Book Review: Robert Spalding, Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept (Portfolio, 2019)

A B-2 “Spirit” Stealth Bomber (above). Though Robert Spalding’s Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept bears the name of the exquisite machinery depicted, the book actually concerns something different. Stealth War refers to how China has quietly waged a six-front war on the economy, military, diplomacy, technology, education, and infrastructure of the US, and has been winning. Spalding provides piercing judgments, a novel-like reporting of actual events, and a clarity that allows him to cast a cold eye on China policy analysis and intelligence analysis both past and present. He has interestingly taken his own dissatisfaction, disappointment, and anger over how badly the US has handled China, placed the country in some danger, and safely expressed it on paper, turning it into a positive force to better understand how things have taken shape and how events are unfolding before the eyes of every US citizen.

As of late, there has been an altogether different spring in Beijing’s step. Without a shadow of doubt, Beijing now has a broader attitude towards Asia, a broader attitude towards the world, than it ever had before. Very convinced men and women in China awake each day invigorated with the idea that their country will soon be the dominant power in the world. Some might say it has been a long-standing perspective held among Chinese Communists. However, it would appear this view is being clinged to stronger now than ever. Long ago, Beijing formulated a long-term plan to eventually become the world’s dominant power. That plan has been underway without pause for decades. Few who planned it, lived to see the type satisfying results that have blossomed in recent years. Surely, People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping hopes that under his leadership, the long sought goal of dominance will be achieved. In statements and speeches, he has often assured the Chinese people that the hopes and dreams of the Party and the people will be manifested. Though the idea of China being the world’s dominant power may be a pleasurable thought in Beijing, the moral and ethical implications are remarkably overwhelming. The notion of China achieving that goal is a frightening prospect, terrifying leaders in other countries whether its friend or foe.

US President Joe Biden recently reminded before a Joint Session of the US Congress that “Our greatest strength is the power of our example, not just the example of our power.” Perhaps many Asia observers and analysts would agree that such is not the case for China. Despite having the structure, a perceptible veneer to those unfamiliar with its ways, of being a multiparty system at the national level, for all intents and purposes, China is a single party, Communist, authoritarian state. The course of its leadership of the world might follow the same pattern as China’s censorship approach. Whatever China wanted would be dictated and punishment would closely follow behind its threats to those who disobey Beijing. The dynamics of relationships with cautious allies as the Russian Federation, for instance, would change, as China would likely want it at least to be tacitly understood that it was the “senior partner,” the leader. Discussion about China and its moves toward becoming the dominant world power is no longer outside the realm of even everyday conversation among the US public. If the people were provided with the full facts on China’s rise in competition with the US it would likely take the breath away of many. China stands convinced of the correctness of both its points of view and its actions.

The subject of this review, Robert Spalding’s Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept (Portfolio, 2019), has been promoted as a book which discusses how China has quietly waged a six-front war on America’s economy, military, diplomacy, technology, education, and infrastructure, and has been winning. It might be enough for greatcharlie just to describe Spalding’s exceptional achievement with Stealth War as providing piercing judgments, a novel-like reporting of actual events, and a clarity that allows him to cast a cold eye on China policy analysis and intelligence analysis, both past and present. However, Spalding, even more, has interestingly taken his dissatisfaction, disappointment, and anger over how badly the US has handled China, placed the country in some danger, and safely expressed it on paper, turning it into a positive force to better understand how things have taken shape and how atrocious events are unfolding right before the eyes of every US citizen.

Although packed with excellent suggestions, the book is not about moving from choppy waters to calmer times. It is about preparing the US, using all tools of its power, military, diplomatic, economic, political, and information (media) power, to best handle what is happening with China and the worst that will most likely, or will eventually, come from its direction. Have no doubt that as a retired US Air Force Brigadier General, Spalding is well up on how the US could take on China militarily, and win. Spalding has presented his findings and judgments in such a way to plant good, well-thought out, seeds with the hope they will take root well. It is difficult to see how policy analysts and policymakers in the US, Democrat or Republican, would not recognize that Spalding is largely in the right.

In this review of Stealth War, greatcharlie hopes it can demonstrate how those reading the book for the first time will be provided a full picture on the matter. Hopefully the review will spark their exploration of the book to see what they can draw from Spalding’s meditations. For those who have already read Stealth War, this review hopefully will provide an opportunity to consider perspectives not thought of during their first look. In this review, greatcharlie will not run through Stealth War chapter and verse as it typically has in preceding book reviews. While still offering what it may humbly call its well-considered opinions and commentary, greatcharlie will discuss what it feels is the essence of the work, how Spalding stirs the development of perceptions and insights through the manner in which he presents his facts. Admittedly, being somewhat assiduous over facts in reviews, greatcharlie has often been somewhat prolix. A conscious effort has been made by greatcharlie to avoid again presenting what one reader acidulously, and lyrically, described as “a typical edifying, yet verbose greatcharlie review.” There is no desire to create a challenge for some readers to stay onboard with a post until the end of the ride. (Despite our deeming it necessary to do so, greatcharlie apologies to all readers for severely curtailing the discussion of the text of Stealth War in this review. It is recognized that Stealth War is a book of such quality that some readers might view taking such a step as a sort of malfeasance.)

