The United States and China prepare for a war over Taiwan

China USA Taiwan

With their faces smeared in green and black, some with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles in their backpacks, the men from the “Darkside” – the 3rd Battalion of the 4th US Marine Regiment – climbed into a pair of Sea Stallion helicopters and charged at full speed. speed in the nearby jungle. Their commanders followed in other helicopters carrying ultralight vehicles and communications equipment. Everything superfluous was left behind. No big screens for video links of the kind used in Iraq and Afghanistan: To avoid detection, Marines must make sure their communications blend into the background as surely as their camouflage blends into tropical vegetation. ANDThe goal of the exercise: spread out across an unnamed island, link up with friendly “green” allies and repel an amphibious invasion by “red” forces.

Let’s ignore the polite abstractions. Marines training for a war with China, probably.

precipitated by an invasion of Taiwan. Its Okinawa base, on the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago, is only 600 km from Taiwan. The two islands are part of what US military planners call the “first island chain”: a series of archipelagos and islands, large and small, stretching from Japan to Malaysia, barring Chinese naval passage into the Pacific. Whether harassing Chinese ships from a distance or – much less likely – deploying to Taiwan to help repel a Chinese landing, Marines will be the first entrants in any conflict.

The most difficult thing, according to Lt. Col. Jason Copeland, commanding officer of the Darkside, would be facing “an adversary that comes in droves.” As China’s military power grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict how a war over Taiwan might play out, thus improving the chances of repelling China without unleashing a nuclear calamity. The only certain thing is that, even if all nuclear weapons remained in their silos, a conflict of this type would have terrible consequences, not only for the 23 million inhabitants of Taiwan but for the entire world.

Chinese communist leaders have claimed Taiwan since Nationalist forces fled there after losing a civil war in 1949. The United States has long promised to help the island defend itself. But in recent years, the rhetoric and preparations on both sides have grown more feverish. Chinese forces often practice landings on the island. Its warships and fighters routinely cross the “median line” (in effect, Taiwan’s maritime border) and harass US and allied military ships and aircraft. After Nancy Pelosi, then the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan last year, China fired missiles at her.

A dangerous strait

The United States, for its part, is sending more military instructors to Taiwan. The Taiwanese government recently increased conscription from four months to one year. Prominent congressmen have urged President Joe Biden to learn from Russia’s attack on Ukraine and provide Taiwan with all the weapons it might need before an invasion, not after it has begun. Adding to the sense of impending crisis are US efforts to strangle China’s tech industry and Xi’s growing friendship with Russia.

US military commanders and intelligence chiefs say Xi has ordered the People’s Liberation Army to develop the capability to invade Taiwan by 2027. Some believe that the conflict is closer. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” General Michael Minihan, head of the US air mobility command, recently warned his subordinates. Both sides fear time is running out: The United States worries that the Chinese military will soon be too strong to deter, while China worries that the prospect of peaceful reunification is evaporating.

“War with China is neither inevitable nor imminent,” says Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, which would oversee any confrontation with China. From his headquarters overlooking Pearl Harbor, the scene of Japan’s pre-emptive attack in 1941, he says his first mission is “to do everything in my power to avoid conflict.” However, he adds, “if deterrence fails, you have to be prepared to fight and win.” As he demonstrates the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he warns, “there is no such thing as a short war.”

The first question for US strategists is how far in advance they would receive warning of an impending invasion. The plan, with some 2 million active-duty troops compared to Taiwan’s 163,000, would require extensive preparations to carry out what would be the largest amphibious assault since the D-Day landings in 1944. It would have to cancel permits, assemble warships, landing, store ammunition, set up mobile command posts and much more.

But in a war of choice, in which Xi can choose the right moment, many of these moves could be disguised as military maneuvers. US defense officials say they could see unmistakable signs of impending war, such as stockpiling of blood supplies, with only a fortnight’s notice. In the case of smaller operations, such as the seizure of Taiwan-controlled islands near mainland China, for example, the notice could be only a few hours, if that.

The United States would like to expose China’s preparations in advance, as it did with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and assemble an international opposition coalition. That would be easier if Xi embarked on a direct invasion. But China could try to exploit the ambiguities of Taiwan’s status: it does not have diplomatic relations with most other countries. If Xi alludes to some “provocation” and starts with actions short of war, such as a blockade, the United States or its allies could be wrong.

The United States must also weigh the extent to which its preparations may precipitate the conflict. Send aircraft carriers to the region as a show of force? Deploy troops to Taiwan? Threaten Chinese oil supply through the Malacca Strait? All this could be considered provocations by China, if not acts of war.

