#32 - The Davidson Window
海军上将 - Hai3 Jun1 Shang4 Jiang4 - Navy Admiral
“I worry that they’re accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order, which they’ve long said that they want to do [by] 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
Admiral Philip S. Davidson
Admiral Davidson’s words during congressional testimony in 2021 have framed the Taiwan debate more clearly than ever before. By assessing a 2027 or earlier window of possible Chinese aggression, Davidson delivered a shot across the bow. His comments carry great importance because of his experience. As the previous Combatant Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), Admiral Davidson was the senior officer in charge of all military operations throughout the theater, reporting directly to the President. A good deal of Davidson’s time was almost certainly spent watching China.
Why within 6 years?
Davidson’s assessment is likely based mostly on military capability. It can be very difficult to discern enemy intentions, but counting the growth in military equipment is far easier. And China has hugely increased its military equipment and preparedness over time, especially within the last 4 years.
Buttressing Davidson’s assessment is the theory of faltering powers initiating conflict on their own terms. In this theory, a once rising power starts to stall compared to a rival. Internal assessments conducted by the rising power drive it to action in a desperate attempt to lock in gains before becoming overshadowed in the future.
Two examples are Germany in 1914 and Japan in 1941. In 1914, Imperial Germany concluded that a growing Russia would tilt the correlation of forces on the continent irrevocably against Germany. Therefore, the Germans felt compelled to initiate a European war before Moscow grew too powerful.
In 1941, Japan had similar anxieties about the United States. Tokyo had been on a military and colonial winning streak in Asia for decades. Yet Japanese military planners realized that the United States’ growing industrial might, natural resources, and huge population (relative to Japan) could spell the end of Tokyo’s domination of the Pacific in any given year. Thus, the decision to strike Pearl Harbor.
If China believes it is faltering relative to the US, Beijing may feel pressure to speed up military operational timelines, regardless of the correlation of forces not favoring China. There could be many reasons for this, including sclerotic demographics, economic malaise, and/or trade war damage in the high-tech sector. Regardless of why the CCP may believe China is faltering, what matters most is Xi Jinping’s internal assessment of whether this is true, and how dire the situation is.
How to Shut the Davidson Window
It is in the United States’ interest to slam shut the Davidson Window, precluding any possibility of a costly war of desperation in the near-term. Washington can do this by changing three key variables.
1. Change US military posture: Shifting posture means moving military personnel and equipment to different areas than where they are now. This does not require a large outlay of resources. Regardless of the declared 2012 Pivot the Pacific, US forces in the Pacific are still postured largely as a peacetime force generating non-targeted, non-specific deterrence. The problem is that peacetime deterrent forces quickly become wartime targets in the missile age. USINDOPACOM must move from a deterrence posture to a warfighting posture.
US military forces are clumped onto small islands (Okinawa & Guam) or small bases in allied countries (Japan & South Korea) all easily targeted by Chinese strikes. Instead, US forces should operate in an expeditionary and dispersed fashion across the First and Second Island Chains. US military units need to exercise disaggregation from headquarters followed by re-aggregation of assets during a specific time window to coordinate joint strike operations against Chinese targets. After joint strikes, US units must again disaggregate to avoid Chinese strikes.
To make operations more difficult, US forces will be required to do this under conditions of emissions control (EMCON) where radios and data links are rarely used to avoid being detected by Chinese reconnaissance assets. This is a difficult operating concept that needs to be practiced every day.
To support the shift to a warfighting posture, large amounts of supplies must be prepositioned forward along the First Island Chain. This way US forces have the material they need to fight tonight, and don’t need critical items shipped thousands of miles from the continental United States.
This shift in posture will increase deterrence, since it credibly communicates capability to Beijing. It will also save untold American lives if China does decide to strike US forces. This posture change also has the possibility of producing escalation, where Beijing feels it must respond in some way.
2. Increase the Defense Budget: While some would prefer an even smaller military outlay, unfortunately the enemy gets a vote. With the Ukraine War underwritten by US weapons and logistics raging on into 2023, China continues to accelerate its military buildup. Now is not the time to save money on defense, which would only tempt China to move faster if the theory of faltering powers is correct in this situation.
The defense budget will need to increase, at the very least with targeted increases in US European Command and USINDOPACOM. What is truly needed is a defense buildup similar to the 1980s.
3. Taiwan Clarity: The strategy of ambiguity over Taiwan has outlived its usefulness. In the past, this ploy served to sideline a major point of friction between Washington and Beijing as all three countries pursued economic integration. This economic process is now being reversed while China pursues a massive and opaque military buildup.
Clearly, pulling US forces out of Ukraine was partially responsible for the failure of deterrence and Russia’s decision to invade. The strategic autism of declaring that the US will absolutely fight for Taiwan but simultaneously communicating that there is no change in the policy of ambiguity is not helping the United States prepare to deter conflict and win if necessary. It is also not helping to sharpen the CCP’s strategic choices and is only contributing to the chance that one side or the other miscalculates.
The US is treading dangerous ground by appearing to be half-committed to the fight.