Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on what a U.S.-China war over Taiwan could look like. You can read part one here.
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.
March 16, 2021 at 10:34 am
You mean to tell me that Taiwan, this little island can defend itself better and more capable than the United States military? Every conclusion you make basically deminishes the US response and preparation while promoting Tiawans? Thats ridiculous. Additionally, if the US military is caught with it’s pants down, while all these signs for war are being promoted, then shame on us. To say that the Chinese military can stand up to ours is ridiculous. I have zero confidence in your appeasement approach, as we have seen with Iran, appeasement doesn’t work.
March 16, 2021 at 11:53 am
Taiwan’s training levels are a combination of Leftist Biden Polices of the US arm Forces an the sheer sloth of Muslim Arab armies .. Not good.
March 16, 2021 at 3:07 pm
Danial Davis – Traitor
March 16, 2021 at 3:23 pm
Yeah, the US can’t just let China walk all over Taiwan. If we do, our credibility to the rest of the world is done. Or, I guess we could let Communist China invade the Democratic Taiwan… And show the rest of the world that the Biden administration truly is Communist just like Uncle Xi.
March 16, 2021 at 3:33 pm
I’ve been seeing these ‘fake’ stories and ‘war games’ about china will ‘easily ‘ defeat the US in a war. Totally fake, it’s just propaganda intending to make you fear china. They are trying to, either make us all ‘fear’ the mere thought of getting into any conflict with china or they are setting up a quick ‘surrender’ if they attack us again(Wohan virus). Every thing the chinese manufacture is CRAP and anyone(basically everyone) who has bought anything they have made knows that fact! Their military is full of fat, sissified mommas boys. China put its ‘toughest’ on the border with India and when a hand to hand skirmish broke out, the chinese were whipped and had many more casualties than India.
March 16, 2021 at 3:37 pm
This essay was sponsored by China.
March 16, 2021 at 4:34 pm
Guarantee China has 15 thousand $1000 drones for each of our 15 million dollar drones.
March 16, 2021 at 6:08 pm
Submarines would constitute the best and most immediate response against China. Chinese merchant shipping anywhere in the world could be attacked. China is not self-sufficient in either food or energy. Having started a war, they would be hard-pressed to stop it and we have many options. Seeing success or failure only in terms of Taiwan is a major mistake.
March 16, 2021 at 6:24 pm
Since the Taiwanese haven’t seen to their own defense, why should we spill American blood and treasure? Why aren’t they using the Swiss model? Nope, like most of our “allies”, they are willing to fight to the last American.
March 16, 2021 at 9:05 pm
The obvious solution is to arm Taiwan with tactical nukes. One hundred or so would be sufficient. Don’t even try to hide it. If China launches, Taiwan launches everything they have at mainland China. Mutual assured destruction would prevent China EVER considering an attack. They might ‘win’ but at what cost? Both sides would be devastated. Taiwan would be a wasteland and China would be sent back to the dark ages where they belong and they KNOW it.
March 16, 2021 at 11:22 pm
Taiwan is not Crimea or Donbass or Tibet or Xingjian. It’s not a backwater renegade former-province that the world can pretend to ignore until it becomes fait accompli. Staying out is just not feasible.
Much of the US economy depends on tech and much of the (long and convoluted) tech value-chain flows from (or through) Taiwan. See what is happening now in the auto industry because of some chip shortages? Multiply that by 100 if Taiwan goes offline.
Also if Taiwan falls; Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, India etc. will all become very nervous, will radically shift their economies and militaries into wartime footings and will call in their US security guarantees or mutual understandings. Such a pan-Asian mobilization will pull the emergency-brake to crash the global economy. Global financial markets would implode. The disruption to global shipping and air-routes will wreak havoc by itself. Guam, CNMI, Hawaii and Alaska will all start raising holy heck in Congress. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese in the US would be demonstrating and lobbying. We can’t afford to let anything kinetic happen against Taiwan. Neither can the PRC but they might be tempted to behave irrationally.
If China should lose its mind and invade Taiwan the US national security demands that we must ensure China fails, fails quickly and fails spectacularly. There are many ways to ensure that outcome.
March 17, 2021 at 1:41 am
Name a conflict the US military has won in the last fifty years. Grenada doesn’t count.
March 17, 2021 at 4:52 am
I can’t agree with most of this essay.
If the US stays out of the invasion, the US will not be preparing, since they’ve had decades to prepare and congruence has killed the US military
If China invades Taiwan, and there is no US response, the world will know that every treaty the US has made is worthless. NATO, ANZUS, agreements with the Philippines, Japan etc, all worthless. The world will also think the US is now a lame duck.
