05 January 2012

Paradox of Power: Sino-American Strategic Restraint in an Age of Vulnerability

David C. Gompert and Phillip C. Saunders, Paradox of Power: Sino-American Strategic Restraint in an Age of Vulnerability (Washington, DC: National Defense University, December 2011).

Excerpt from the Executive Summary:

The United States and China each have or will soon have the ability to inflict grave harm upon the other by nuclear attack, attacks on satellites, or attacks on computer networks. Paradoxically, despite each country’s power, its strategic vulnerability is growing. Particularly since September 11, 2001, Americans have sensed this vulnerability. The extent to which the Chinese sense it is unclear.

Vulnerability to nuclear attack is familiar to both countries. But the United States and China are also becoming exposed to damage in space and cyberspace because of their growing reliance on those domains for their prosperity and security, as well as each side’s increasing antisatellite (ASAT) and cyber war capabilities. For China, economic integration, production, and commerce—and thus, sustained growth and perhaps political stability—depend vitally on data sharing, making networks and satellites as strategic as they are for the United States.

All three strategic domains are “offense dominant”—technologically, economically, and operationally. Defenses against nuclear, ASAT, and cyber weapons are difficult and yield diminishing results against the offensive capabilities of large, advanced, and determined states such as the United States and China. Nuclear weapons are patently offense dominant because a single explosion can destroy a city. Moreover, it is easier and cheaper for China to improve the survivability of its strategic missile launchers, to multiply deliverable weapons, and to penetrate U.S. missile defenses than it is for the United States to maintain a nuclear first-strike capability. Though it has yet to admit it, the United States cannot deny the Chinese the second-strike nuclear deterrent they are determined to have.

Satellites are inherently vulnerable: conspicuous, easy to track, and fragile. Destroying them or degrading their performance is easier than protecting them. ASAT interceptors are much cheaper than satellites. Likewise, defending computer networks becomes harder and more expensive as the scale and sophistication of the attacker increase. The woes of the cyber defender are compounded by integrated global markets and supply chains for digital components and equipment—in which U.S. and state-affiliated Chinese corporations are leading competitors—increasing the potential for strategic degradation of network infrastructure and disruption of services. In general, strategic offense dominance gives each country an incentive to invest in offense, which in turn spurs the other to keep pace.

Apart from offense dominance, the advance of technology has slashed the costs in lives and treasure of strategic attack, as capabilities have graduated from mass invasion to heavy bombing to nuclear weapons to ASAT and cyber war. If one ignores possible deaths resulting from disruption of public services, ASAT and cyber war might even be considered “nonviolent.” As the number of expected casualties from strategic attack options drops, so could international opprobrium and the inhibitions of decisionmakers. Absent deterrence, thresholds for war in space and cyberspace could become perilously low as offenses improve.

Read the PDF of Paradox of Power.

Advance Praise for “Paradox of Power”:

In an era where the development of new technologies threatens to outstrip strategic doctrine, David Gompert and Phil Saunders offer a searching meditation on issues at the forefront of national security. Policymakers on both sides of the Pacific will find much to consider in this timely and important book.
Henry Kissinger

In this book, David Gompert and Phil Saunders make an important contribution both to American strategic thinking and to the future of U.S.-China relations. Grounded in the international experience in nuclear deterrence yet fresh and novel, their recommendations for mutual strategic restraint in space and cyber relationships between the two countries are deep and compelling. Gompert and Saunders take a new look and come up with a practical way forward in areas that are difficult, important, sensationalized and little understood. Both interested citizens and government specialists and policymakers will benefit from their work.
ADM Dennis Blair, USN (Ret.)
former Director of National Intelligence and
Commander, U.S. Pacific Command

For the United States, avoiding an adversarial relationship with China cannot be accomplished through wishful thinking or adjustments in defense spending. Despite many overlapping interests between the two countries, strategic mistrust is growing and has the potential to overwhelm areas of cooperation. This seminal book addresses this problem head on, focusing on how to achieve stable deterrence through mutual restraint in three critical areas—nuclear weapons, computer systems, and space—where both countries are vulnerable to attacks. The authors, two experienced and respected experts, provide thoughtful analysis and constructive recommendations. Readers will gain a better understanding not only of these strategic issues but also of the complex dynamic at the heart of the U.S.-China relationship.
J. Stapleton Roy
former U.S. Ambassador to China

Read the PDF of Paradox of Power.

For sources cited in this volume, see:

Andrew Erickson, “Take China’s ASBM Potential Seriously,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 136. 2 (February 2010): 8.

Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson, eds., China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007).