1st Edition

Planning for Protraction A Historically Informed Approach to Great-power War and Sino-US Competition

By Iskander Rehman Copyright 2023

    As Sino-US relations have deteriorated, concerns have grown in Washington over its ability to defeat China in a major conflict. A conflict between such peer competitors would likely become a protracted war of attrition drawing on all dimensions of national power, but this reality has yet to receive a sufficient degree of analytical attention.

    In this Adelphi book, Iskander Rehman provides a historically informed and empirically grounded study of protracted great-power war, its core drivers and characteristics, and an examination of the elements that have most often determined a competitor’s long-term strategic performance. Final victory in a protracted conflict, this book argues, rests on a combination of three core factors: a state’s military effectiveness and adaptability, its socio-economic power and resiliency, and the soundness of its alliance management and grand strategy. A detailed analysis of the contemporary Sino-US rivalry assesses how both parties might fare in the event of a protracted war, while highlighting some of its key differentiating aspects – most notably its nuclear and cyber dimensions.

    ·       CHAPTER ONE: Planning for protraction

    ·       CHAPTER TWO: Great-power success in protracted warfare: key drivers and core components

    ·       CHAPTER THREE: China, the US and protracted war: a comparative evaluation

    ·       CHAPTER FOUR: Conclusion

    ·       NOTES

    ·       INDEX


    Iskander Rehman is the Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, and an Ax:son Johnson Fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs. He holds a PhD, with distinction, from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), in Paris, and can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/IskanderRehman.

    ‘Iskander Rehman brings fresh insights into what the Eisenhower administration called ‘broken-back warfare’ – combat that is expansive in scale, scope and duration, with cycles of escalation. This excellent study examines both US and Chinese military writings in the context of broader military history. It is reminiscent of George H. Quester’s Deterrence Before Hiroshima in prompting reconsideration of comfortably situated concepts.’

    Kori Schake, Senior Fellow and Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute; former Deputy Director of Policy Planning, US Department of State

    ‘Would a US–China war be a sudden catastrophe or a long struggle? In this timely book, Iskander Rehman draws on a wealth of historical insights to trace the overlooked contours of long war as the norm for great-power conflict. He makes a powerful if disturbing case for Washington and its allies to prepare for protracted warfare in the Indo-Pacific. Such preparation itself could enhance deterrence if, as Rehman persuasively argues, China’s resilience is less than meets the commissar’s eye.’

    Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the Australian National University National Security College; author of Indo-Pacific Empire (2020) 

    ‘Despite the fact that it would be enormously destructive, a future war between the United States and China could drag on for months, even years. What mix of organisational, industrial and societal factors would be most important to achieving victory in such a struggle? Iskander Rehman’s important new study offers a provocative, persuasive and, in certain respects, troubling answer to this question, drawing on a deep knowledge of history, as well as an incisive, wide-ranging analysis of the two competitors.’

    Aaron L. Friedberg, Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University