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World War III: What a U.S. vs. China War Would Look Like (Who Wins?)

China Carrier-Killer Missile Tests
Image from the now closed WantChinaTimes.

Published 2/10/2023 – What a War Between the U.S. and China Would Look Like: How does the unthinkable happen? The United States and China are inextricably locked into the Pacific Rim’s international trade system. Some argue that this makes war impossible, but wars that people have believed to be impossible have nevertheless broken out.

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This article updates an argument made eight years ago, concentrating less on the operational and tactical details of a US-China war and more on the strategic objectives of the major combatants before, during, and after the conflict. A war between the United States and China would transform the geopolitics of East Asia, but could also leave many crucial elements unchanged. Tragically, a conflict between China and the US might be remembered only as “The First Sino-American War.”

America vs. China: How the War Would Start

Taiwan has become the most likely trigger for war between China and the United States. The continued assertiveness of the PRC with respect to Taiwan, combined with the decision of the Biden administration to make its commitment to the defense of the island more explicit, has made it hard to imagine an alternative source of conflict.

How the war begins depends on how Beijing measures the global political situation. From a purely military point of view, launching direct attacks against US military assets in the theater of operations would be the best way of achieving operational surprise and inflicting maximum damage on the Americans before they could respond. However, China may see some political advantage in provoking a US response rather than attacking pre-emptively. In this case, China would begin military operations against Taiwan and await a US response, hoping to generate global sympathy and perhaps a disruptive political debate within the US itself.

However, as this would allow the United States to mobilize and stage its forces unmolested, it is more likely that the war will begin with a Chinese attack on American forces at the end of an escalating series of crises. Despite the growth of Chinese military power over the last two decades, the PLA would prefer not to face the full fury of a mobilized American military response, politics be damned. As such, U.S. forces must prepare to accept and withstand an opening Chinese blow designed to incapacitate their response and allow a rapid capture of Taiwan.

How Would the Allies Respond

Over the last eight years, the U.S. alliance system in the Western Pacific has tightened considerably. Japan has fully recognized the threat that China poses, and has begun the process of re-militarization. The U.S. has engaged Australia and the United Kingdom in a high-level technology and security deal that would seem to confirm the military support of both countries. The U.S. has also pushed Europe to disentangle itself from Chinese technology supply chains. Finally, U.S.-Indian security relations have steadily improved as tensions between Delhi and Beijing have worsened, and as Indian dependence upon Russia approaches a dead end.

The recent CSIS wargame assumed Japanese participation from the beginning of the conflict, an assessment that primarily accords with analytical thinking across the region. However, the degree of Japanese support probably depends on how the war begins. The U.S. can probably depend on some level of British and Australian intervention. Europe (and by Europe, we really mean France) will probably sit on the sideline militarily but will help shape the economic and financial conditions of the war. The allied response would also affect the waging of the economic and financial aspects of the war. The US-China trade relationship represents an enormous chunk of the global economy, and tearing that relationship apart would have dreadful costs before the dropping of the first bomb. India and South Korea are both huge wild cards; both prefer the US to China but would be taking enormous risks by intervening directly.

China also has friends, albeit not very many. Nevertheless, both Russia and North Korea could play consequential roles in any conflict. Pyongyang’s contribution would probably be ensuring that Seoul and to a lesser extent Tokyo remain distracted from challenging China’s main effort. Russia could play a destabilizing role, contributing to China’s defense industrial needs while threatening disruptive action across a range of fronts. Of course, much would depend on whether Russia remained engaged in Ukraine.

The “Hold Your Breath” Moments

The first “hold your breath” moment will come when the PLA makes an overt attack against a US aircraft carrier, representing the most significant possible escalation against the United States short of a nuclear attack. If China decides to attack a US carrier, the war no longer involves posturing and message sending, but rather a full-scale commitment of capabilities designed to defeat and destroy enemy military forces. The most dangerous form of attack would involve a ballistic missile volley against a carrier, not simply because these missiles are difficult to intercept but also because they could carry nuclear warheads. Much will depend on the outcome of this first fusillade.

