When the War Hits Home
The effects of WWIII from Guam to DC
Just yesterday, the New York Times reported on cyber intrusions of Guam’s critical infrastructure by PRC hackers. Microsoft and NSA confirmed with their own bulletins regarding how the hackers were operating and what they were after. Let’s be clear, this was not a run of the mill case of cyber espionage, this was battlefield preparation.
Between the legacy of the first cold war, where everything would be obliterated within hours of the war starting, and the legacy of the GWOT, where the public was mostly secure from day-to-day reprisals from the wars overseas, policymakers and the general public often struggle to understand and articulate what the Homefront during a war with China would look like in the coming years. In fact, two of the questions I get asked the most from service members, civilians, and policy types alike are: 1) “What will the war look like?” and 2) “how will it impact me?”
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I talk *a lot* about what the frontlines could look like, in fact, I wrote a whole book about it. And I’ve talked a bit about what economic warfare would look like and how the world would be impacted generally by conflict in the Pacific, but what I haven’t covered yet is what an American homeland held at risk by the PLA looks like during World War III. So I’ll do just that in this article. We can conjure up images of anti-war protests and industrial production for the war effort from wars past, but what exactly does the world look like when the enemy can hold the Homeland at risk in between the thresholds of terrorism and nuclear armageddon? Today, I’ll walk you through the various likely targets and effects of a war in the Pacific on the Homeland from cyber operations to sabotage and kinetic strikes. I won’t talk about the long-term economic impacts from war in general, as I’ve done that in other articles, rather, this article will focus purely on what the PLA may consider a viable target beyond the frontlines, and how that may impact the American homeland. In other words, this is what happens when the PLA brings the fight to *you*.
Image: Iron Dome intercepts a rocket barrage over Israel. The skies over Guam will look like this, every night, with a *lot* more incoming ordnance. Editors note: Iron Dome is not yet designed to intercept most of the PLA’s long-range missile systems. Nor are any of our other systems under a multi-vector, saturation attack.
America’s Day Begins in Guam
When we think of the homeland, most people conjure up an image of the Lower 48 States. Most folks don’t think about our overseas territories packed with millions of US citizens. The territory of Guam is where America’s day starts, and it is as much American soil as Hawaii was on December 7, 1941. Any discussion about the effects on the Homeland from a war in the Pacific begins with Guam. Home to tens of thousands of US troop, some consider Guam our unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Pacific. To listen to INDOPACOM, Guam is a prime target for the PLA during a war and it cannot be allowed to fall or even become inoperable. The first mission is feasible, the second much more difficult. The PLA has a deep magazine and views denying the US the ability to operate out of Guam as a priority for keeping the US out of a fight for Taiwan. Guam’s vulnerability and importance is exactly why we have in the last couple years made a concerted effort to expand and de-risk our basing throughout the Indo-Pacific through a larger number of small bases, instead of a few fat targets. You can expect a range of strikes against Guam from surface vessels, subsurface vessels, aircraft, cyber, and land-based missiles in high volume in the early days of a war. Sabotage against internet cables, communications relays, and logistics sites should also be expected. Beyond military targets, the isolation of Guam would quickly become a humanitarian crisis, as the hundreds of thousands of people living on the island may suffer from food and fuel shortages, and even water shortages if the desalination plants are attacked. As Chris Dougherty notes in his paper on contested logistics, Guam suffers from a number of single points of failure that make it particularly vulnerable to siege and operations disruption. Simply put: Guam is where the Homefront meets the frontlines.
Hawaii: Groundhog Day
Moving east, Hawaii is home to USINDOPACOM HQ, PACFLEET HQ, a significant portion of the US Pacific Fleet, 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment, and more. A strike on Hawaii was most famously portrayed in Ghost Fleet, but we’re still more than a few years out from the PLA being able to conduct an amphibious assault on the islands. Instead, the most likely strikes on Hawaii would be in the form of industrial and military sabotage against ports and logistics sites, and cyber attacks on INDOPACOM communications relays. The goal here would be to disable Hawaii’s ability to fuel and arm the fleet in transit to and from the frontlines, and disrupt the commander’s picture of the war by cutting them off from timely communications and intelligence updates along the frontlines. For the PLA, a war for Taiwan is all about buying time against a US response, and slowing resupply and decision-making at the highest levels. Strikes launched from the PRC mainland against Hawaii are extremely unlikely in the near-future except with a small magazine of long-range missiles. It is possible, but not necessarily likely, that the PLA could conduct more strikes via sites owned by CCP-aligned corporations in the Pacific, their growing fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, or via dual-purpose commercial vessels, but these would more than likely one-off strikes aimed at striking INDOPACOM HQ to disrupt command and control and make a political statement, than to created sustained effects like those the PLA can impose upon Guam. Presently, the Hawaiian Defense Radar is somewhere in the development pipeline, but it has no real sensor-interceptor capability to fight off a PLA missile attack. If Guam is the end of the American road to the Pacific, then Hawaii is the bridge that cannot be allowed to be blown.