As war approaches, Taiwan will move ships from its vulnerable west coast to the east, behind the mountain range that runs along the eastern part of the island. It would hide fighters in dugouts and mobilize its 2.3 million reservists. He would also have to control the widespread panic, as crowds tried to flee and transport links to the outside world were cut.

The United States would also disperse its aircraft from exposed bases. Marines would be deployed around maritime choke points. US submarines would slide under the waves, some gathering near Taiwan. Some US and Taiwanese military commanders would no doubt press for military strikes against the invading Chinese force. They would likely be overruled by those seeking a diplomatic solution, or at least do not want to be blamed for firing the first shot.

China, for its part, would have to make a momentous decision. Should he limit his attack to Taiwan, hoping to create a fait accompli while the United States and its allies falter? Or should it attack US forces in the region, at a new Pearl Harbour? The first option leaves the United States free to attack the invading fleet; the second virtually guarantees their wholehearted entry into the war, and probably Japan’s as well, if China were to attack US bases there.

An invasion would almost certainly begin with massive missile and rocket attacks on Taiwan. These would quickly destroy much of Taiwan’s navy, air force, and anti-aircraft defenses. Wang Hongguang, a former deputy commander of the PLA region facing Taiwan, predicted in 2018 that there would be 24-hour shelling, first on military and political targets, and then on civilian infrastructure such as power plants and fuel depots. He suggested that China would blind Taiwan’s satellites, cut its undersea Internet cables and use electronic warfare to disrupt its command and control systems, making coordination with US and allied forces more difficult.

General Wang said the attack would wreak enough havoc to open a window of at least two days for the invasion. If US forces did not arrive in three days, he said, “don’t bother making a wasted trip.” China will also do everything possible to undermine Taiwan’s will to fight. His cyber forces will try to hack into local TV and radio and bombard Taiwanese soldiers with text messages and on social media, offering rewards to mutineers and deserters.

China will then face the formidable challenge of an amphibious assault, one of the most difficult forms of warfare. The beaches of Kinmen, a Taiwanese island just 3 km from the mainland, are dotted with relics of an attempted invasion in 1949 when Nationalist forces killed or captured nearly the entire advance party of 9,000 communist soldiers who landed in small fishing boats. The PLA has come a long way since then, acquiring advanced weaponry and studying precedents such as D-Day, the US-led landing at Incheon, Korea in 1950, and the British recapture of the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982.

Fight ride

However, the risks remain great. China has not fought a war since it invaded Vietnam in 1979. Although the Taiwan Strait is only 130 km wide at its narrowest point, its currents and tides are powerful and erratic. Conditions are usually favorable only in March-May and September-October. Only 14 of Taiwan’s beaches are suitable for landing and are heavily fortified, especially those near Taipei, where Chinese forces would probably prefer to launch an invasion. Taiwan has built many bunkers and tunnels in the area.

Nor is it certain that the plan will have enough ships to quickly transport an adequate landing force across the strait. He would need between 300,000 and a million soldiers to be able to subdue Taiwan. It has six amphibious brigades stationed nearby, totaling 20,000 troops, plus a similar number of Marines. But China’s amphibious landing ships could probably only carry about 20,000 troops in a day or two, depending on the equipment they carry. Similarly, the PLA’s transport planes could probably only carry half of its 20,000 airborne troops in the initial phase. The PLA has recently practiced the use of ferries and other civilian vessels, which could carry many more units, but for that to work well, China would need to capture a still usable port.

The Ukraine war has also raised new questions, especially about Chinese ground forces. Its combined arms battalions, including amphibians, are modeled after Russian battalion task forces, which have had difficulties in Ukraine. Even if China were to quickly decapitate the Taiwanese leadership, it would face a protracted fight against forces that replicate the Ukrainian use of man-portable missile launchers and drones.

Taiwan’s strategy, for its part, is to thwart China’s initial landing or prevent it from bringing in enough troops. Taiwanese forces would blockade ports and beaches with sea mines, submerged ships, and other obstacles. Backed by surviving aircraft and warships, they would attack approaching Chinese forces with missiles and bombard landing Chinese troops with artillery and rockets. Some texts suggest that Taiwan has underwater pipelines off its beaches that could release flammable liquid. Some of its outlying islands are protected by remote-controlled cannons.

If the Chinese military were to break out of its beachheads, it would have to traverse harsh terrain to reach Taipei and other urban centers. Then both sides would face a challenge neither is fully prepared for: urban warfare. Taiwan is reluctant to fight in its cities, fearing high civilian casualties. The pla do train for urban warfare but have long banked on a quick victory if they make it to Taipei. However, since the war in Ukraine began, both sides have practiced fighting more in built-up areas.

