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Could the U.S. Military Fight Russia and China At the Same Time?

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ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 30, 2018) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) fires its Mark 45 five-inch gun during a live-fire exercise. Bainbridge, homeported at Naval Station Norfolk, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa.

A War Against Both China and Russia? The United States now finds itself embroiled in crises in both Europe and the Pacific. The Russia-Ukraine War has settled into an uneasy stalemate that nevertheless risks escalation. The visit of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taipei has triggered a ratcheting of tensions over the long-term status of Taiwan. It is not likely that either of the current crises will escalate, but Washington could find itself fighting (or proxy fighting) against two great powers in two different parts of the world.

How much pressure could this put upon the United States?  Much depends on the nature of the conflict in each theater, but it is likely that the US could sustain the war in both theaters for quite a while.

The War in Ukraine

The Russia-Ukraine War has become a proxy conflict between Moscow and the West, with the US, in particular, dedicating huge amounts of sophisticated weaponry.

Currently, the Ukrainian armed forces are generating enough fighting power to prevent Russia from conquering a broader swath of the country. The US and its NATO allies are supplying weapons, economic aid, logistical support, and intelligence to help the Ukrainians fight. The United States has supplied the greatest portion of foreign equipment used by Ukrainian forces in their ongoing fight against Russia, but the rest of NATO has also chipped in to considerable effect. Arguably, Washington provides the political glue that holds the coalition together, but most of the European capitals have committed to the war with or without the United States. Despite the costs of the war (in terms of equipment) and the costs generated by the war (in terms of economic dislocation and energy supplies) the Europeans at the moment seem willing to continue to provide support for Ukraine.

What if Russia decides to escalate? In Europe, NATO forces hold what is likely to be a decisive edge over the Russians in all conventional capabilities. This advantage is most pronounced at sea and in the air, where the navies and air forces of the European members of NATO easily surpass in size and capability the forces that Russia has currently engaged in Ukraine. And if Russia does decide to escalate it will likely eliminate any residual caution on the part of the rest of the alliance to resist Russian aggression.

A military conflict over Taiwan could nevertheless shift the balance of the Russia-Ukraine War. China would likely lose any residual reluctance to aid Russia’s war effort, up to and including the dispatch of equipment and personnel. Russia’s economic situation would ease somewhat, at least relatively, as world trade networks would experience complete disruption.

A China War

For a fight over Taiwan, the United States would require high-end naval and air assets that are not currently in use near Ukraine and that, in any case, would provide overkill against Russia’s stretched and outdated forces. This includes the most important vessels in the US Navy (including attack submarines, cruise missile submarines, carrier battlegroups, and amphibious battlegroups) but also the advanced fighter, bomber, tanker, and recon aircraft operated by the Navy and the Air Force.

Even if the US was required to deploy ground troops (and could do so safely), it is unlikely that this would tax any capability currently being used to support the fight in Ukraine. Moreover, Taiwan would immediately take precedence over any need faced by Ukraine, largely because of the NATO alliance.

The US can count less on allies in the Pacific than in Europe, although here, much depends on the political situation. If France and the United Kingdom see themselves as fighting against an Authoritarian Axis, each could dispatch an effective naval flotilla to the Pacific. More importantly, Japan and Australia have taken critical steps towards solidifying their relationships with the United States with specific reference to a crisis over Taiwan. Washington could perhaps not count on allied involvement, but Beijing could hardly count on keeping the allies out. In any case, China likely does not have the military capabilities at the moment to quickly defeat a US-supported Taiwan.

Overlap

The biggest overlap between the Taiwan and Ukraine theaters of operations involves demands on logistics and on intelligence.  To be sure, the US has kept a close watch on Chinese activity since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but some of the electronic, cyber, and analytical assets currently devoted to helping Ukraine fight would undoubtedly need to be shifted towards China. Some of this effort could be replaced by the Europeans, but the US has enough sufficiently unique assets in this area that Ukraine would undoubtedly notice the shift.