In the case of Alaska, the most important assets for the Pacific fight are located at JBER in Anchorage and Eielson AFB in Fairbank. Beyond the Pacific itself, the airborne forces at JBER and the F-22 Raptors based out of Eielson would be the next line of responders. Cyber attacks on Alaska’s weak digital infrastructure should be expected, particularly on single points of failure that may cause civilian catastrophes like the Port of Alaska in Anchorage. Without the port, Alaska would face a serious humanitarian crisis that would suck up logistics resources critical to the war effort. Alaska also has more strategic assets, like ground-based mid-course interceptors that could intercept some one-off strikes as well, but not a saturation attack. At this stage and for the near future (2030ish), the PLA may be able to hit the homeland with a few one-off strikes (conventional) from its Fractional Orbit Bombardment System (FOBS) especially if its maneuverability on final approach claims turn out to be true, but the Alaskan interceptors would come more into play if we faced a strategic exchange with the rapidly expanding PLA nuclear arsenal.
West Coast is not Best Coast
If Guam is the frontline, Hawaii the bridge, and Alaska the 911 response, then our West Coast assets are the big swinging hammer that comes around once we figure out what the hell is going on. Delaying our ability to launch out of the big naval bases at San Diego and Kitsap in particular, would compound delays in our entire response plan for a Taiwan contingency. The most publicly talked about methods here would be sabotage, disinformation campaigns, and cyber attacks at the outbreak of the war. As a means of escalation, there has also been talk of using missile strikes (either from submarines or FOBS) to kick the US in the teeth until it stops talking. Even if you can’t make Guam give up or silence Oahu, causing a traffic jam at the Western ports can still achieve your objectives. Of course, this is high risk, high reward. You might slow the US response so much that you can accomplish your fait accompli…or you could so enrage the US that we drag the war out until the entire Chinese eastern seaboard is in flames. As I’ve talked about before, the PLA doesn’t quite have the same buy-in with regards to the theory of escalation dynamics as we do. This is a bit of a blind spot for us, and as far as I can tell, it’s not too well developed yet in public PLA writing either.
Image: Screenshot from COD: Modern Warfare 2, “Wolverines!”
Across the rest of the country, we may see waves of sporadic cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, and if the MSS can muster it, a sabotage campaign against critical targets like factories, transportation hubs, and other war-critical infrastructure. If the war drags on, then we would likely see more attacks on infrastructure that are less critical to the war effort but more draining on the American population and morale. DC and New York would likely see the worst of it, in addition to a few critical military hubs. The financial system would undoubtedly bend if not break under the weight of the global supply chain collapsing and Chinese cyber attacks slamming into their servers every waking moment of every day. Every DC system that might even be remotely relevant would suffer from the constant back and forth of cyber defense and offense, good luck getting that government tech to work.
A few systems across the country might merit the PRC’s precious few FOBS systems that (allegedly) can evade our sensors and interceptors to strike on single points of failure like say…a high-end munitions plant or microchip fabrication facility in the Southwest. As an example, when the Lake City ammunition plant in Missouri went up in flames a few years back, it set them back months.
Rather ironically, what Americans in the continental US won’t see in WWIII are Red paratroopers landing in their idyllic smalltown. It’ll be a slow, anxiety-inducing war for most, as they wait to see what may rain down on them next, what system that keeps their company afloat shuts down, or what basic means of modern living breaks down under 1s and 0s.
But you know who may see those red paratroopers in a worst case scenario? The same territory that most Americans forget exists, let alone remembers is part of the United States and home to hundreds of thousands of US citizens. Kinda throws the “Wolverines!” fantasy on its head, doesn’t it?
As Above, So Below
Space isn’t part of the Homefront, but it impacts the Homefront immediately. GPS and global communications networks would be disrupted and experience lasting outages in the first hours of the war as weaponized satellites laze, shoot, jam, and slam into each other in order to gain an upper hand in the ultimate high ground. I’ve written about this extensively in both EX SUPRA and in my theory of space warfighting “On Collision Warfare.” When the skies come falling down, so does a lot of modern life. Moreover, spaceport support systems from Vandenberg to Cape Canaveral would undoubtedly suffer cyber attacks that ensure once we lose the high ground, we don’t get to take it back.
I talked about this a bit earlier in the article, and extensively in EX SUPRA, but information operations in the digital and physical realms aimed at hurting morale and creating an astroturf anti-war movement are key to the PLA’s war plans even before the shooting starts. This comes in three parts: disrupting messages of American/Allied unity, creating messages of hopelessness and dividedness, and isolating targets from hearing any messages at all (such as INDOPACOM HQ, Guam, and Taiwan). A divided US, dominated by polarized politics and therefore slow to make decisions and unite for the war, is just as lethal as a fleet of Renhai cruisers. That’s why we say information operations are a part of phase zero of the war, they’ve already begun.
It’s fair to say that the next war, nuclear or not, will be the first war under which the US homeland, particularly the continental US, can and will face sustained threat of attack, bombardment, and harassment by a peer threat. We can’t protect against everything, all the time, but reducing single points of failure from cyber vulnerabilities to production facilities should be priorities for any war effort and homeland defense plan. Moreover, we should remember that the Homefront begins in Guam, and we should remind the PLA of that too, because they don’t buy it. And if they think they can strike US territory and citizens with impunity, that’s a recipe for the disaster.
If you enjoyed this article, check out my novel, EX SUPRA. It’s the story of the war after next. 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.
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