The Death of the Davidson Window
Fighting Time, Punditry, and Chaos
“I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
Almost two years ago, then ADM. Phil Davidson, Commander of USINDOPACOM, made what seemed to be an off the cuff remark at the end of a line of questioning during a SASC posture hearing. It took a while for the media and DC to grasp what exactly had happened. After all, who watches congressional hearings except nerds? As the firestorm grew, a chorus of pundits and politicians began referring to the then next six years as “the Davidson Window.” While plenty have abused the term, the Davidson Window really refers to the window of time the US and its allies has to get ready for a PLA capable of successfully invading and conquering Taiwan. Timelines are a tricky thing, and once Davidson had his, everyone wanted one. At this point, near everyone agrees the threat is indeed manifest within the decade. Reasons for that run from PLA capabilities development to American weakness to political crisis. Some analysts and senior leaders even claim the threat to be sooner than Davidson’s 2027 line. Some folks claim it’s the next two years we need to worry about. Some claim it’ll never happen. I myself took the worst case scenario route in EX SUPRA: a spiraling politically-driven crisis leads to the PLA rushing an invasion of Taiwan in October 2024 with the US in election chaos. Of course, that was less about prediction and more about warning people about what makes us weak. The only thing I believe is that we need to get ourselves in gear today if we want to fight tomorrow.
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There are indeed *a lot* of senior US officials, and even some of our allies, who increasingly worry about the 2024-2029 timeline. But focusing on the 2027 date as a hard “Go/No-Go” creates both an impending sense of hopelessness and a great opportunity to create a “boy who cried wolf” complex among the national security community and the public. There are so many windows, so many predictions, that we have lost the real message in the noise: that either we prepare today, or we don’t have a tomorrow. In other words, the Davidson Window is dead, but its spirit, and the sense of urgency it inspired, must be kept alive.
In this week’s Breaking Beijing, I’d like to talk a bit about why relying on the Davidson Window is no longer the best course of action, what questions you should be asking and indicators you should be looking for in assessing the new threat timeline, and the best timeline for defense planning.
We Got Incoming
First, there is no single indicator or warning of when the PLA might “go” that we would know more than a few months out unless someone broadcasts the war plans from Xi’s desk, Tom Clancy-style. Second, a lot has happened in the world since ADM. (ret.) Davidson made his remarks to Congress in March 2021: Afghanistan, Ukraine, the COVID Zero protests, the 20th Party Congress, the August Crisis, the new US sanctions regime, shifts in US posture and production, not to mention Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines waking up to the threat. Some of these might influence the PLA to go early, even if they’re unprepared, some might push them to go later. If none of these events have shifted the CCP’s calculus (to the left or right), then they are even more stubborn and rigid than most believe. The uncertainty of the situation should drive an even greater sense of urgency, not encourage us to handwave a near-term threat simply because we don’t have 100% confidence. We should want to continue to influence CCP decision-making so that they feel deterred from acting in the near-term, regardless of whether the war starts in 2024, 2027, or 2035. Moreover, we should seek to accurately convey the threat to the public: that there is a near-term threat, it’s getting worse every day we don’t act, and that deterrence can work with the right policies in place. Sometimes you have to light a fire under people, but you also can’t expect them to live their whole lives atop the flame.
The Three P’s of Great Power Threat Assessment
Instead of picking out a date you’re comfortable with, focus on the actual drivers of conflict. If you’re assessing the general likelihood of a PLA invasion of Taiwan, there’s a lot to think about and contrary to what certain analysts, pundits, or think tanks may say, no one thing will determine the start of the war. If you’re working this problem set as an analyst or advisor, you may consider the three P’s: politics, preparation, and posture.
Politics: When considering the political dynamics, think about the following: what is the political situation like on Taiwan? Has any public figure made a move towards independence and how has the PRC reacted? Has there been domestic instability on the island, are we seeing a flood of influence operations that might appear to be preparing the public for invasion, subversion, or occupation? What is the situation like in the PRC? What is the status of the economy, Xi’s control of the government, and what is the messaging (inwards and out) of the propaganda outlets? How are ultranationalists being treated on social media?
How are US politics? Are we experiencing the political violence seen in 2020 again? Has a senior US official made comments, one way or the other, towards US commitments to Taiwan that may encourage the CCP to act? Have we defaulted on our debt and gutted the DoD budget or experienced some crisis that makes us appear unable to react quickly to foreign crisis? What US political crises would genuinely influence CCP decision-making, and what are just claimed for US domestic politics? I truly don’t think the PRC cares about the House speakership debacle, they already think democracy is chaos, but they might care if we can’t pay our bills of if we’re rioting in the streets. What about us feeds into their priors?
Preparation: What preparations has Taiwan made for a conflict? Are they sufficient in disrupting PLA operations and sustain a fight, and has that been effectively communicated to the PLA? How has the population been prepared through messaging? How has Taiwan’s fractured political environment reacted to PRC threats and prepared for a unified government in the face of aggression? As for the PRC, what preparations have the CCP and PLA undertaken? Have they recently cracked down on anti-war dissent, have they advanced influence operations and started staging more troops in the Eastern theater? Have they started large scale-exercises at the corps level or above in support of an invasion? Have they produced enough rotary-wing aircraft (and trained enough pilots) to support the crucial air assault element of the invasion? And as for the US: have we produced enough munitions for a large-scale Pacific fight? Where are we in our modernization efforts for this fight? Have we appropriately messaged about the conflict to the public and the military? How often have we been training with allies, and which allies, to fight the PLA? Have we invested enough in the right tech, people, ships, and aircraft? Are we successfully maintaining all of that equipment?