In terms of logistics, the fight in Ukraine has already put a strain on the US defense industrial base. Fighting has used up stocks of weapons and ammunition as the course of fighting has turned towards attrition.  Again, the US is fortunate that there’s not a lot of overlap between the operational demands in Ukraine and Taiwan, but US forces would likely suffer some shortages in the case of extended fighting on both sides of Eurasia. As noted, Taiwan is likely to take precedence if there’s competition between the two theaters.

What Happens Next? 

The US has paid for the luxury to build a military sufficient to fight in both Asia and Europe, and not generally with the same weapons. There is undoubtedly some overlap in terms of air capabilities and logistical assets, but the immense fighting power of the US armed forces would not be inordinately strained by the need to wage war in both theaters because the theaters made different demands.  Even if the war in Ukraine escalated to direct conflict between NATO and Russia, it is likely that the fighting would involve the fielded forces of European countries, with the United States playing an important support role. In short, the United States can fight both Russia and China at once… for a while, and with the help of some friends.

Now a Contributing Editor for 19FortyFive, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Jim

    August 8, 2022 at 10:03 am

    The Biden administration has Flunked Mackinder 101: don’t push Russia and China together to form up “the World Island.” (and Iran, and maybe, now, India, too.)

    Professor Mackinder, if alive, today, would give the Biden administration an “F” for a failing grade.

    That neoliberals, neocons & warhawks are oblivious to the dangers of pushing Russia and China together via their Ukraine policy & China/Taiwan policy demonstrates they have no business running America’s foreign policy.

    What’s their excuse for such a bad set of foreign policies?

    Now that Pelosi’s trip has raised tensions with China… there didn’t seem to be a reason other than to poke the dragon…

    Militarily & geo-politically… it would be a disaster…full stop, period.

    Don’t go down the road to fighting Russia & China at one time.

    Why would the foreign policy elite force such an action?

    Arrogance & hubris… cometh before the fall.

    We have to stop the “drift to war” before it’s too late. That takes some diplomatic brains & strategy… time to prove we have brains and such a strategy.

    Drifting to war is not a strategy… it’s a tactic to put the “frog” (the American People) in the slowly heated water and when it gets to boiling (war with China & Russia) it’s too late for the people to stop an out of control foreign policy clique.

    Then queue up the smears of “Putin apologist” & “Xi sycophant” for the sane Americans who understand the danger.

    The United States of America has to change foreign policy in a big way… time to realize American foreign policy is in a dead end… and who runs it.

  2. TG

    August 8, 2022 at 10:30 am

    Perhaps. Perhaps.

    But. What if Russia/China mined the major shipping ports of the United States? The country would suffer total economic collapse, because decades of ‘free’ trade has made the United States completely dependent on imported goods. Meanwhile, while sanctions have certainly hurt Russia, both Russia and (most likely) China can essentially maintain the cores of their economies without sea-borne foreign trade.

    Be careful what you wish for. It is certainly true that the situation in Ukraine has shown the Russian military to be far less capable than thought. But Russia also has other cards that it can play, if it comes to that.

  3. Steven

    August 8, 2022 at 11:39 am

    People forget Cyber War and God know’s what else American military is capable of.

  4. William R. Hawkins

    August 8, 2022 at 11:56 am

    The Ukraine War has made this two-front war idea less likely. The Russian military has been decimated and no longer poses a major threat to NATO. This actually allows NATO to fulfill its new vision to engage China is the Indo-Pacific, strengthening deterrence there in ways it failed to do in Ukraine. Read my US Naval Institute article “NATO Navies Send Strategic Signals in the Indo-Pacific” at http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2022/august/nato-navies-send-strategic-signals-indo-pacific

  5. Dr Scooter Van Neuter

    August 8, 2022 at 12:25 pm

    The only way the US has a chance is to unveil and unleash its ultimate fallback weapons.
    Outside of a nuclear airburst (EMT), Russia and China now possess extremely long-range nuclear torpedos that could take out much of New York or other major port cities in a single blow. That combined with the inevitable hacking/shutdown of our power and financial infrastructure would result in a total and rapid societal collapse as the population invariably panics.
    It is far easier to destroy any modern society now totally dependent on the internet, satellites, and power grid than ever before – for both our enemies and ourselves. Tens/hundreds of millions would die in an all-out war.

