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A Chinese Invasion of Taiwan: What Ukraine and Wargames Can Teach Us

China's J-16D
Image: Creative Commons.

Has the balance of power between China and Taiwan shifted decisively? Does this explain the newfound interest of the Biden administration in clarifying its Taiwan policy?

The purpose of making a deterrent threat is to prevent war. Asserting that the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan is intended to dissuade China from an invasion. Historically, the purpose of ambiguity was to deter both Beijing and Taipei, the former from an invasion and the latter from a declaration of independence that would amount to a virtual declaration of war.

This delicate balance has held for nearly forty years, but it shouldn’t be thought of as a policy frozen in amber.

Adding to either side of the scale can upset the balance and call for a new approach to policy. And there is no doubt that at least one element is rapidly changing; Beijing has significantly increased its military capabilities over the last decade, to the extent that a re-evaluation of the balance is now necessary.

Other elements are also changing, as relations between Washington and Beijing have taken a decided turn for the frosty, and the experience of the Russia-Ukraine War gives us a better sense of what a 21st-century military confrontation might look like. Indeed, the debate over the balance of military power across the Taiwan Straits has escaped the analytical community and is now firmly in the wild. A wargame conducted by the Center for New American Security was recently featured on NBC’s Meet the Press, making the tools and techniques of wargame analysis available to a much broader audience.

There are some things we have known for a while. Invading Taiwan would be an intensely difficult operation, no matter how well-capitalized the Chinese military is. The invasion of Normandy in June 1944 required not just months of intense preparation (preparation that would be obvious to modern surveillance technology), but also the development of nearly two years of knowledge about amphibious assault practice. This “know how” was developed in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, but required bloody attacks against well-defended French, Italian, and Japanese positions.

The Chinese have none of this; they must make do with effective, realistic wargaming. The CNAS wargame emphasized the importance of airpower and especially the integration of sea and airpower. The ability to hold Chinese ships at risk during the dangerous crossing made it difficult for China to achieve a foothold and, perhaps more importantly, to keep that foothold reinforced and resupplied. Again, this is a thing we have known, but the wargame serves to reinforce and confirm our impressions.

But there are some things that we don’t know, and there are some lessons that analysts are trying to derive from the Russia-Ukraine War. The operational situation is vastly different, but that does not mean it’s impossible to learn from the experience of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For one, the invasion has demonstrated that it is simply no longer possible to achieve strategic or even operational surprise. In 1944 the Allies had the latter if not the former, which allowed them to concentrate their forces while the Germans spread theirs thin. The Chinese will not have such an advantage, as their military maneuvers will be glaringly obvious even to open-source analysts.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict also demonstrated that air superiority is difficult to achieve, even for a force that has significant quantitative and qualitative advantages. Ukraine’s ability to continue to operate aircraft even at a numerical disadvantage will surely influence how Taiwan thinks about its own force employment. In a conflict isolated to Taiwan and China, China would undoubtedly enjoy the advantage of numbers and would also have some technological advantages. Taiwan would offset these advantages by taking advantage of distance (its aircraft operate from closer airbases), and a more favorable defensive situation (Taiwan’s air defense network would begin the war intact, and would exact a dreadful toll on the Chinese).

With respect to both of these Ukraine, experience holds some lessons; Russian SEAD has been disappointing, and while the Chinese will probably derive greater attention to the suppression of Taiwanese air defenses in their own campaign, they lack the decades of experience that the United States has developed in this task. Like the Russians, the Chinese may find that it is too dangerous to regularly use their aircraft in close proximity to Taiwan.

China can threaten US vessels and Taiwanese land installations with a vast armada of ballistic and cruise missiles, including land-based, sea-launched, and air-launched weapons. Russia has used such munitions extensively against Ukraine, although to less decisive effect than many expected. While we might expect that Chinese missiles will perform better than Russian missiles (estimated at a 60% failure rate), we don’t actually have any concrete information to support that conclusion; Russian systems have been tested in battle in Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine in a way that the Chinese cannot match. The Ukrainians have taken advantage of their strategic depth in order to repair and rehabilitate damaged facilities, reducing or eliminating the advantages that the Russians could expect to earn from long-range fires.  Moreover, the Russians have not been able to target mobile forces in the Ukrainian rear with any degree of effectiveness.  It is not obvious that the Chinese will be able to do any better.

Thus, there are many factors worth wargaming. At the same time, we must keep in mind that wargames have a political purpose. In the United States, the services (or the defense industrial base) can take the results of a wargame to Congress in order to demonstrate the need for additional funding or for an additional weapon system. In the case of the CNAS wargame, the purpose is to inform a broad audience of fundamental changes in military capabilities. But wargames do two other things; they help us to understand the nature of a situation, and they show us ways to improve our prospects. The Chinese military is undoubtedly doing its own wargaming work, evaluating the prospects for an attack on Taiwan and honing its capabilities for undertaking such an attack.  Which side makes the right assumptions and learns the correct lessons could very well have a decisive impact.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Him

    May 31, 2022 at 12:21 pm

    My concern is that one of the advantages of Ukraine – having a land border with NATO to receive supplies – is not present in a defensive scenario in Taiwan island. For instance, if Taiwan runs low on ammunition, missiles, food and military hardware, in as much as it will be difficult for China to attack, similarly it will be difficult for the Western allies (from Europe and Asia) to supply Taiwan.

