraction depends on a complex set of factors such as conflict intensity, political will, and relative military power. For example, a war with a series of bloody battles could enter the protracted phase much sooner than a war with a series of cautious engagements. Ultimately, protraction represents a mismatch between political-military expectations and reality. The PRC’s military capabilities have expanded dramatically over the past 30 years. Long-range missiles, such as the DF-17, would play a key role in any PRC military operation in the Western Pacific.

Should President Xi commit the PLA to seizing Taiwan by force, enter a war with the United States, and “roll the iron dice,” protraction is an increasingly likely outcome due to four distinct, yet interrelated characteristics. First, both sides are focused on achieving rapid conventional victory, which requires a huge expenditure of advanced munitions. Second, this expenditure leads to rapid depletion of immediate stockpiles, which then causes the conflict to ebb. This permits both sides the freedom from attack needed to rebuild. Third, nuclear arms paradoxically constrain and accelerate the conflict. The U.S. and PRC will need to balance a desire to maintain escalation dominance with a need to prevent the emergence of dangerous escalation patterns. Fourth, battlefield outcomes do not necessarily translate into political objectives. Changes in the nature and conduct of war, specific to a long-distance air and maritime war, only intensify this fact.

This study has four main parts and concludes with a detailed discussion of these four characteristics. The first section, “A Search for Quick Victory,” explores how history and doctrine create a powerful impetus for swift action in the Western military tradition. The second section, “The Promise of Precision Strike,” traces the application of technology over the past 40-plus years in pursuit of rapid, decisive action. The third section, “The Short War Fallacy,” considers how doctrine and technology are applied in the context of a hypothetical U.S.-PRC conflict. The fourth and final section, “The Four Characteristics of Protraction,” combines the arguments from the prior sections to contend that protraction is the increasingly likely future scenario for which the United States must prepare.

Ultimately, this study is envisioned as the first step in a larger intellectual effort. It does not claim to possess answers to many of its questions. The chief recommendation of this effort is that U.S. defense planners and strategic analysts must broaden their focus. Collectively, U.S. strategic analysts must become more adept at thinking through the various pathways leading to protraction as well as the elements of conflict and competition that will set us on these paths. Against an opponent with China’s military and industrial resources, rapid victory is increasingly unlikely.

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  1. Amanda Miller, “In a War Over Taiwan, First Step Needs to Be Sinking Chinese Ships, Air Force General Says,” Military Times, March 8, 2023, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2023/03/08/war-over-taiwan-first-step-needs-be-sinking-chinese-ships-air-force-general-says.html.
  2. Christopher M. Dougherty, Why America Needs a New Way of War (Washington: CNAS, 2019), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/anawow.
  3. Michael Kofman, “Getting the Fait Accompli Problem Right in U.S. Strategy,” War on the Rocks, November 3, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/11/getting-the-fait-accompli-problem-right-in-u-s-strategy/.
  4. Miller, “In a War Over Taiwan, First Step Needs to Be Sinking Chinese Ships.”
  5. Hal Brands, Getting Ready for a Long War with China: Dynamics of Protracted Conflict in the Western Pacific (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 2022), https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/getting-ready-for-a-long-war-with-china-dynamics-of-protracted-conflict-in-the-western-pacific/; Andrew Krepinevich, Protracted Great-Power War: A Preliminary Assessment (Washington: CNAS, 2020), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/protracted-great-power-war.
  6. Elbridge A. Colby, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021).
  7. Joshua Rovner, “Two kinds of catastrophe: nuclear escalation and protracted war in Asia,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 40 no. 5 (2017): 710–11, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01402390.2017.1293532.
  8. Daniel S. Geller, “Nuclear Weapons, Deterrence, and Crisis Escalation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 34 no. 2 (June 1990): https://www.jstor.org/stable/174196.
  9. Fred Charles Iklé, Every War Must End (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
  10. Credit to Ryan Boone for originally making this observation and discussions on this topic.
  11. Vicky O’Hara, “Pentagon Report Warns of Chinese Military Threat,” NPR, February 9, 2006, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5198556; U.S. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.
  12. Miller, “In a War Over Taiwan, First Step Needs to Be Sinking Chinese Ships.”
  13. Dougherty, Why America Needs a New Way of War, 20.
  14. Cathal J. Nolan, The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 340–48.
  15. Kofman, “Getting the Fait Accompli Problem Right in U.S. Strategy.”
  16. David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html; Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang, “Taiwan is No Crimea, But . . . ,” National Bureau of Asian Research, April 22, 2014, https://www.nbr.org/publication/taiwan-is-no-crimea-but/.
  17. Krepinevich, Protracted Great-Power War.
  18. T. X. Hammes, “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Strategic Forum, 278 (June 2012): https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratforum/SF-278.pdf.
  19. Ryan T. Easterday, “The Fallacy of the Short, Sharp War: Optimism Bias and the Abuse of History,” Strategy Bridge, March 17, 2023, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2023/3/16/the-fallacy-of-the-short-sharp-war-optimism-bias-and-the-abuse-of-history; Brands, Getting Ready for a Long War with China.

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