Once China has decided to use military force to reunify Taiwan, their first actions will be covert actions designed to quietly set the stage for the assault of their main combat forces. The first action that will signal a full-on war has begun will be an initial, major barrage of ballistic missiles screaming across the strait at multiple civilian and military targets. Once that happens, everything happens at warp speed.
The first barrage of missiles will target critical infrastructure and seek to destroy Taiwan’s ability to respond to the Chinese onslaught. They will target military airfields to make them unusable, seek to destroy aircraft on the ground, especially those with the ability to conduct command and control and to direct other weapons (like AWACs-type craft); missile boats and Aegis-type destroyers in their births; anti-air and missile batteries on the ground.
“We warn those ‘Taiwan independence’ elements – those who play with fire will burn themselves, and Taiwan independence means war.”
— Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian
In the early hours of the battle, Taiwanese troops are shocked, confused, lack clear communications, and are fighting in the rear and from the front at the beaches. China’s initial objectives will be to secure at least one of the three airfields and capture one or more beach landing sites by the end of the first day of fighting. If they do, they will have a chance to open an airbridge and beach landing site through which they can pour more and more material with limited opposition. Like at the Normandy beach landings in 1944, once the invading force breaks through at the beach, it is almost impossible for the defenders to win.
The defenders’ primary objective is to identify and destroy all Chinese efforts on the island as quickly as possible, retain control of all airfields, and keep the beaches impregnable. If China is not successful in landing the knock-out blow within the first 48 hours, it will likely have to switch its efforts to dramatically increasing its use of ballistic and cruise missiles, fighter and bomber sorties, and ship-to-shore missiles to try and force an opening at one or more beach landing zones. They will try to overwhelm the island through brute force.
If Taiwan is successful at preventing any large scale incursions either on the beach or via airborne or air-assault operations, their chances of thwarting the invasion increase dramatically. But they still won’t be out of the woods. If China cannot penetrate the beach after two weeks of fighting, they may shift to a siege mentality, in which they will continue sustained bombing of the island, but at a reduced rate while putting into effect a naval blockade.
If things broke well for Taiwan, it is entirely possible that they could prevent China from opening any beachheads against their defenses. A naval blockade, however, will be more difficult to overcome. Without any ability to replace the missiles and other ammunition they expend, no way to medically evacuate their wounded, or to import oil to power their warships, fuel their armored vehicles, and generate electricity – not to mention feed the population.
Though Taiwan can inflict serious damage to the PLA military, China’s capacity to absorb the damage and replace losses – while maintaining a blockade – is unlikely to be enough to stave off eventual defeat. Taipei’s hope that by holding out long enough the U.S. will come riding to a the rescue will, one way or another, be dashed.
Constraints on U.S. Response
As Admiral Philip Davidson said in recent Congressional testimony, it would take American ships based in Alaska 17 days to reach Taiwan; 21 days from the U.S. West Coast. Beijing’s attack will require a no-notice launch to minimize the Taiwanese defender’s ability to man their positions, but possibly the greater purpose will be to ensure the U.S. Navy and Air Force are caught flat-footed and unable to mount an effective response.
To even have a chance at success, U.S. Forces in the Pacific region would have to have months to prepare. They would have to bring personnel strength up near 100%, make all their ships and aircraft combat ready and fully supplied with wartime ammunition and fuel stocks. Any shortfalls in personnel, ships, and planes would have to be redeployed from other theaters to bring the Pacific naval and air fleets up to full capacity. None of those will be possible with a no-notice surprise attack by Beijing – and that vulnerability will put the U.S. president in a real bind.
Crisis in the White House Situation Room
The instant the first report reaches the Situation Room, the White House will assemble a crisis response team of senior advisors to begin analyzing the situation and debating potential responses. Some will suggest the president order immediate long-range missile attacks against Chinese invasion air and naval forces in an attempt to aid the defenders.
Others may advocate hitting the Chinese bases supporting the invasion. China will likely warn Biden that any attack on China-proper will result in missile strikes on American cities with conventional warheads (still very lethal). As Mike Sweeny recently wrote for Defense Priorities, such attacks against targets on the Chinese mainland will inflame the Chinese domestic audience against the United States in increase the pressure for a nuclear response. The risk of a war between Washington and Beijing escalating to nuclear is higher than many understand.