    Moreover, most of Taiwan’s major cities may be in range of long-range missiles from the China mainland. This means China can inflict damage on Taiwan from long distance even before the actual amphibious landings start. In that respect, think of how in WW2 the American warships used naval artillery to pound the Japanese-held islands prior to the amphibious landing of U.S. Marines. What if China were to similarly pound Taiwan for several months without Chinese troops even setting foot on the beaches?

    When the Western allies say they will come to Taiwan’s aid, practically what does that mean? Are the Allies going to land their troops on the beaches? That would be tremendously difficult in view of a Chinese naval blockade.

    Or will Western military involvement be the U.S. sending in its carriers to enforce air superiority? Then we shall know the long speculated match-up of super carriers versus hypersonic missiles.

    And what if China does a Putin, and threatens that any direct Western involvement in battle in Taiwan will see China nuking cities in the U.S., Japan and Korea? If that is crazy, you remember that Totalitarian dictators like Putin, fat boy and Xi have an innate level of madness to be doing the things they’re threading to do.

    • Joe Comment

      May 31, 2022 at 8:56 pm

      Him: Okinawa, where the US and Japan have resources, is about the same distance from Taiwan as the Chinese mainland. And yes, Mainland China could try to sink US and Japanese ships or shoot down their planes, but that would bring those countries into the war too, and it would no longer be the quick and easy win they are looking for. And nuclear brinksmanship is even worse, since the US has a lot more power than Mainland China in that domain.

  2. Stefan Stackhouse

    May 31, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    The British and French made guarantees to Poland, too, but when the moment of truth came, these proved to be worthless. Poland was too far away and too difficult to supply, so it didn’t happen. The only way they could “help” Poland was by plunging into a general conflict against Germany. Even then, after all that, they still couldn’t help Poland.

    The problem about historical precedents, of course, is that Germany didn’t have nuclear weapons and China does. The only way we could really help Taiwan is by attacking China where we can do the most harm (which might be at places far removed from the Taiwan Strait). This won’t be of much help to anyone, however, once the nukes start flying, as they inevitably will.

    The fate of Taiwan is ultimately up to the people of Taiwan. If they want to resist the PRC and remain free, then they are going to have to do what it takes to stand against them and fight them off. We can sell them some weapons (in advance), but they had better plan on doing the fighting themselves.

  3. Error404

    May 31, 2022 at 11:38 pm

    The conduct of the US and its minions, vassals (or’colonies’ in the actual words of Udo Ulfkotte) mean only one thing:one needs nuclear weapons to fend off the deadly amorous attention of the great seductress.

    Taiwan is just an excuse for the US and sidekicks to target china.Just one hundred years ago, or in 1922, where exactly were the Americans, Brits, french, japanese and others doing.

    All of them were deep deep inside china, carving out concessions and territories and fencing off places blatantly off-limits to the Chinese themselves.

    Admittedly, china is now in a much really better position than previously, and also more fortunate than Putin’s Russia.

    China must develop it’s nascient FOBS technology and spaceplanes, space gliders and hi-speed drones and hypersonic arsenal as well as neutron bombs which are a MUST to subdue Taiwan.

    One must remember than in the 1970s and early 80s, the US very very mercilessly ran the independence activists of Puerto rico into the ground, showing no room to countenance or tolerate any suggestion or talk of ‘independence’.

    Nuclear weapons capable of reducing NYC, Washington DC or Dallas or Detroit into complete piles of radioactive rubble such as the RS-28 (S-30) are NEEDED to keep the US at bay on the Taiwan question.THERE’S NO OTHER OPTION.

    • Joe Comment

      June 1, 2022 at 1:32 pm

      Error404: “The US mercilessly ran Puerto Rico independence activists into the ground” which was a bad thing (I assume you refer to the illegal COINTELPRO operations), and therefore Mainland China has no option but to launch a massive nuclear war to… run Taiwan’s independence into the ground? Can you explain how that can possibly make sense to you? Besides, the Puerto Rico Independence Party is still legal today, and there have been referendums on the independence question. Must the Mainland not also follow these example of the “great seductress”? I feel you suffer from a serious case of “blame America first” syndrome.

  4. David Chang

    June 2, 2022 at 10:53 am

    Dr. Farley is wrong, Democratic party is wrong.

    Mr. Pence say:
    There is an ancient Chinese proverb that reads, “Men see only the present, but heaven sees the future.” As we go forward, let us pursue a future of peace and prosperity with resolve and faith. Faith in President Trump’s leadership and vision, and the relationship that he has forged with China’s president. Faith in the enduring friendship between the American people and the Chinese people. And Faith that heaven sees the future — and by God’s grace, America and China will meet that future together.

    Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)

    END

    11:47 A.M. EDT

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