Acknowledged as the master of the heroic couplet and one of the primary tastemakers of the Augustan age, British writer Alexander Pope was a central figure in the Neoclassical movement of the early 18th century. In “An Essay on Criticism,” a didactic poem first published anonymously in 1711 when the author was 23 years old, in greatcharlie’s humble view superbly gets to heart of the reviewer’s mission, explaining: “But you who seek to give and merit fame, / And justly bear a critic’s noble name, / Be sure your self and your own reach to know, / How far your genius, taste, and learning go; / Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet, / And mark that point where sense and dulness meet.”

The author of Stealth War, Robert Spalding (above), is by no means an outsider with special access, looking in on the situation. He is an erstwhile insider, who worked within the deepest points, most grave points, of the US military and other national security bureaucracies. It must be noted that being a former US Air Force brigadier general, B-2 Stealth bomber pilot and unit commander, among many other accomplishments, Spalding was a member of an unique, elite caste of military officers who are not quick to speak out, do not lightly show emotion, at least publicly or react because of it, never fret over a perception without the full facts, would hardly speak idly, and whose views when expressed should be taken very seriously. Spalding spoke truth to power at the Pentagon and the White House, and speaks of only what he knows to be the truth in Stealth War. His scruple does him much honor.

The Author

Robert Spalding retired from the US Air Force as a brigadier general after more than 25 years of service. If US Air Force officers were listed by achievements–perhaps they are somewhere in the Pentagon, Spalding would surely be among the luminaries. His Air Force biography provides the best picture of the experience and knowledge he possess. Minus his list of educational accomplishments, it reads as follows: “General Spalding received his commission through Fresno State University’s ROTC program in 1991. He earned his doctorate in economics and mathematics from the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 2007. The general attended undergraduate pilot training in 1993, and was subsequently assigned as a B-52 Stratofortress co-pilot in the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. He subsequently transitioned to the B-2 Spirit at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. In 2001, he was selected as one of three Air Force Olmsted Scholars, and was a distinguished graduate of Mandarin Chinese language training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Afterward, the general attended Tongji University in Shanghai as a graduate research student. He then returned to Whiteman Air Force Base as a B-2 evaluator pilot and assistant director of operations for the 393rd Bomb Squadron. The general was then assigned to the Office of Secretary of Defense’s Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office as the military assistant for the deputy assistant secretary of defense. During the Iraq surge in 2007, General Spalding deployed to Baghdad and directed the Personal Security Coordination Center. After a stint at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, he was reassigned to the B-2 at Whiteman Air Force Base. While at Whiteman Air Force Base, he was the chief of safety, operations group commander and vice wing commander. He was then selected as a Military Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. General Spalding then served as the chief China strategist for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, Washington DC. His next assignment led him back to China as the Senior Defense Official and Defense Attache to China in Beijing, China. Prior to his current assignment he served at the White House as the Senior Director for Strategic Planning at the National Security Council, Washington D.C.”

Spalding is by no means an outsider, with special access, looking in on the situation. He is an erstwhile insider, who worked within the deepest points, most grave points of the US military and other national security bureaucracies. It must be noted that being a former US Air Force brigadier general, B-2 Stealth bomber pilot and unit commander, among his many impressive accomplishments, Spalding was a member of an unique, elite caste of military officers who are not quick to speak out, do not lightly show emotion, at least publicly or react because of it, never fret over a perception without the full facts, would hardly speak idly, and whose views when expressed should be taken very seriously. Spalding spoke truth to power at the Pentagon and the White House, and speaks of only what he knows to be the truth in Stealth War. His scruple does him much honor.

As of this writing, Spalding is set to publish a new book with Sentinel in April 2022, War Without Rules: China’s Playbook for Global Domination. In War Without Rules, readers are again presented with the perspectives and insights on US-China relations through the lens of a man with years of experience on such matters. Resolved that the Communist Party of China’s leaders believe that there is no sector of life outside the realm of war, Spalding illustrates how they have gone about that by use corporate espionage, global pandemics, and trade violations to achieve dominance. The ultimate goal of the Party is world dominance. Spalding provides insight into how US citizens can be made better aware of China’s tactics in order to mitigate its creeping influence.