The next scary moment will come when the first U.S. missiles strike targets on the Chinese mainland, possibly hours or even minutes after an attack on an American carrier. Given the nuclear advantage that the United States holds over China, the first wave of US attacks will prove intensely stressful to the PRCs military and civilian leadership.

At some point, China will need to sortie the greater portion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This will lead to two additional “hold your breath” moments. The first will involve the destruction of a major Chinese warship, including an aircraft carrier or big amphib. U.S. forces will regard this as a major objective, and China’s reaction will reveal much about Beijing’s commitment to the war. The next moment will involve China’s SSBN force. If China decides to sortie its vulnerable boomers into areas infested by American attack subs, it will offer a strong indication that Beijing feels either extremely confident or extremely vulnerable.

Finally, US air and land forces may face the prospect of defeat on Formosa itself. If the war goes the wrong way, at some point, US policymakers will need to draw deep breaths and decide how much more blood and treasure to commit to the defense of the ROC government. Everyone across the Pacific Rim, and indeed the world, will watch this decision-making process with rapt attention.

Who Will Win?

It’s very hard to say who would win, as much depends on how the war will begin. The Center for Strategic and International Studies recently prepared a report on a series of wargames simulating a Sino-American war over Taiwan. The CSIS study determined that the most likely outcome of any conflict was a US victory that left Taiwan autonomous, assuming for a vigorous Taiwanese resistance, an immediate U.S. response, U.S. access to Japanese bases, and sufficient numbers of anti-ship cruise missiles.

Still, this formulation leaves a bewildering array of unknowns. We don’t know how well Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles will function, how destructive US cyber-attacks against the PLAN will prove, or how dangerous the F-22 Raptor will be to conventional Chinese fighters, or how effectively the different elements of the PLAN will cooperate in actual combat. in general terms the battle will turn on these questions:

Domain Command

How severely will the United States disrupt Chinese communications, electronic, and surveillance capabilities?

Attacking US forces will depend on communication between seers and shooters. To the extent that the U.S. can disrupt this communication, it can defang the PLA. Conversely, Chinese cyber-warfare against the United States could raise the domestic stakes for American policymakers. In space, how resilient will U.S. satellite networks prove against attack from Chinese electronic and kinetic measures?  How much damage can the U.S. inflict on Chinese surveillance and reconnaissance networks?

Missiles vs. Missile Defenses:

How well will the USN and USAF be able to defeat Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles? The PLAN, PLAAF, and Second Artillery have many options for attacking deployed and deploying US forces in depth. The American capacity to survive the onslaught depends in part on the effectiveness of defenses against cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as the ability to strike and destroy launchers within and around China.

Joint Operations:

How well will the disparate elements of the PLA operate together in the context of high-intensity, disruptive military operations?

Unlike the U.S. military, the PLA has little relevant combat experience from the last three decades. On the flipside, how well will U.S. commitment to “jointness” prepare the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Marines for working together?

Quality vs. Quantity:

Chinese forces are highly likely to achieve local numerical superiority in some types of assets, including ships, aircraft, and submarines. The (narrowing) gap between U.S. and Chinese technology and training will determine how well American forces can survive and prevail in such situations.

How the War Ends and the Peace Begins

This war doesn’t end with a surrender signed on a battleship. Instead, it ends with one participant beaten, embittered, and likely preparing for the next round. Control of Formosa is a binary; either the Taipei government will remain in power after a ceasefire, or the Beijing government will occupy the island. It is difficult to imagine a settlement that would leave both governments with a degree of territorial control on the island. In effect, the war will end when either a) the United States gives up on reinforcing Republic of China forces on Formosa, or b) when Chinese naval and air forces are so badly mauled that they can no longer seriously contemplate either a cross-strait invasion or a quarantine of Taiwan. This will represent the end of the war, or at least to continuous high intensity combat between China and the United States. An enduring cease-fire might take some time to conclude, as the defeated government makes its own peace with the outcome and figures out how to sell it domestically.

