Cover: U.S. Military Theories of Victory for a War with the People's Republic of China

U.S. Military Theories of Victory for a War with the People's Republic of China

Published Feb 21, 2024

by Jacob L. Heim, Zachary Burdette, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga

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A military conflict between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) would entail escalation risks that the United States has not seriously considered since the Cold War. The authors of this paper consider how the United States can prevail in a limited war with the PRC while avoiding catastrophic escalation. 

The authors do so by considering theories of victory for the United States in a war with China. A theory of victory is a causal story about how to defeat an adversary: It identifies the conditions under which the enemy will admit defeat and outlines how to shape the conflict in a way that creates those conditions. The authors consider five theories of victory and identify two as most viable: denial (persuading the enemy that it is unlikely to achieve its objectives and that further fighting will not reverse this failure) and military cost-imposition (using military force to persuade the enemy that the costs of continuing the war outweigh the benefits). The authors maintain that denial offers the best chance for delivering victory while avoiding catastrophic escalation, whereas military cost-imposition has lower prospects of success and higher chances for catastrophic escalation.

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This research was commissioned by the Department of the Air Force and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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