Polybius (c. 204-122 B.C.), the Greek “pragmatic historian,” and intriguingly an eyewitness to the siege and destruction of Carthage accompanying none other than Cornelius Scipio Aficanus as one of his commanders. In his noted work, The Histories, Polybius covers the period from 264 BC to 146 BC, focusing primarily on the years 220 BC to 167 BC, and detailing Ancient Rome’s conquest of Carthage, which allowed it to become the dominant force in the Mediterranean. Additionally in The Histories, Polybius offered what he believed were the process and traits required of a good historian. Among all things enumerated, he emphasized: “All available evidence must be collected, thoroughly sifted, soberly weighed, and, lastly, the historian must be animated by a sincere love of truth and a calm impartiality.”

Spalding’s book is far from a dispassionate clinical study of US-China relations. Spalding is not presenting Stealth War at any point in the book as an intermedial. If one is looking for a book written by such an author, Stealth War would be the wrong choice. Being that he is in every way a patriot, Spalding’s position concerning the US interests versus China or any other country for that matter is vigorously partisan for the US. Moreover, he is not reluctant to confide his thoughts on such matters either. Readers should expect his relative partisanship to be the dominant tone of the text. However, Spalding’s patriotic tone does not degrade into anything akin to jingoism or chauvinism. His partisanship does not impact the quality of Spalding’s analysis. He is in fact very critical of US decision making on China. To the extent that he vigorously engaged in the process of collecting relevant evidence and sought to present the absolute truth, Spalding demonstrates all of the traits that Polybius would likely agree qualifies him as a solid reporter of past events.

While Spalding puts readers in the full picture, at the same time, he does not attempt to squeeze every issue dry so to speak. What he does present, however, provides enough to leave no doubt as to China’s actions and intentions. It is his book, and his prerogative to preclose as his present the facts as he knows them.

As a read, the book is presented in a way by Spalding as not to be too heavy going. Often, analysis becomes more uncertain as it becomes more sophisticated. His examination admirably allows for safe passage on each occasion to the very heart of the matter. There are no exaggerated claims. There is nothing to debunk. Surely, China would insist and seek to create the impression that statements made by Spalding regarding election interference, cyberattack, espionage, theft of intellectual property are simply Innuendo and insinuation. The notion of a misunderstood China offends all of Spalding’s reasoning.

People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping (above) celebrating the Centennial of the Communist Party of China. Long ago, Beijing formulated a long-term plan to eventually become the world’s dominant power. That plan has been underway without pause for decades. Few who planned it, lived to see the type satisfying results that have blossomed in recent years. Surely, Xi hopes that under his leadership, the long sought goal of dominance will be achieved. In statements and speeches, he has often assured the Chinese people that the hopes and dreams of the Party and the people will be manifested. Though the idea of China being the world’s dominant power may be a pleasurable thought in Beijing, the moral and ethical implications are remarkably overwhelming. The notion of China achieving that goal is a frightening prospect, terrifying leaders in other countries whether friend or foe.

A Courageous Act by Spalding

Spalding speaks independently with his own points of view. It should be reminded that when he published Stealth War in October 2019, few from the ranks of his fellow military commanders with his experience had effectively and successfully reached an audience with such perspectives on China. Much as the man standing on high rock in the painting, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (The Traveler Contemplating a Sea of ​​Clouds) (1818) by the 19th century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. The “Dean of Cold War Historians” and Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University, John Lewis Gaddis, suggests that the position of the character above the precipice and in front of a tormented landscape is contradictory because “evoking the domination over a landscape but at the same time the insignificance of the individual who is included in it.” In greatcharlie’s interpretation, Spalding could be represented by the man standing as he sees dangers that his country faces at the present and tries to imagine and consider responses to those unknown that it may face in the future. He fiercely desires to mitigate them, and thereby allow the US public to rest more easily. 

The practice of understanding the competition between powers and the clashes that result in the establishment of a dominant power was well-demonstrated more than two millennia ago by the Athenian historian and general, Thucydides (c 460 – c. 400 BC)  . The primary focus of Thucydides’ studies was the burgeoning competition and eventual clash of Athens and Sparta. Sparta was the superpower in the region, particularly militarily. As the Athenian empire rapidly grew with determination, to Thucydides, it clearly was just a matter of time before the two powers would clash.

In his book, Greek Political Thought from Homer to the Sophists (Cambridge University Press, 1995), Michael Gagarin presents Thucydides explanation for the Peloponnesian War which states the following: “I will first write down an account of the disputes that explain their breaking the Peace, so that no one will ever wonder from what ground so great a war could arise among the Greeks. I believe, however, that the truest reason for the quarrel, though least evident in what was said at the time, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into the Spartans and so compelled them into war, while the explanations both sides gave in public for breaking the Peace and starting the war are as follows.” 

