What a shooting war in the East China Sea might look like

The crux of the war is still centered on these virtually uninhabited islands, but the fighting is spreading. And missiles, not airplanes, will determine who dominates the airspace over the disputed islands.

It starts with a wave of unmanned aerial vehicle attacks from the Chinese mainland. The Harpy drones take off from trucks and boats, fly as far as 300 miles, and hone in on radar emissions of surface-to-air defenses. The Harpy, made in Israel and sold to China in 2004, ends its flight with a death dive into the radar, detonating 4.5 pounds of explosives on impact.

The American/Japanese alliance is ready to own the air over the Sendakus. The attack on Chinese radar and air-defense installations comes shortly thereafter. Submarine-launched Tomahawks, B-2 stealth bomber runs, and long-range “standoff” missiles fired from B-52s hit targets. The Chinese have moved mobile radar systems and switched them off to keep them hidden. F-22s take to the sky, ready to fight and win dogfights. But these never happen.

Instead, China deals its last card—a barrage of theater missiles. These are conventional ballistic and cruise missiles fired from land, as far as 3500 miles away. These target fixed locations—Japanese air bases, naval stations, and American Air Force and Marine Corps bases. Hundreds of warheads drop on targets, beating missile defense systems, wrecking runways, and blasting barracks. At sea the Navy is also targeted. Hypersonic missiles fired from land or submarines target U.S. warships and Japanese vessels. The lesson is clear: The closer to the Chinese coast U.S. forces operate, the more trouble Chinese forces can bring to bear.