If China loses but the People’s Republic of China remains essentially intact and the Chinese Communist Party still in power, then “peace” will simply be an interlude before the next war; the CCP cannot accept the permanent independence of Taiwan and maintain its domestic legitimacy. Conversely, China can claim victory by either forcing the United States to accommodate Chinese goals, or by removing the alliance framework that motivates and legitimates US action. The United States cannot continue the war if South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines no longer have an interest in fighting. Either of these require doing significant damage to US military forces and, potentially, to the US economy. This would have long-standing and exceedingly unpredictable effects on US domestic politics.

No matter who wins, the aftermath will feel more like a desert than peace.

A Window For War

The window for war between the United States and China could last for a long time. The demands of preparing either side for victory will tax diplomatic, military, and technological resources for the foreseeable future. Still, we can’t forget that the China, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States trade network constitute the heart of the most dynamic economic regions the world has ever seen. War would destroy that engine, to the impoverishment of everyone involved.

Preventing war will require tremendous diplomatic skill and political acumen, but it is well worth the effort.

Author Expertise and Experience: 

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, 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), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). 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.



  1. TG

    February 10, 2023 at 7:07 pm

    Hm. I claim no special expertise, but two thoughts:

    1. Why would China try to actually perform a land invasion of Taiwan, when it could blockade the island? Choke it off and force it to sue for terms. China would not need to attack US aircraft carriers, just mine the ports and maybe sink a small number of cargo ships until they get the message and stop sailing to Taiwanese ports.

    2. I can’t imagine how China could actually invade Taiwan with significant ground forces. Wouldn’t any troop transports be sitting ducks for submarines and long-range anti-ship missiles etc? Lot easier to sink those than actual warships, especially with torpedoes as I don’t think warships can provide area defense coverage against these (I think?).

    3. Infiltration anyone? At any one time there are a lot of Chinese nationals visiting Taiwan, yes? Even without heavy equipment, could a few tens of thousands of well-trained light infantry launching a sneak attack take over the government? Probably harder to do than it sounds, but still, a lot easier than going two-to-toe with the US military. I don’t know of course but I suspect the Taiwanese security forces think a lot about this kind of thing…

  2. Drdhesq

    February 10, 2023 at 7:19 pm

    If the US attacks continental China, China may well attack the continental US, which it is capable of doing.

  3. Commemtar

    February 10, 2023 at 7:21 pm

    The gut feeling in DoD today is that US forces will make a direct lunge at china in 2025 right after the 47th president gets installed into the White House.

    By end 2024, US pacific forces would be in possession of tactical Army hypersonic fires plus very possibly air force and Navy F-35 carried land attack missiles.

    DoD’s generals & admirals are right salivating at the very prospect of war on china, reckoning that nothing can possibly go wrong.

    In 2025, the US military would be in the best perfect position to initiate and directly take charge of war in the western pacific, far from US shores, with ukros having already defeated russia by then. Thus world war three jn 2025.

    Result is extremely heavy and completely or totally mindless destruction in east asia, with countries like korea and japan taking tbe brunt of US moves and china counter-moves.

    But who cares. Minions are a dozen a dime and expendable.

    China will become another nam or afghanistan, but a complete submission to washington is still very highly unlikely, given its vast hinterland and its humongous 2,400 km border with russia.

    US generals & admirals will have much to celebrate, however, as the region will smoulder for decades and decades to come.

  4. 404NotFound

    February 10, 2023 at 8:00 pm

    In early November 2022 Admiral Charles Richard in a moment of carelessness (unintentionally) let the cat out of the bag.

    “The war in Ukraine is just a warmup. The Big One (war on china) is the real deal and is coming soon.”

    The new B-21 stealth bomber is likely to get its first baptism of fire in the Big One. Or the battle of china.

    In 1989, the US invaded Panama. This has been regarded by many as the prelude to Iraq in 2003. Same today, Ukraine is the prelude to china.