There is a sense, a feeling, within the pages of Stealth War that Spalding believes the unwanted crisis, war between the US and China, will come. To that extent, he wants the US to be best prepared to fight that war and to win. There is a definite materiality in what he presents. Specific points of China’s attack on the US and suggestions on responses are clearly laid out by Spalding in the 11 chapters of his book’s 256 pages They are organized and titled as follows: Chapter 1: “Unrestricted Warfare”; Chapter 2: “How We Got Here”; Chapter 3: “Economy”; Chapter 4: “The Military Crisis”; Chapter 5: “The Digital Battlefield”; Chapter 6: “Modern Warrior 5.0: The 5G Future”; Chapter 7: “Politics and Diplomacy”; Chapter 8: “Stealing Intellectual Property”; Chapter 9: “World Domination via Infrastructure”; Chapter 10: “Sino Solutions: How to Combat and Stop China’s Stealth War”; and, Chapter 11: “Beating China at Its Own Game”. In his discussion of each issue, Spalding first looks from within, taking a deeper dive into impressions of the situation that he has developed over years of immersion in all aspects of the matter. His discussion of issues reflects the realist, the pragmatic thinker that he is. 

Support for Spalding’s pragmatic approach to examining China’s behavior vis-a-via the US, and the world, appears to have been provided more than two millennia ago by the aforementioned Thucydides. Thucydides is sometimes credited with founding of what is known as”political realism.” It is unknown to greatcharlie whether Spalding actually does or does not associate himself with the world of political realism, and it would go out on shaky ground to claim either was the case. Yet, Spalding’s discussion of China’s ambitions appears to manifest aspects of that theory. Central to political realism is the assumption that humans, deep down, are selfish, fearful, ambitious, and self-interested. As for countries, they are driven to safeguard national interests. To that extent, the tragic choice to go to war stand as indispensable tools in the management of state affairs and diplomacy: statecraft. As a result, the world has become a place in which each country may find themselves in conflict with competitors with similar interests, ambitions, and goals (targets charted by time).

In his search for a reason, a rationale, a purpose, for the current state of relations with China, Spalding, led by data available to him, explains it was the errant policy positions of former US administrations. At the core of those policies pursued, according to Spalding, was the misguided belief that economic development would lead the way to China’s transformation to a more democratic form of government and away from Communism. Given the manner in which he explains it, readers are left to contemplate how such a horrifying blunder could continue on for so long.

Even when the First Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong (left) was offering his olive branch to US President Richard Nixon (right), he reportedly regarded the US as the enemy, and that Chinese documents “likened it to Hitler.” Spalding notes Pillsbury recounts how People’s Republic of China Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai, during a meeting with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, proclaimed “America is the ba.” The Chinese interpreter rendered this statement as “America is the leader.” That was a blatant mistranslation: “ba,” as used in most political language, means “tyrant.” When the translator was later asked why he softened Zhou’s language to Kissinger, he said, “It would have upset him.” At the time, US policymakers and decisionmakers were too interested in embracing a policy of helping China in order to destabilize the Soviet Union to concern themselves with the Communust Party of China’s hostile attitudes toward their country.

China Well Exploited Pro-China Policies of the Past

Providing some framework for understanding the approach China took toward the situation, Spalding explains that war between countries in the 21st century looks much different than war in the 19th and 20th centuries. He notes that instead of bombs and bullets, it is about “ones and zeros and dollars and cents: economics, finance, data-information, manufacturing, infrastructure and communications.” He insists that today if one controls those fronts, “you can win a war without firing a shot.” Spalding calls it a simple logical strategy that leaders in the West have been very slow to grasp. To provide a taste from the text, Spalding elaborates further on matter in Chapter 1: “Unrestricted Warfare” on page 14: “Military might is only one way to express aggression, only one of many ways to attain power. In China’s view, economic power strengthens all the fields of potential engagement. In other words, money bolsters the military but also bolsters every other sphere of engagement imaginable. It can be used to influence and sway political leaders in foreign countries, silence ideas, and purchase or steal technology. It can be used to manufacture goods at dirt cheap prices and drive competitors out of business, or weaken rival economies. It can be used to create an army of academics, who fan out to gather scientific, technological, and engineering intelligence that can be used to further other goals.” 

To that extent, Spalding goes on to clarify the matter by stating that perhaps one of the most important and revealing documents of the Communist Party of China is a 1999 work entitled Unrestricted Warfare. Written by two senior colonels in the PLA, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, it discloses a number of prospective strategies that could possibly shift the balance of power throughout the world in China’s favor. Spalding insists that Unrestricted Warfare should be required reading for all branches of the US government and for business leaders because it outlines the strategy at the root of China’s policies in the world. He quotes a passage of the document that states: “The new principles of war are no longer ‘using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will,’ but rather are ‘using all means, including armed force and non-armed force, military and non-military, lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests’.”

