If China felt that the U.S. would intervene, military planners from the Pentagon and Rand who have gamed out scenarios believe a war over Taiwan would most likely begin with a massive attack by advanced Chinese missiles against three American targets: its bases on Okinawa and Guam, its ships in the Western Pacific, including aircraft carrier groups, and its air force squadrons in the region.

Military analysts predict the American side would initially counter with Patriot anti-missile missiles. But the sheer number of Chinese missiles would mean that hundreds of them would reach their targets. American submarines operating near Taiwan would be able to sink some Chinese ships, including amphibious landing craft bringing the Chinese invading force to Taiwan. But the number of submarines near enough to the battle zones at the time of the Chinese strike would, analysts say, be around 20 or 25, each armed with about 12 torpedoes and 10 or so Harpoon missiles, not nearly enough to overcome China’s flood-the-zone strategy. Military analysts seem to agree that in the first day or two, there would likely be thousands of American deaths and the loss of billions of dollars’ worth of materiel.

“We’re playing an away game against China,” Rand’s Ochmanek said. “When bases are subjected to repeated attacks, it makes it exponentially more difficult to project power far away.”

“The casualties that the Chinese could inflict on us could be staggering,” said Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at Rand and formerly a China analyst at the U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii. “Anti-ship cruise missiles could knock out U.S. carriers and warships; surface-to-air missiles could destroy our fighters and bombers.”