The invasion will also cause huge angst in South Korea and Japan. No one else has said it, by imho, I do not think Japan will let China invade Taiwan without a response. This is because Japan will then be completely surrounded by unfriendly countries, and can be starved of resources, just like they were in WW2. Once China gets Taiwan, it can divide and conquer the rest of Asia. Japan can’t easily send ships and munitions to South East Asia, as it currently is.
The US will also possibly lose the confidence of Japan, who may then kick the US off Okinawa.
Regarding Part 1’s assertion it’ll be a surprise attack, that’ll be very difficult to obtain. An assault of this size will need the build up of most of the CCP military. Soldiers will be moved around the borders China has with 11 countries. Hundreds of vessels will be 200-300km of the Taiwan borders along nearby China. Several month’s have such rough seas that invasions will possibly be called off since the weather will be typhoon and be unlikely to be used for the invasion, thus restricting the timing of the invasion.
As for PBar’s comment, Taiwan has been doing what it can.
– They are getting 140 F-16’s upgraded to the latest V version.
– Trump has allowed large weapons sales that are usually blocked, like another 66 F-16V’s, taking the Taiwan total to over 200; hundreds of tanks and missiles.
March 17, 2021 at 4:53 am
This guy is a lieut col but is not right about many things. He seems to be advocating for no military response so maybe he is a Chinese supporter. First of all any outright assembling of invasion force on Taiwan by naval forces and landing troops will be seen by USA intelligence. No nation can just mass a navy with let’s say 70,000 troops on ships without satellites and spies reporting it. The Chinese navy and merchant fleet would struggle to support logistically an invasion force over that number. If the Chinese were to launch missile strikes then mass those troops it would take them 4-6 weeks to stage that invasion force while bombarding Taiwan. An invasion force with the shipping and military hardware needed does not just appear over night. It takes time to assemble and will be seen by satellites. The USA would have public’s national support in that time frame. Now as far as the USA navy not being able to really impact with missile strikes etc that is a joke for him to say. The USA submarine force alone could be sinking dozens of their naval ships within a week. Each sub carries over 100 cruise missiles and they can attack from far distances. Three subs could inflict a crippling loss on the invasion forces large troop transports. Then in a 10 day period atleast 4 carriers would be in the area with more coming to launch devastating missile and bomb strikes on the invading large troops transports. The 280 USA jets in this force alone would devastate the invasions shipping. Then there’s the b2 bombers. Just using 12 of them to covertly fly over the attacking fleet and drop 1000 lb smart bombs on every large naval vessel would destroy the invasion shipping. All of this is to say that the first target of all these forces would be the invasion fleet and its defeat. Along with USA missile strikes on critical targets in China and shipping docks supplying the invasion force. Then there’s the air strikes from Japan that will begin with a small number of f15 s but amass into 100s of arriving USA air force jets. Initially China will bombard Japan etc with missiles but as time goes on there supply will dwindle. Also their Air Force and their fighters are no where near as superior to the f18 f15 etc of the USA. They would be suffering air losses over a 1000 as of 6 weeks of war. They have no long range bombers. Once the missiles are shot and the stock pile which is huge diminishes their bolt is shot. Then it’s pay back time. A massive aerial bombardment of China from Japan and a fight to open up a naval resulply of Taiwan. A regaining of air superiority over Taiwan would take place. Basically this author terribly for some reasons down plays the light of the USA to win. The USA primary focus would be to destroy the Chinese invasions shipping and once that’s done their invasion force is doomed due to no supply.
March 17, 2021 at 5:15 am
The author is a defeatist. He may be a high ranking officer or former one but he does not understand the strategic response the USA is capable of and he has been intimidated. For one thing as I said a massing of a naval invasion force with its supplies and troop movements will be seen. It’s not possible to hide from intelligence such an undertaking. How could he not realize that being a officer? Also the Chinese do not have missile defense on the merchant ships. Once the supporting destroyers with their limited anti missile destroying missiles are destroyed the whole fleet is a sitting duck. Just a few b2 bombers firing missiles or dropping smart bombs would sink dozens of Chinese destroyers. The one working Chinese carrier will be gone within two days. The Chinese air field would be seen by satellites massing and preparing their 4-5000 jets for the attack. While this is being seen the usn will be moving ships towards Taiwan. The lagging response he’s talking about will already be we’ll underway. The USA is not going to miss this in another military surprise like 1941. As I stated the shipping, the docks and the Chinese navy will be under constant bombardment. Once their merchant transports and protecting destroyers are sunk the troops already landed will run out of supplies and be wiped out by the Taiwanese military. Then after this war the world will be woke to the threat of China and stop trading with them. No more will the Chinese be able to build up their military for another invasion. Then as months go on a naval blockade and aerial bombardment of China will bring them to their knees. No fuel coming into China docks by shipping because the usn will be sinking their merchant ships left right and central. This author is totally underestimating the whole strategic response of the USA amd its capability.