Past US Administrations: Blind as Beetles

Given what Spalding reports, it seems at one point, opinion in nearly all foreign policy circles in the US were adverse to the suggestion of an aggressive China that would challenge the US position as a the world’s leader, or as Chinese government spokespersons and Communist Party of China leaders refer to as US dominance in the world. It is to go out on shaky ground to ask readers to remember that sentiment was heard during the 2020 US Presidential Campaign when then Presidential candidate Joe Biden referring to China stated: “I mean, you know, they’re nice folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”

Spalding notes that in The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (Henry Holt and Co, 2015), China observer Michael Pillsbury discloses that even when the First Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong offered his olive branch to US President Richard Nixon, he regarded the US as the enemy, and that Chinese documents “likened it to Hitler.” Spalding notes Pillsbury recounts how People’s Republic of China Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai, during a meeting with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, proclaimed “America is the ba.” The Chinese interpreter rendered this statement as “America is the leader.” Pillsbury said that was a  blatant mistranslation: “ba,” as used in most political language, means “tyrant.” When the translator was later asked why he softened Zhou’s language to Kissinger, he said, “It would have upset him.” At the time, US policymakers and decisionmakers were too interested in embracing a policy of helping China in order to destabilize the Soviet Union to concern themselves with the Communust Party of China’s hostile attitudes toward their country.

US President Bill Clinton (left) and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Jiang Zemin (right). From 1993 and 1998, there were several meetings between Clinton and Jiang. One the surface, US-China relations were mostly positive, a situation Spalding would explain was due to a desire in Washington to satisfy Beijing. Clinton signed a law passed by Congress establishing permanent normal trade relations with China. With the relationship codified, US investor confidence soared, as did business. China’s economy roared forward, too, due to a confluence of events: China was then accepted as a member of the World Trade Organization, Apple unveiled the iPod, and an eruption of digital goods turned into a stampede of international investment. Spalding makes the acidulous remark that many policy makers and business investors then, as well as years before, seemed to assume capitalism has special powers that could melt away authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Yet, despite China’s exponential growth, Spalding notes, as predicted by James Mann in his book, The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China, the Communist Party of China only honed its brand of authoritarian capitalism.

Spalding remarks acidulously that many policy makers and business investors of the past seemed to assume capitalism has special powers that could melt away authoritarianism and totalitarianism. He goes on to discuss James Mann’s book, The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China (Viking Adult, 2007), in which the author calls the West’s idea that China will morph into a liberal democratic society “the Soothing Scenario,” Mann summarizes the logic this way: “The country’s rapid economic growth will lead to far reaching political change as well. Eventually, increasing trade and prosperity will bring liberalization and democracy to China.” Spalding also points to Mann’s discussion of the opposite of the Soothing Scenario: “The Upheaval Scenario,” in which doubters envision China collapsing as a result of economic chaos or some kind of mass revolution. The result is turmoil and chaos. Spalding explains that Mann was way ahead of the curve when he wrote his book in 2007–a time when China was literally exploding with commerce and manufacturing. Six years earlier, then US President Bill Clinton signed a law passed by Congress establishing permanent normal trade relations with China. With the relationship codified, US investor confidence soared, as did business. China’s economy roared forward, too, due to a confluence of events: China was then accepted as a member of the World Trade Organization, Apple unveiled the iPod, and an eruption of digital goods turned into a stampede of international investment. Yet, despite China’s exponential growth, Spalding notes, Mann did not adhere to either the Soothing or Upheaval scenario. For Mann, all signs indicated that the Communist Party of China would continue to hone its brand of authoritarian capitalism.

There was not simply a gap between a perception of Chinese actions and intentions with a perception exemplar of the political realism school of thought as that of Spalding. Moreover, there appeared to be a gap between perception and reality on China among US political leaders and policy makers. They saw no urgency in responding effectively to what Beijing has been doing. The reality was hardly missed in Beijing that it would not be possible to simply rise to the mantle of the world’s dominant power. In order to possess the title of the world’s dominant power, China had to dispossess the US of it.

Spalding presents the subtle differences between logic and lunacy in expressing the actions of US political leaders and policymakers coddling a China determined to surpass the US, a thought many within policy circles and the general public in the US might still find difficult to wrap their heads around. Yet, Spalding curiously manages to forge an intriguing link for the US public, and imaginably the world at large, to what once quietly resided in the hearts and minds of senior military decision makers on China as well as what may generally reside in them now.

To that extent, the book has become, and will likely remain for some time, a stimulus to the discourse on US-China relations for a broader audience than other books on the subject. As awareness increases on the realities of that relationship, there has been an albeit gradual shift in perspectives on China. In foreign policy circles, it has been a gradual turn. In business circles, it has been an even slower transition, but somewhat steady. As he insists upon immediate change in response to developments, Spalding, himself, notes that “Some critics will accuse me of being alarmist or sensationalist.” Perhaps it will turn out in the end that the necessary change in thinking occurred too slowly.