    Recently, or last month in January 2023, general Michael minihan warned of action or war in the western Pacific coming very soon, as soon as the 2024 US presidential contest gets done.

    Clearly, the US top brass is planning for war, like how Wehrmacht top brass did in early 1941. Right before pearl harbor.

    The US has waged near countless wars since the end of the Cold War. A war against china would be the top prize.

    In fact, US launched 251 wars or military conflicts since 1991 after the collapse of the USSR. Google it.

  5. Steven

    February 10, 2023 at 8:03 pm

    The thing you analysts never seem to take into account is cyberwar and classified assets. (Hint: China loses).

  6. Johnny Smith

    February 10, 2023 at 9:11 pm

    A few US missiles blowing open the Three Gorges Dam alone would inflict enormous damage physical and economic damage on China via massive flooding. Taiwan may be thinking the same.

  7. pagar

    February 10, 2023 at 9:27 pm

    World War III ???

    Nobody would win, except maybe, the arms merchants.

    America is indeed planning for world war III. It is a war planning nation, always on the lookout for nations and places to plunder for war.

    In September 2022, Michael guetlein, commander of Space systems Command spoke aloud of war happening in space.

    In November 2022, Charles Richard ex-commander of STRATCOM spoke of war with china about to come soon.

    In January 2023, Michael minihan spoke of his gut feel of a coming war with china as soon as 2025.

    It’s crystal clear America’s military commanders today view china as a great treasure house whose main door is begging for someone to smash down. No buts and ifs about this. Biggest treasure house since, well, since the looting of the treasure-filled Catherine palace in Leningrad by german military in 1941.

  8. The Al U Know

    February 10, 2023 at 10:23 pm

    ‘In war, war never changes.’ -CoD

    So then what is war?
    It is as Odysseus said to Agamemnon.
    Old men talking and young men dying.

    So, a civilizational clash between China and the USA will impoverish eveyone involved. I agree Rob Farley. Momentarily at least.
    Not just economically but in potential youth.
    Also infrastructure domestically will be hit. Satellite networks will be devastated, even for a good while.

    Morale-wise, I cannot say.


    “War can only be postponed to the advantage of others.”
    -Nicollo Machiavelli

    Despite 40% of its wealth held by its top 1% India is poised to take the 3rd spot in top economies this year. Topping China’s population very soon. This is if it stays out of any conflict between the US and China. Its economy grew by 14% this last year.

    Then there are the countries that could be shaken by such a conflict. Manila was the 3rd most devastated city during WWII. Will it be once again?

    Japan knows this too of its own history and will redouble its militarization efforts. If it is not used as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ pointed straight at China by the USA. If so them there is potential. Chinese CCP media see this and whimsically call for the strategy of nuking this threat.

    We’ll see.

    Will Iran stay idle?
    Will Brazil, South Africa turn from BRICS or go their own way?

    Politically the divide in the country will be greater. Depending on the timing of the war. During the election. When Trump, Biden, De Santis or even a lesser known moderate rises above.

    Whoever is in charge will take a severe political hit, probably downing their party as well.

    There will be a massive loss of lives not seen in a while, so even if there is a victory it will not feel like one when the Western standards of life and costs change dramatically.

    GL if someone like Trump is in charge after the war. America may turn inwards you might think, but I think it could be much worse. It could lean on Canada in the colonial sense for the most basic of resources. Like fresh water. Think ‘We Stand On Guard’ the graphic novel. CBC even had talked about it a bit in the 90s. America might be more hardened to the outside world but will need its allies to stay sane by intervening.

    Perhaps the USA will steady the ship. I still feel they are in an adolescent phase and they will rebound to another level in the next 200 years. Tall order.

    From The Al U Know


    February 10, 2023 at 11:11 pm

    First off, if there was going to be a WW3, we would be going up against Russia and China. The USA would not survive. The US Government has been lying to US Citizens for more than 80 years starting with the incident in 1947 with Roswell up to JFK’s assassination. But mostly from the media.