But the president will face enormous pressures to act militarily in the face of Chinese aggression. Taiwanese officials will certainly be pleading for the U.S. to intervene. Those in the United States who are already China hawks will almost certainly advocate “limited” military retaliation. They will argue that Washington cannot stand passively by while China swallows a leading democratic country in Asia. To refuse to act would be tantamount to Neville Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement at Munich and encourage China to try and conquer other nations militarily.
In all fairness, such concerns would not be without merit. But Biden’s ability to respond militarily would be far more limited than would be commonly understood. If Congress declared war on China or gave Biden authority to launch a military strike, the best he could do would be to unleash a relatively few cruise missiles and order some long-range bombing sorties from regional bases. Those would have some impact but be insufficient to stop China’s invasion.
“China’s navy is viewed as posing a major challenge to the U.S. Navy’s ability to achieve and maintain wartime control of blue-water ocean areas in the Western Pacific.”
—Congressional Research Service analysis
To engage in sustained operations in support of Taiwan’s defenses, it would take the U.S. Navy and Air Force months to properly enter the war theater. Trying to rush our military into a fight as soon as it can reach Taiwan would be near suicidal, as we would be arriving to the fight in sub-optimal condition, not fully resourced – and would face the full brunt of the Chinese air and naval forces (which are about double the size of the U.S. Pacific fleets).
As importantly, PRC air and naval forces have long had existing plans to fight a U.S. force sent to aid Taiwan and have conducted countless computer simulations and field exercises. We would be outnumbered, out-prepared, and out-gunned while fighting a motivated enemy engaged in what it considers an existential battle. Recent U.S.-based computer simulations reach similar conclusions.
Our Navy “gets its ass handed to it” in one scenario examining a fight against China over Taiwan and the Air Force “is going to lose fast.” In short, if Biden rashly sends the military to Taiwan’s defense, he could be sending us to our greatest naval defeat in our history. If the president’s military advisers convince him to attack military targets on the mainland, the results could be mushroom clouds over U.S. cities. Fortunately, however, there are superior options for Biden to choose that don’t involve dead Americans.
Preserving U.S. Military Power, Maintaining Security and Freedom
If China bull-headedly turns to violence to take Taiwan by force, the U.S. Government’s overriding priority will be to safeguard American security, freedom, and prosperity. If Biden resists the temptation to respond immediately, he can dramatically shift the balance of power back in America’s favor by adopting realistic and attainable diplomatic and military strategy that features isolating, resisting, and containing China.
If China is foolish enough to gamble its future by attacking Taiwan – and America is smart enough to stay out of the war – the PRC will be severely weakened from its current status. The United States has, for some time, championed Taipei building a defensive fortress that would make any Chinese attempt to invade prohibitively expensive. If anything, we should encourage Taiwan to expand further their defenses.
Even if China were successful in catching Taiwan unprepared, the surprise would not be complete, and Taipei would still have the ability to launch retaliatory strikes against the Chinese. Unlike the United States, Taiwan would have no incentive to resist attacking mainland targets and would attack mainland airfields, naval bases, rocket and missile launch sites, and Chinese defense industry targets.
They would also successfully sink some Chinese warships, knock out some fighter jets, and destroy thousands of their troops. The net result of even a successful attack would gouge the PLA, severely weakening their ability to wage war; if Taiwan somehow held out and prevented an island takeover, the PLA would be set back decades and the PRC itself at risk of falling internally. In either event, America’s advantage over China would be significantly increased, our ability to protect U.S. interests global continue to be unmatched, and our people continue in complete freedom.
Moreover, we would then have decades to increase our defenses from Guam to Hawaii to the West Coast – should that be deemed necessary – to ensure China could never, even decades into the future, successfully mount a cross-Pacific attack.
In sum, by staying out of a China vs. Taiwan war, not only would we maintain our current strength, our national security would be stronger. Conversely, if we foolishly insert ourselves into their fight, we will suffer severe damage to our Armed Forces at a minimum, placing our national security around the world at higher risk; in a worst-case, American cities could smolder in radioactive waste for years to come.
No matter how one calculates it, fighting China over Taiwan would harm American interests and security without even holding the potential for benefit. We must resist the temptation to act on the presumption that we can always choose to fight because we will always win. The future of our country might hinge on getting this right.
Daniel L. Davis is a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times and the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” The views shared in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent any group. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.