Though not felt within the society as a whole but more so among a finite set of those in the national security bureaucracies whose responsibility is to keep an eye on China, there is a sense of foreboding similar to that which characterized the Cold War era when it was in full gallop during the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, they are plenty worried. Many are worried enough to express their own concerns, if able, if permissible, in books after leaving the respective services, military, diplomatic, intelligence, sounding the claxson loudly on China’s moves much as Spalding had already done with Stealth War. In Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (Penguin Classics, 2005) is found the line: “He had been frightened and so he had been vehement.”

Indeed, since the time Spalding published Stealth War, more have joined him in shining increased sunlight China’s activities, not just on the coronavirus disaster or in the realm of national security, but a multitude of other actions, all, nonetheless, malign. Included among those actions would be: predatory investment scams directed against trusting governments of often small and less industrialized countries; intrusion of sovereign waters for mass fishing; intellectual property theft from companies and research labs that have invested millions in research and development into that which was stolen; and, demands of censorship insisted upon of those in any arena who have received funding from, or are doing business with, China, concerning anything the Communist Party of China does not want discussed. Beijing must accept that as a result of such actions, impressions of China have not exactly been positive worldwide.

The Key Chapter at the Moment: Chapter 4: “The Military Crisis

Spalding states on page 43 in Chapter 4: “The Military Crisis”, “Fortunately, for the moment, China has no interest in engaging in a ground war, or any kind of war that entails actual violence and physical destruction.” Nevertheless, it is a coming war between the US and its allies against China which haunts the story that Spalding tells and has kept many readers turning the book’s pages to find clues as to why and how it will all come about. Though Spalding admirably discussed the issue of a possible war between the US and China, he explained the situation as it existed at the time he wrote Stealth War. It appears that the problem has metastasized a bit on the diplomatic and economic front since. 

No doubt, the Communist Party of China is not expending enormous financial and material resources only to pose a potential threat to Taiwan’s self-rule and somewhat attenuated sovereignty out of academic interest or worse, some banal amusement; far from it. It is not Spalding’s message, but after aggregating what he explains with more recent events, what becomes clear can be stated in simple words for political leaders in Washington and Taipei: “The Red Chinese are coming!” If this assessment is in error, and upon greatcharlie proved, better news could not be reported for the sake of international peace and security, and humanity itself.

In the top senior policymaking offices of the civilian leadership of US and its Western and Eastern allies, officials surely believe uniformly that a show of force is the most effective option to respond to and deter: China’s territorial ambitions particularly regarding Taiwan and the waters of the Western Pacific, China’s displays of naval and air power and China’s threatening words in rebuff to US leadership and dominance in the region and the world. The most formidable show of force policymakers have used is joint exercises between US Navy aircraft carrier battlegroups and aircraft carriers of its allies and having US warships transit the Taiwan Straits. In addition to being a show of force, such deployments also serve as an excellent opportunity for the US and its allies to project joint power and demonstrate their commitment to collective defense, rehearse cooperation, and particularly allow allies to appreciate the benefits of US leadership. Based on what Spalding explains, some readers might conclude that such displays of force by the US and its allies more satisfy the need for some ostensibly strong action and serve more to soothe international concerns, provide a display of leadership, and domestic consumption. In reality, the aircraft carrier battlegroups, as mighty as they are, present themselves as easy prey for Chinese missiles.

Spalding explains that China has thousands of precision warheads tied to a sophisticated command and control system. He expounds on this by pointing out that the Dong Feng-26 (DF-26) ballistic missile–46 feet long, 44,000 pounds, and built to carry both conventional and nuclear warheads–was designed to obliterate aircraft carriers. The DF-26 has a range of 2,500 miles, which means it can strike US warships in the western Pacific Ocean, including ships based in Japan. In the specific context of defending Taiwan,, he gets across the idea that in order to deploy a carrier’s bombers on a mission in the South China Sea, the carrier would have to come within the range of DF-26 and other missiles that would destroy it. Though noting that the US Navy has SM-6 interceptor missiles, thought to be capable of destroying the DF-26, Spalding leaves no doubt that the sheer amount of smaller, long-range ballistic missiles at China’s disposal and the blazing speed with which these weapons travel–six thousand miles in thirty minutes–pose, at the moment, an enormous threat to US warships. To that extent, he writes: “It is conceivable that an undetected conflict might end in thirty seconds. Game over.” That is a hard saying.