March 17, 2021 at 5:38 am
As the war goes into months the Chinese will then see their factories being destroyed reducing the material replacement of their equipment losses . It will be a USA beat down of China to the point of us saying let’s cripple their industry without mercy and punish them so bad that they will never want to undertake this again. The author is limited in his military analysis of the USA military might. The Japanese in ww 2 had a massive navy. 14 carriers to the 7 the usn had. Battleships, cruisers, destroyers etc were close to each sides numbers. But once the USA industry kicked into high gear it was a merciless beat down of Japan right up to their home islands. Most of their shipping fleet was sunk along with their navy. The Chinese would never be able to build new shipping en masse along their coastline ports to compete with the USA shipping buildup in a war. Their ship building facilities would be bombed mercilessly. The USA would also be striking their factories and air fields destroying their jets, airfields, and new missile and jet production while the USA factories will be outpacing the military resupply of their losses at an astonishing pace. The author has no ideal of the potential military industrial power of the USA over China. It will not be a land war. It will be a battle that the Chinese don’t want. Which is a long term aerial bombardment after the Chinese shot their bolt and will lose their ability to defend the skies over China bit by bit until USA achieves air supremacy. The author is lost and totally underestimated the power of the USA in a all out world war. The USA will have a goal to permanently cripple Chinese industrys rebuilding through bombing and stopping the recovery of it after the war by stopping world trade with them. Making China, like nazi Germany and Japan, a former military world power. It’s strange or amazing that a high ranking officer would not understand this and write an article encouraging the USA to not get involved in a invasion of Taiwan.
March 17, 2021 at 5:58 am
The author has a limited knowledge of the industrial and military might of the USA. 11 aircraft carriers roaming the China sea sinking the entire Chinese navy with missile strikes will eliminate the Chinese navy by the 3rd month of war. Then theres the USA submarine force which will be also annihilating the Chinese navy. A massive mobilization of the USA industry and using Japan and Taiwan as airbases to launch a massive bombing campaign against China with 4000 jets in 5 months of war. A total war scenario of what will happen after China attacks not what the author thinks will be a limited war after a initial Chinese attack. The USA will see it as a opportunity to wipe out a military threat once and for all. There will be no land war which is what the Chinese would want. It will be massive bombing campaign and naval blockade. Leading to a total collapse of the Chinese economy. The author has a limited view of military history and it’s obvious.
March 17, 2021 at 9:16 am
One would think that ex military would know that the navy doesn’t birth it’s ships in Alaska. We have a carrier group in the China sea right now, and we have 11 bases within an hour’s flight time from Taiwan. I am almost positive that the communists will attack while we lack a president, but I am equally sure that we can deny the communists a victory easily.
March 18, 2021 at 12:05 pm
You don’t bend to the PLA unless you want to be decapitated. You appease once, you appease forever, and there you have a disastrous end result. Better to counter the threat early and if by economic means and a coalition, we do so early on. If this, then that – and be unambiguous in our designs. Easily said, but when we have so many elected officials in bed with the money and Communists, hard to get done.
March 18, 2021 at 12:20 pm
Send a brigade of Marines to Taiwan, to be permanently based. Give Taiwan half a dozen nukes with the understanding that when the Chicoms invade, Peking, the Four Gorges Dam and Shanghai turn into molten glass. End of story.
April 13, 2021 at 9:30 pm
Are any of you Guys actually going to fight ? I mean, Kill and be killed ?
May 23, 2021 at 8:11 am
Wall Street created this reality, Wall Street will Profit and prevail.
China will be lead to believe they will win. [The Art of War].
They will wait do this when Harris becomes president.
Just like the beginning of WW II, we will get our asses handed to us.
Finally the Chinese will be set back into the Dark Ages where they belong.
June 7, 2021 at 5:58 pm
I would like to say that any comments recommending the creation of US military bases or arming Taipei with nuclear weapons is nothing less than idiotic. Beijing has already clarified that these are red lines for them, along with Taiwan declaring independence; and doing so will trigger war.