However, even if a Chinese invasion were bogged down, time would not be on Taiwan’s side. “We can turn them down for a week or two, but no more,” says Si-fu Ou of Taiwan’s National Security and Defense Research Institute. Unless the Taiwanese forces resist firmly, everything else is useless. But by the same token, Taiwan cannot hope to hold its own in the long term without US help.

As an island, Taiwan is not only harder to invade than Ukraine, but also harder to support. Its ports could be destroyed by China, its own forces, or even the United States. Trying to get reinforcements or supplies to the island while it’s raining Chinese missiles would be almost as difficult as trying to invade it.

At the very least, the United States and Taiwan would need help from their alliesHome to tens of thousands of US troops, Japan has capable forces. The Philippines is weak militarily but close to Taiwan. Australia is a close but modestly armed and more distant ally. Pacific countries could provide rear bases. Farther allies, such as Great Britain, could send warships. A big uncertainty is to what extent India would help. Much would depend on how the crisis unfolds and who is blamed for it.

The US plans to help Taiwan used to depend on aircraft carriers. It sent one to the area after China fired missiles near Taiwan in 1995 and again after another salvo in 1996. But China has since invested heavily in “anti-access/area denial” weapons, designed to repel ships and planes. americans. These include the df-26 missile, which can strike deep in the Pacific, and new hypersonic missiles that are harder to intercept. The Chinese navy is now the largest in the world, with a fleet of submarines to attack approaching US ships. Their long-range bombers are also a threat. David Ochmanek of the rand Corporation, a think tank that has conducted classified war games simulating a conflict in Taiwan,

The choice for US planners boils down to three: disrupt Chinese operations inside the first island chain, defend allies there, and dominate the sea and air beyond. The United States must overcome problems of daunting proportions: the “tyranny of distance” in the vast Pacific Ocean, the growth of China’s “arms intervention zone” to include US bases in the western Pacific, and the enormous mass of China’s manpower and weaponry, which surpasses that of the United States in many categories.

The risk of a Chinese attack, with missiles or bombers, decreases with distance. But even Guam, the great US military center some 3,000 km from China, is vulnerable. Also, the US air defense is worryingly weak. It also has few means of passive defense, such as concrete aircraft hangars.

American officials speak of the prospect of war with a mixture of fear at China’s growing power (“I am amazed at its capabilities every day,” says one of them) and optimism that new tactics could achieve victory. They emphasize “distributed lethality,” that is, the constant dispersal and movement of forces to avoid becoming easy targets, while maintaining the ability to group or coordinate attacks. This will draw to an unprecedented degree on the US experience of fighting as a “joint force,” in which separate military branches and weapon systems reinforce each other.

Military aircraft would scatter from large bases, assemble in the air for battle, and settle where they could on specks of land. They would repeat the pattern as quickly as possible by refueling “hot” with the engines running. Sometimes the planes would land at civilian airports; others, in austere airfields, many of them from World War II, which are being remodeled. Adding more and more concrete to protect the planes “is silly,” says Brigadier General Paul Birch, commander of the 36th Wing at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. “Being in the air is much safer.”

The engineers, for their part, would attempt to repair the wrecked tracks in about six hours. Ground crews would set up makeshift hangars, as well as traffic control centers and data links. A big headache would be how to get fuel and ammunition to the right places. One of the goals of this “combat nimble employment” is to force China to expend its large but limited missile reserves.

Rather than fight near Taiwan, US surface ships would likely stay at a distance, to survive, provide air defense for Guam and other rear bases, and block Chinese trade. Rather than fight near Taiwan, US surface ships would likely stand by to survive, provide air defense for Guam and other rear bases, and block Chinese trade.

Brothers in arms

The Marines would be deployed to “key sea turf,” especially islands that overlook the straits separating Taiwan from Japan and the Philippines. They would reinforce local troops, recognize Chinese provisions and, armed with the new missiles that will enter service in the coming months, fire on enemy ships. The Marines are creating three new “marine littoral regiments,” each with more than 2,000 soldiers, giving up their tanks and many of their howitzers.

Some critics say that these units would be too vulnerable; others feel that, without deployment to Taiwan itself, they would be too far away to help much in the main battle. The Marines, however, argue that they would multiply the threats facing China, “channel” Chinese ships into vulnerable positions and, above all, “give sense and meaning” to Chinese deployments. General David Berger, commander of the Marines, talks of “turning the tables” on China by using a strategy to defend the first island chain. America won’t have to fight its way through, he says: “We’re there persistently, 52 weeks a year.”