Gnawing on the subject a little bit more, Spalding explains that assessed from an economIc standpoint, the PLA constructed a $1 billion dollar missile system designed to destroy a $30 billion ship. Spalding says that there is no doubt our carriers are valuable and powerful machines. However, in plain English he also states that “their effectiveness in policing the Pacific is now extremely limited.” To that extent, ironically, having US and allied aircraft carriers sail within the range of the DF-26 may repeatedly send the wrong message at an exorbitant cost. In terms of deterring China regarding Taiwan, the move may have repeatedly demonstrated that the US and its allies would be unable to act in a way to halt an assault on the island while at the same time avoiding unacceptable losses. No greater support could be provided to the cluster of expressive hawks the leadership in the Communist Party of China under Xi, clamoring for an assault on Taiwan sooner than later.

China’s Dong Feng-26 (DF-26) ballistic missile (above) was designed to obliterate aircraft carriers. The DF-26 has a range of 2,500 miles, which means it can strike US warships in the western Pacific Ocean, including ships based in Japan. So do the math: in order to deploy a carrier’s bombers on a mission in the South China Sea, the carrier would have to come within the range of DF-26 and other missiles that would destroy it. The sheer amount of smaller, long-range ballistic missiles at China’s disposal under a sophisticated command and control system, and the blazing speed with which these weapons travel–six thousand miles in thirty minutes–pose, at the moment, an enormous threat to our ships. Spalding says It is conceivable that an undetected conflict might end in thirty seconds. Game over. It is a hard saying.

Following up on Spalding’s statement in Chapter 4 that the US cannot fight a ground war with China, he expounds on that point by stating products from China are crucial for the production and operations of much of the US military’s weapon systems and gear. He states directly that “the amount of goods that have been shipped and continue to be shipped from China for military use is mind-boggling.” Spalding goes into detail somewhat by offering examples of the daunting amount of military equipment that contain components made in China. He says the propellant that fires out Hellfire missiles, which are launched from helicopters, jets, and drones, is imported from China. He points the glass in night-vision goggles contains a metal called lanthanum, a large majority of which comes from China. He also points to computers that US military and naval officers write plans and reports and print them on come from China predominantly. Instructional videos are watched on screens made in China.

Spalding reminds that there are laws mandating that the US military buy goods that are made in the US. However, he believes that the US has gone too far with outsourcing and has reached a point where it is unable to defend itself and its interests without Chinese manufacturing and logistical support. If supply lines were cut from China, or even if a trade war broke out with embargoes, Spalding predicts the US military would have a nightmare sourcing its needs and getting them to the battlefield. Spalding quotes a 2015 essay by retired US Army General John Adams which states: “Our almost complete dependence on China and other countries for telecommunications equipment presents potentially catastrophic battlefield vulnerabilities.”

The Nuclear Dimension

On China’s nuclear capabilities, on page 201 in Chapter 10: “Sino Solutions: How to Combat and Stipop China’s Stealth War”, Spalding revealed that his greatest concern was that as the US seeks to balance our economic relationship, the PLA will continue to be left unrestricted. Spalding explains that unfortunately as a consequence, the US needs the threat of its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent. Spalding says the assumption is if course that these bombs will never be used. Nevertheless, he feels that “invoking fear of the unthinkable–the madman or Wildman theory of negotiation–often works.”

Delving a bit into the realm of conjecture, it is conceivable that warplanners in China may assess that they do not have the time to develop nuclear parity with US in order to offset the massive advantage the US has with its nuclear arsenal and that Washington would likely use as leverage to impact China’s choices in a conflict  However, they may have assessed that it might be feasible to create a sufficient nuclear counterbalance to threaten a rapid response retaliatory nuclear strike or sufficient first strike to convince the US that some resolution might be best to avoid incurring unacceptable losses of people and property.

From background to foreground: USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), (Japanese Maritime Self-Defense) JS Ise (DDH-182), HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). Spalding explained that from an economIc standpoint, the PLA with the DF-26 constructed a $1 billion dollar missile system designed to destroy a $30 billion ship. Spalding says that there is no doubt our carriers are valuable and powerful machines. However, he also states that “their effectiveness in policing the Pacific is now extremely limited.” To that extent, ironically, having US and allied aircraft carriers sail within the range of the DF-26 may repeatedly send the wrong message at an exorbitant cost. Other than providing the US and its allies the opportunity to rehearse cooperation, display joint power, and appreciate benefits of US leadership, in terms of deterring China, the move may have demonstrated that the US and its allies are unable to act in a way to halt an assault on Taiwan while at the same time avoiding unacceptable losses. No greater support could be provided to the cluster of expressive hawks within the Communist Party of China’s leadership, clamoring for an assault on Taiwan sooner than later.