  6. Calvin

    August 8, 2022 at 12:43 pm

    Yes we can fight both at the same time and win

  7. Jim

    August 8, 2022 at 1:43 pm

    Is China a danger? Yes!

    How to handle it:

    Taiwan is a self-governing island and a vibrant democracy.

    Let’s keep it that way, why throw Taiwan up in the air with increased tension, especially at this time…??

    The damage has been done by Pelosi’s visit: China’s military exercises are a threat to Taiwan… a message to the Taiwanese People… and an implicit threat to America.

    (But there is no imminent invasion.)

    But going forward, let’s cool down Taiwan (we can) and focus like a laser on the real threat over time, the trade practices, the spying activities, the infiltration activities, the fentanyl production (like a reverse opium trade, revenge?) across our border and the encouragement of corruption at the highest levels of government… “The Seven Deadly Sins” perpetrated by China against America.

    These abusive practices by China happen on our soil and/or are direct trade relations (which we control 100%, via our Sovereignty). These are the long-term threats, which over time will sap us of our strength and power to act as a sovereign, independent nation-state…

    When we need it most… because we will need all our power & sovereignty to preserve our way of life… when the time comes.

  8. pagar

    August 8, 2022 at 1:49 pm

    Biden would be secretly salivating at the very prospect of a (simultaneous) US war against both Russia and china.

    That’s not without historical precedent. Hitler and tokyo once treaded that path, too.

    US may or may not emerge unscathed from such a gargantuan undertaking, but the same cannot be said of its minions.They will end up as the morning after toast.For Biden and the US white house staff.

  9. Crazy Grandad

    August 8, 2022 at 1:50 pm

    Yes. The US who was defeated by the Vietnamese would defeat a hypersonic missiles armed China & Russia.

    Yes. The US who was defeated by camel 🐪 riders clutching Kalashnikovs in Afghanistan would defeat China & Russia.

    We play too much.

  10. cobo

    August 8, 2022 at 1:55 pm

    Besides all the bs, the apologists & sycophants, etc. the US needs to get ready for war. We need to begin universal conscription, all in working together. We need to strategically source all of our material needs and reshore all of our manufacturing. I also highly suggest that we get right with our Latino brothers and make this hemisphere solid for a long future. One day, it would be great for the entire planet to work together, but the forces that need to be beaten, that have put the world in the position it’s in, have to be beaten everywhere.

  11. Eric-ji

    August 8, 2022 at 1:57 pm

    History has shown that no one is really prepared for the type of war that actually ‘shows up’. The countries that can most readily adapt, that create new methods and weaponry, are the countries that eventually win. Those are not the totalitarian countries. Totalitarian countries (WWII Germany & Japan, China and Russia now) don’t so much value creativity, initiative, independent action, entrepreneurship, innovation. Unless a conflict goes global nuclear war, the totalitarians will lose. If it goes nuclear humanity loses.

  12. Jack

    August 8, 2022 at 2:00 pm

    I don’t see any reason for us to be in a war with Russia. If Russia tries to misbehave with Europe ,Europe is just going to have to learn to look after themselves

  13. Omega 13

    August 8, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    The Russians can’t even overrun Ukraine. They’re about as much of a threat as monkey pox to a straight guy.