  10. Jai

    February 10, 2023 at 11:18 pm

    The chance of Chinese victory over the US in an all-out war is zero.

  11. Jacksonian Libertarian

    February 11, 2023 at 12:01 am

    This article ignores 3 major issues that negate any predictions made from it.

    1. The war in Ukraine has revealed that Industrial Age dumb weapons (Tanks, Armored Vehicles, Artillery/cannons, non-stealthy combat aircraft, Surface Warships, etc.) are vastly inferior to Information Age smart weapons (Saint Javelin). Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons
    2. Unlike Ukraine, the poorest nation in Europe, Taiwan is an affluent 1st world economy, with arguably the highest level of technology on Earth (3nm chips). It has been preparing for war for 70 years, and makes most of its own smart weapons. It has stockpiles of short, medium, and long range, anti-ship smart weapons sufficient to destroy the Chinese Industrial Age surface fleet many times over.
    3. Any war will result in an immediate Strategic Blockade of China. 98% of China’s foreign trade moves through ports on the China Sea, and is responsible for 40% of China’s GDP. The loss of that trade will cut China’s economy by 50% due to direct losses in trade (40% of GDP), and economic dislocation forced on the rest of the economy. This will be permanent. Even if the war is of limited duration (destroying the Chinese surface fleet will not take long), little of China’s foreign trade will ever return.

    Authoritarian cultures can neither create nor maintain modern civilization without continuous 1st world input. Once the foreign investors that uplifted China are forced out by risk, 1st world embargos, and nationalization, China’s inefficient, incompetent, and corrupt, State Owned Enterprises (monopolies), will be all that remains. China’s corrupt foreign investments in Africa, South America, etc., will be lost (if you lay down with dogs, you will wake up with fleas).

  12. Jimmyf40

    February 11, 2023 at 2:24 am

    “The first sino-american War.”

    That happened in 1900.

    In 1900, a brazen western military force that marched into the chinese countryside without diplomatic sanction was soundly defeated by the chinese known as boxer rebels.

    In retaliation, a more substantial force, this time led by the great british indian empire general Gaselee who gathered an expedition that included troops recruited from india as well as a thousand over american marines attacked the chinese in their very own capital and slaughtered, raped, mutiliated, looted and burned them.

    That was the first time american soldiers performed combat duty in cbina which they did with great relish.

    Even the accompanying japanese commanders were amazed at the conduct of the american soldiers and their fellow western counterparts including the troops from the empire.

    One american soldier was recorded entering the home of a local man, then proceeded to shoot him dead before ravishing the women found inside.

    That thing would later be repeated in the philippines, afghanistan and iraq. But. china was the first. Or numero uno place.

  13. Him

    February 11, 2023 at 2:38 am

    In 2023, it makes zero business sense to commit a company’s supply chain to manufacture in China.

    But the examples of LeBron James and the NBA show that lure of vast short-term financial profits are how many or most corporations make their decisions.

    There is no getting around the stupidity or willful blindness of people in positions of corporate authority.

  14. Webej

    February 11, 2023 at 2:48 am

    Ballistic & cruise missiles
    No mention of “intercepting” hypersonics.

  15. vnvet

    February 11, 2023 at 3:39 am

    The US will NEVER fight China,Russia or any other country one on one or face to face. Just like since WW-2, they will ALWAYS form a coalition of countries first. Just check histroy,and see just how many conflicts or wars the US has fought on its own (without any type of outside Help) since 1949.Have a nice weekend.

  16. ATM

    February 11, 2023 at 10:54 am

    If the US puts nuclear capable long range missiles in Taiwan it is logical for China to preemptively strike the US, but before that happens the Chinese premier could initiate a Cuban missile crisis type negotiation and standoff. It is also logical that China would set up a mutual defense treaty with Russia like that off NATO so that an Initial US strike would invoke MAD from Russia and China. I do not have a crystal ball, but why not.

  17. MARK

    February 11, 2023 at 12:43 pm

    Wars are expensive and non-productive. Saber rattling, however, is a political winner.