Other Thoughts That Billowed Up in This Reader on Taiwan Via Spalding’s Dialectic Ladle

In the end, central to the argument to take military action to gain and retain control of Taiwan, is what was central to arguments on how the US managed to place itself in such a challenging position with Beijing: the character of US political leaders. That is stated not to put into question the personal qualities of the men and women who have honorably and admirably chosen to dutifully serve the people to the best of their abilities.  Rather, it is to suggest that fighting the type of war that the US might be required to prosecute, defeat China, thwart China’s ambitions, drive it off and forever away from Taiwan might not be characteristic of certain leaders. In taking that course, there would be the potential for millions to die in China, unacceptable losses on the side of the US and its allies, and as grotesque as the thought may be, China could potentially level an unexpected, crippling blow to US naval and air forces could also result. What might be hoped in Beijing to be a limited lighting war launched in the name of protecting China’s sovereignty, could become total war, a war of national survival. The nature of the one who would make the decision in the US on how to respond to China’s aggression will make all of the difference. Perhaps in Washington, a decision has already been made on how to proceed in such a contingency. Perhaps the decisions on the defense of Taiwan have been established as protocols. In defense of its ally, US political leaders may be obliged to comply with them. In the end, it boils down to what the US political leaders want from the situation, a war ending in a type of Pyrrhic victory with losses or a struggle resulting in some acceptable or tolerable new paradigm that allows for an Irenic victory, in which the two opposing sides find some resolution and at least a modicum of satisfaction.

Post factum nullum consilium. (Counsel is of no effect after the fact.) To race well, a jockey and horse must be one animal. The horse must be superbly harnessed. When a horse does not run well, it is typically considered that it may have a poor jockey. On China, military capabilities and resources, state diplomacy to include economic and public diplomacy, and policymaking must also function together as one figurative animal. The expectation is for senior policymakers to master the situation through their management of it. When this is the case, they can often be more precise, to an extent exact, in policy planning , formulation, and implementation. Evidence of that can be found in the fact that their figurative brush strokes will appear finer.

Policies that seem to be too far off from the realities of military capabilities and resources, military power, and awkward diplomatic exchanges and pursuits of inconsequential inroads may evince to competitors and opponents that policymakers are out of touch with the real situation and acting on mere perceptions and perhaps surmisal. Parsing out such concerning the US must be an ongoing process, an obsession, in Beijing at the moment. It would be part of the effort to determine how the US might react when presented with a situation as an assault on Taiwan.

In the US, producing the very best answers to situations is made more difficult because there are a variety of views and interests within the national security bureaucracies that must be balanced when policy is being made. if decisionmaking were directed, controlled by a single source, as in China under the Communist Party of China, under the command of Xi, a magician may seem to be somewhere in the mix who is clearly aware of what to do and how to do it in a way that keeps China a step or more ahead of its main competitor or opponent. Perhaps that is Xi, himself. On the other hand, some policy analysts perceive that for too long there has been a blindness to the best interests of the US that borders on madness. A sense is given off by them–to include Spalding it seems–that it may be too late to really change the course of things by implementing new approaches.

What might be hoped in Beijing to be a limited lighting war launched in the name of protecting China’s sovereignty, could become total war, a war of national survival. The nature of the one who would make the decision in the US on how to respond to China’s aggression will make all of the difference. Perhaps in Washington, a decision has already been made on how to proceed in such a contingency. Perhaps the decisions on the defense of Taiwan have been established as protocols. In defense of its ally, US political leaders may be obliged to comply with them. In the end, it boils down to what the US political leaders want from the situation, a war ending in a type of Pyrrhic victory with losses or a struggle resulting in some acceptable or tolerable new paradigm that allows for an Irenic victory, in which the two opposing sides find some resolution and at least a modicum of satisfaction.

At the outset of the review, greatcharlie explained that the book would not be broken down to the fullest extent possible, but hopefully enough so to raise interest in readers to take a look at the book. There is so much more to discover in Stealth War. The book is a steady flow of information, data, and expressions from beginning to end. Spalding is the purveyor of a foundation upon which an honest discussion can be had on US-China relations or simply the China Threat at all levels, from the senior government policymaker to the average US citizen.

There nothing that greatcharlie appreciates more than a book that stirs the readers curiosity, inquiry into the author’s judgments, greater consideration of their own views on the matter, and elicits fresh insights based on what is presented. That is exactly the type of book that Stealth War is. It is assured that after the first reading Stealth War, one would most likely go back to the book and engage in that stimulating process again and again. There is no telling what insights and how many might be brewed up from within readers after they have had a chance to read through it. Too much pleasure has been lost whilst abstaining from this delightful book. As greatcharlie suggested earlier here, those reading this review who have already read Stealth War would do well to go through the book again. 

Perhaps needless to say but it is nonetheless stated, with absolute conviction and relish, greatcharlie unequivocally recommends Spalding’s Stealth War to its readers.

By Mark Edmond Clark