Posture: Posture is the hardest to measure, because it’s different from “do we have the right numbers in the right excel files?” Here we are asking questions from all three major players as to their ability to “fight tonight.” As much as I hate the way we use the phrase, it is a good short hand for how quickly one could launch and sustain a large-scale operation. During the August 2022 crisis, this was overlooked amidst the war hysteria by many analysts. In other words, how close and how quickly, can any party act on their threats or promises? Can they appropriately execute their war plans? Right now, I’d argue that no one can “fight tonight” or even in the next few months with any sort of vigor that might bring victory. But things can change rapidly, and when you feel you have answers for the politics and preparations questions, be very careful about how you view the posture questions. Many a war has been started or called off because of a misperception of posture. It’s the most important component of conventional deterrence: the ability to not just train for, but to sell the counter-punch with the correct posturing of forces, munitions, and messaging. We could have all the right training, armaments, etc., in the world, but if we keep them all CONUS side in warehouses, then it doesn’t matter when the war starts. The same goes for the PRC and Taiwan. It’s important to note that no army has went to war perfectly ready for it, no political crisis has perfectly known outcomes, and rare is the authoritarian leader who always listens to the most logical military advice. We’re playing with odds, not certainties.
Once you’ve considered all of the above, you should find that there is good cause for fear of the near-term threat, but also that not everything is as clear cut as some would have you believe. When we focus on certainties, instead of probabilities, we end up bogged down by minutiae instead of the big picture. And the big picture says the storm clouds are gathering. Now, let’s talk about what all this means for planning.
Odds and Opportunity
There are very serious reasons why we our hands are tied in the short term and why that makes some serious folks very uncomfortable with a near-term threat timeline. Without getting into the gritty details, a lot of defense programs need time to get spun up both due to resources and because it can take years to build them into acquisitions programs. So if you say we have 3 years to make something effective policy, we have maybe half that time to legislate or run it through the interagency, work out the kinks, and then push it downstream without hopefully any major challenges. There are ways around this, the War Production Act offers a lot of tools to do so, but it’s also not meant for every situation and can be abused. There’s a reason why this author, and many others, talks about the need for essentially two Pacific strategies: the short-term, pull-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-together to enhance deterrence and buy us time plan, and the long-term investment strategy that can take effect if we buy ourselves enough time and dedicated resources. We simply don’t know for certain when the war starts, but we know that what we start building today mostly won’t be available for a few years. No matter what timeline you subscribe to, you have to admit that that is a real vulnerability. And the more we delay, the longer that vulnerability exists. Moreover, what we duct tape together today won’t last into the 2030s. We need to keep the cycle of research-build-sustain-replace going as technology and threat dynamics change. It’s not a matter of one threat or the other. We tried our damnedest to deter the Soviets in the 1970s when we were hollowed out post-Vietnam while still building the Second Offset that wouldn’t deliver in full until the 80s. You plan for both the best you can, and you try to do it without pulling from the line items of either plan.
Bifocal Foreign Policy
When someone has trouble seeing, they buy glasses that correct their vision either near or far. If they struggle with both, they buy bifocals. You don’t just buy one vision correction and hope for the best with the rest. And you shouldn’t do that with foreign policy either. Davidson’s remarks to Congress two years ago sparked a debate and sense of urgency that this country had not seen in some time. But the benefits of having a hard date to work from have now become costs as critics get bogged down in exact predictions instead of the overarching theme of preparing for the growing threat of war. More people in this town are trying to make a name for themselves in either gatekeeping over timeline predictions or making new ones instead of actually developing and executing plans to solve the problem.
Normally, this is the part of Breaking Beijing where I make a series of recommendations for how to improve China and military policy. But today I have only one: get over it. You’re fighting about the living room décor when the house is on fire. Do you want to be right about when a war happens because you failed to stop it? Do you want to be the person that numbed the public to the threat because you just made up threats to keep yourself in the headlines? Or do you want to save the peace, and if necessary, win the war? Let Washington move past this debate and onto actually preparing for war.
The Davidson Window is dead. Long live the spirit of the Davidson Window.
If you enjoyed this story, check out my novel, EX SUPRA. Recently nominated for a Prometheus Award for best science fiction novel, it’s the story about the war after the next war. From the first combat jump on Mars to the climate change-ravaged jungles of Southeast Asia, EX SUPRA blends the bleeding edge of technology and the bloody reality of combat. In EX SUPRA, the super soldiers are only as strong as their own wills, reality is malleable, and hope only arrives with hellfire. Follow John Petrov, a refugee turned CIA paramilitary officer, Captain Jennifer Shaw, a Green Beret consumed by bloodlust, and many more, as they face off against Chinese warbots, Russian assassins, and their own demons in the war for the future of humanity.
And if you have any suggestions for topics for future articles, please send them my way on Twitter @Iron_Man_Actual.
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