  18. Ted

    February 11, 2023 at 1:37 pm

    The war will start when a Chinese mole plants a noose in a bathroom at the Pentagon, sowing panic and confusion. As the entire US armed forces takes a day off to hold DEI training, China will take Taiwan and sink the Pacific Fleet.

  19. Jack

    February 11, 2023 at 5:05 pm

    It will go Nuclear……..quickly

  20. Dave Nelson

    February 11, 2023 at 5:56 pm

    Re-read TG’s comment, top of this list.

    I would like see a proper analysis on the efficacy of of the PRC using a large EMP midway between Taiwan and Guam. It would fry all non hardened electrical equipment on Formosa, all of the Philippines, and Guam.

    Add a couple of small nukes on Taiwan’s harbors and international airports and that with the EMP puts them into a massive starvation scenario w/ ZERO hope of rescue.

    All the PRC needs to do then is wait. There really isn’t anything I can think of that any friend of Taiwan can do after the above occurs.

  21. PCT

    February 12, 2023 at 6:54 am

    One issue is that China is a resource-poor country in two key factors.
    Energy and food inputs for the production of food. These need to come from other places. Those places all have to ship the majority of the products via ship. Ships that are not part of the Chinese Navy or can be protected by the Chinese Navy. Yes, they will be able to damage the US military but stopping the flow of resources to the majority of the City States which have millions of people in them will wreak havoc on the civilian morale, and if you were not watching lately, will create break away cities that the Chinese military won’t
    be to control.
    As with most wars including the one raging in Ukraine, it will come down to who can control resources, has patience, and controls the communication space. That will be the winner in this conflict.

  22. Jim Higgins

    February 12, 2023 at 2:06 pm

    Easy o say “throw them to the wolves” when you do not have relatives there.

  23. HAT451

    February 12, 2023 at 3:17 pm

    The assumption here is that the WW III will be a kinetic high intensity war. This article is a great assessment of this Chinese course of action. What about the continuation of a protracted, less intense cultural / economic war, over a long period of time?

    Unlike the “war on terror” where the principle combatants are willing to ignore destroy themselves to destroy the west with mutually assured destruction is preferable, communist intents to conquer and exploit. If there is nothing left to exploit after an WW III, there is no reason to intensify the conflict.

  24. Ken Heins

    February 12, 2023 at 4:06 pm

    What is OUR capability of launching an EMP attack (“defensive” but launched within seconds of an indication that China and or Russia launching either EMP ot conventional nuclear, and how much capability of EMP defense do China and Russia have, respectively? Sorry for the multipart question.

  25. GhostTomahawk

    February 13, 2023 at 1:32 am

    China would have to win a war in a matter of a few weeks as a global embargo upon them would devastate them completely. Food imports are a must and those would stop. Their exports would end too. Not to mention the full end of oil coming in.

    China would look like WW2 Japan and their fate would be the same. Just faster.

  26. paperpushermj

    February 13, 2023 at 6:35 am

    Consider that any future conflict will take place in Chinas backyard…Because of that short line of resupply and Chinas ability to concentrate their forces from land to sea, I foresee the US suffering a L in any future conflict.

  27. mawendt

    February 13, 2023 at 9:29 am

    World War III: What a U.S. vs. China War Would Look Like (Who Wins?)

    Answer: No one.

    Unless winning includes last man standing over a smoking pile of wreckage while any diseased and crippled survivors starve to death.

  28. Dave Nelson

    February 13, 2023 at 5:28 pm

    WRT the effects of an EMP, from testimony to Congress in 2004 (be sure to read the last sentence):

    “According to a 2004 report submitted to the U.S. Congress by an expert panel, an EMP attack that crippled social infrastructure across the United States would require several years of repairs, leading to mass shortages of food, fuel, medicine and other goods as well as widespread sanitation problems. As a result of starvation and epidemics, the report astonishingly concludes that 90 percent of Americans would die within a year.”

    Similar consequences could be expected over Taiwan. 1 missile, 1 blast. Very hard to defend against.

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