Dispersed warfare sacrifices efficiency in favor of resistance. To be successful, however, many things have to go right. First, command and control networks must be able to withstand Chinese electronic attacks. Planners talk of a yet-to-be-perfected “killer network,” in which artificial intelligence helps “sensors” and “shooters” – including those of allies – to operate together even when they are far apart. Marines on islands, f-35 stealth fighters, drones and others can act as nodes. Second, the United States would need more sophisticated logistics to supply units far away.. Ultimately, he must persuade his allies to risk the wrath of China. His will would only become clear when hostilities broke out, which would complicate planning.

Early in the war, the task of sinking the Chinese invasion fleet – the critical task in the defense of Taiwan – would fall primarily to long-range bombers and submarines. Although its ships outnumber the Chinese, the United States retains the upper hand in submarine warfare. Their attack submarines carry torpedoes, cruise missiles, and sea mines. Sooner or later, however, they would run out of ammunition and have to set sail for several days to resupply in places like Guam, where they would be vulnerable.

Too far

Meanwhile, bombers flying from Hawaii, Alaska and the US mainland would use munitions that can be fired from beyond the range of Chinese anti-aircraft missiles. But America’s long-range anti-ship missiles, which can travel 200 nautical miles or more, would likely run out in a week. Thereafter, US forces would have to move closer to Taiwan to sink the ships. The United States hopes that China will also have run out of long-range munitions by then.

The United States and China would debate whether and when to attack each other’s satellites, potentially turning low-Earth orbit into a junkyard. Some wargames suggest that they might refrain from doing so for fear of harming themselves. But as a senior US military official puts it: “The side that shoots first gets a huge advantage.”

All phases of the war would be fought in the shadow of nuclear weapons. Biden has talked about reducing America’s reliance on nuclear weapons, and China advocates “no first use.” But presumably, the risk of disaster increases as China expands its arsenal. The Pentagon calculates that it will go from the current 400 nuclear warheads to about 1,000 in 2030 (less than those of the United States and Russia). A recent war game conducted by the Center for a New American Security think tank suggests that both sides underestimate the risk of escalation. This risk increases if one of the parties attacks the mainland of the other or if the conflict is prolonged.

Even a purely conventional war would have devastating consequences for both victors and losers. A war game from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another US think tank, found that in its “base scenario”, Taiwanese, US and Japanese forces cut plate supply lines after about ten days, stranding them. some 30,000 Chinese troops on the island. Taiwan survived as an autonomous entity but was left without electricity and basic services. The United States and Japan also suffered, losing 382 aircraft and 43 ships, including two US aircraft carriers. China lost 155 aircraft and 138 ships.

The economic cost would also be enormous. rand estimated in 2016 that a year-long war over Taiwan would reduce China’s GDP by 25-35% and the United States by 5-10%. The Rhodium Group consultancy concluded in 2022 that the disruption of semiconductor supplies (Taiwan makes 90% of the world’s most advanced computer chips) would lead to a global shortage of electronics, causing “incalculable” damage to the global economy.

Given the dire consequences, would the US and China really go to war? Chinese officials say their preferred option remains peaceful unification, denying there is a timetable for an attack. China also has many options before an all-out invasion. Among them are economic coercion, the total or partial blockade and the seizure of peripheral islands such as Kinmen. China could well embark on this type of “grey area” operation as a substitute or prelude to a broader attack.

Xi has strong incentives to bide his time, not least because his forces are growing, while US defense spending is near its lowest level in 80 years as a percentage of GDP. But he, too, may feel pressure to attack if Taiwan abandons any pretense of ever reconciling with the mainland and formally declares its independence, or if the United States deploys troops to Taiwan. The year-long conflict in Ukraine is proof that an irredentist autocrat can make terrible miscalculations. Zhou Bo, a former high-ranking PLA official, points out that China does not need to overcome the world power of the United States to achieve its goals; you just need an edge in the western Pacific.

Many US and Asian strategists fear that the loss of Taiwan will replace the US-led order in the region with a Chinese-led one. Japan and South Korea could be forced to develop their own nuclear weapons. Instead of limiting China, the first island chain would become a platform to project its power further afield. “Taiwan is the cork in the bottle,” as one US military man put it.

The United States takes solace in Russia’s failures in Ukraine, believing that Xi’s doubts about his ability to take Taiwan have increased. But to preserve the precarious balance in the Taiwan Strait, the United States must act with exquisite skill. He needs to reinforce Xi’s misgivings by strengthening himself, his allies and Taiwan, but not go so far as to make him think he must strike fast or give up taking Taiwan forever.