  14. Yrral

    August 8, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    Is Albania a Superpower,lots of these these NATO countries,do not have a pot to piss in and window,too throw it out,each country should have 10 billion dollars to be paid into a joint NATO fund for security,if you cannot get kicked out of NATO,most Americans do not know the US ,has more soldiers station overseas,than base in America,the French and British and German cannot supply 300 thousands troops to be based in a conflict with Russia Google NATO Countries Military Strength

  15. HAT451

    August 8, 2022 at 6:05 pm

    Based on the Quadrennial Review from 2018, the US would struggle to effectively conduct operations in response to two regional contingencies. At that time the term used was able to respond to near simultaneous contingencies.

    This a degradation of the US military power and readiness that has been going on decades. Consider this, in the early 1990’s we fielded an army of close to half a million to liberate Kuwait. Now our active duty force is less that that size. The trend has been a massive reduction in the size.

    Today, I am not sure, based on Quadrennial Reviews published over time which document our military’s decline. Consider the current chain of supply issues, recruitment problems, COVID mandates discharges, and other problems, I do not believe that we as a nation have the military robust enough to conduct effective operations in Ukraine and Taiwan at the same time.

  16. Ghost Tomahawk

    August 8, 2022 at 9:16 pm

    The US military COULD fight both Russia an China…if it had capable leadership. It does not. They can not execute a planned tactical withdrawl without humiliation. Nor does the US have a competent intilligence apparatus. Its become a partisan think tank for the democrat party.

    How could the US beat Russia? Easily. Our Navy can launch airstikes at will. We have access to air bases throughout Europe. Given time our superior landbased forces would blitz thru already depleated Russian ground forces and sweep them away like my toddler sweeps Legos off the coffee table.

    China? As I have already said….China is easy to defeat. Sink all shipping coming and going into China and eliminate all over land shipments going into China with air superiority fighters. Then watch China starve on CSPAN. Hold my beer.

    WILL America do any of that? Nope. Wars arent fought anymore. Politicians dont have the bandwidth or desire to fight them with elections and polling ever present.

  17. MortenHJ

    August 9, 2022 at 6:14 am

    Best is to remind China about east Manchuria that Russia stole from them back in 1860, and that it is an excellent time right now to focus on that instead of messing with Taiwan.

  18. IBDavid

    August 9, 2022 at 9:07 am

    No, with our woke troops and incompetent leadership, I doubt we’d win a war against Mexico if they decided to take back the SW.

  19. OIF Combat Vet

    August 9, 2022 at 10:43 am

    Stupid question. In the end, look what happened in Afghanistan, it was a debacle for the regime, the deep state department and the geniuses at the Pentagon. Anyone miss Reagan?

  20. Frank Blangeard

    August 9, 2022 at 10:48 am

    Ask the Taliban if the U.S. could fight both Russia and China at the same time.

  21. ROBERT H PILPEL

    August 9, 2022 at 1:24 pm

    China and Russia are cardboard tigers on the verge of military, political and economic collapse. In case of war their best bet would be to surrender immediately and ask for American aid!

  22. Nick Ripple

    August 9, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    Some of you forget the difference between a REGIONAL war and a WORLD War. Some of you forget that the US fights differently in those scenarios. Some of you forget the USN has 200+ years of experience China has about 0 in naval warfare…..talk about toys all you want…I’ll take the one with the experience over the other all day long.

  23. Lloyd Braun

    August 9, 2022 at 4:07 pm

    WAY too much “previous-war” thinking here. A war by any nuclear power against the US won’t waste time expending their conventional forces first. There won’t be months or weeks or even days to ramp up. An EMP or two will suddenly knock out all our lights and our 330 million are on the slow road to starvation. Our response? Quite likely none because without the bulk of our electronics we won’t be able to say which of our adversaries launched the death blow that got us. And likely it will come via a Club-K launcher from an unidentified freighter that will scuttle itself moments after.

  24. I. Martin

    August 9, 2022 at 5:46 pm

    The U.S. should’ve stepped into the Ukraine situation a long time ago. If we had, the war would be over by now. End of story.

  25. Graywolf

    August 9, 2022 at 9:14 pm

    The current US military couldn’t fight it’s way out of a Girl Scout camp.

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