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Research Questions

  1. What prewar assumptions and predictions prior to past great power wars turned out to be wrong?
  2. What are ways that war between the United States and Russia or China could begin and unfold that differ from widely discussed scenarios?
  3. How would the strategic environment change after a great power war?

The U.S. Department of Defense has been increasingly focused on competition with Russia and China and, in the extreme, the possibility of great power war. To inform thinking about what might follow such a war, RAND researchers generated four hypothetical near-term great power war scenarios and assessed how the postwar strategic environment would change in each scenario. These scenarios offer planners and decisionmakers plausible narratives about future great power wars with different features to help them examine assumptions and think about how wartime choices could affect postwar U.S. objectives.

The scenarios in this report illustrate the complex relationships between wartime and postwar goals. They show how a U.S. victory could provoke a stronger alignment between China and Russia or lead to greater determination and hostility in the recently defeated adversary. A U.S. defeat, meanwhile, could enhance U.S. efforts to recruit allies and partners, while also increasing the likelihood of nuclear proliferation among U.S. allies and partners. Indeterminate war outcomes could heighten the risk of a quick return to conflict while sapping alliance cohesion. The complexity and variability of these results highlight the importance for U.S. policymakers of considering postwar outcomes in prewar planning.

Key Findings

  • Wartime victory might not produce a favorable postwar setting. For example, victors will be weakened relative to noncombatant states and could face stronger balancing coalitions.
  • A U.S. victory could provoke deeper Sino-Russian military and economic cooperation — or even a mutual defense pact.
  • A great power war, even one with Russia, could sharpen the U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific. Postwar resource constraints would create incentives to prioritize China as the most significant potential threat to the United States.
  • Although wars can strengthen bonds between allies, postwar alliance cohesion could suffer from wartime disagreements and how allies respond to the changed strategic environment.
  • Allied contributions to a U.S.-led war with Russia or China might vary across and even within scenarios, suggesting the importance of plans that are robust to changes in access.
  • U.S. allies and partners might face new incentives to pursue nuclear weapon programs after a great power war that degrades U.S. power.

Recommendations

  • Assess the potential postwar consequences of a war that goes according to planners' assumptions (as well as those that do not) to evaluate whether existing war plans are likely to support long-term U.S. interests.
  • Consider setting a futures game in a period following a great power war to assess whether proposed capabilities would be appropriate in an unfamiliar strategic context.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Headquarters Air Force, Directorate of Strategy, Posture, and Assessments and was conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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