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Could the U.S. Military Really Defend Taiwan from an Invasion by China?

F-22
U.S. Air Force Maj. Paul Lopez, F-22 Demo Team commander, performers aerial maneuvers July 14, 2019, at the “Mission Over Malmstrom” open house event on Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The team flies at airshows around the globe, performing maneuvers that demonstrate the capabilities of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft. The two-day event, featured performances by aerial demonstration teams, flyovers, and static displays. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jacob M. Thompson)

The United States has maintained strategic ambiguity for years about what it would do if China attacked Taiwan. Now, U.S. President Joe Biden has brought new attention to the question. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Biden said on Sept. 18 that the United States would indeed fight to protect Taiwan against China. That follows remarks made in Tokyo in May, during which Biden said the United States would engage in battle to defend Taiwan. Currently the Americans provide arms to the Taiwanese, but the U.S. has also recognized Beijing’s One China policy. What would the United States do militarily if there was an attack?

From Wars of Words to a War of Missiles

Taiwan sits about 110 miles off the coast of mainland China. Beijing claims the island as its own. Chinese President Xi Jinping believes that total reunification is unavoidable, and he has not ruled out the use of force to maintain the One China policy. Any shooting war that draws in the United States would be bloody, with death and destruction mounting on both sides.

At the outset of a war against Taiwan, China would deliver a shock-and-awe missile attack at military targets on the island. Hundreds of missiles launched from shore, ship, and airplane would explode on Taiwan. 

The U.S. Navy would have two aircraft carrier battle groups in the area, with supercarriers escorted by destroyers, frigates, and cruisers, and supplemented by submarines. They would try to stay out of the range of China’s anti-ship missiles while firing their own over-the-horizon missiles at the ships and airplanes attacking Taiwan.

The United States would also be flying stealth warplanes such as the F-35. China would answer with fighters such as the J-20, which has radar-evading attributes. There would likely be missile exchanges between the two sides, and the Navy would use the Aegis combat system to ward off enemy missiles.

Protect Guam At All Costs 

Guam could also come under Chinese attack. The closest U.S. territory to China, Guam is one of the most strategic islands in East Asia. Without holding Guam, defending Taiwan would be difficult. China has H-6 bombers that could reach Guam and fire cruise and ballistic missiles, including hypersonic weapons. Guam currently uses the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense long-range anti-missile system. An ongoing missile defense modernization effort would direct additional air defenses to Guam, but that upgrade isn’t expected to be completed until 2026.

The United States could also use a cyber attack against China to disable its radar and sensor systems and to stymie its missiles’ targeting and guidance systems. China would probably conduct its own cyber operation against Taiwan.

Preparing for a landing

Before sending any troops to the island, China would probably conduct a blockade of Taiwan to ensure no arms shipments are delivered by allies. The Chinese would also patrol no-fly and no-shipping zones in the area to consolidate its control of airspace and sea. Finally, China would deploy its submarines close to Taiwan to fire land-attack cruise missiles at the island. Then a Chinese amphibious attack would begin.

Taiwan

F-35A Lightning IIs from the 158th Fighter Wing, Vermont Air National Guard, return from training exercises during Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nevada, July 27, 2021. Red Flag was created to increase interoperability, leveraging common perspectives against shared threats. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Ryan Campbell)

China can attack U.S. carriers with missiles from land, sea, and air in many different ways. This means the Americans have to plan for one of their carriers to be damaged or destroyed. As unthinkable as it seems, it is time for the U.S. Navy to realize that this could happen. The event would leave the Navy dependent on its other aircraft carrier to pick up the slack. Meanwhile, having destroyed or damaged one American carrier, China would continue its amphibious attack against Taiwan. 

This would be a terrible scenario for the United States, but it goes both ways: The Americans could sink a Chinese aircraft carrier and a number of support ships. This could either strengthen Chinese resolve, or deter them and create an opening for diplomacy. 

Taiwan’s Defense Spending Is No Match 

Taiwan must spend more on its defense. Taipei has raised its defense budget by 14%, to $19.4 billion next year. Meanwhile, China is spending $229.47 billion, a 6.8% rise from 2021. The United States also announced this month that it would provide a sale of as much as $1.1 billion in air defense and anti-ship missiles to Taiwan. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved even more on Sept. 14, unlocking $4.5 billion in military aid.

China-Taiwan Invasion

ROC M60 tank. Image: Creative Commons.

There are no good options for the United States to protect Taiwan. Every scenario in which China attacks leads to naval losses for the U.S. The best hope is that military-to-military communication reduces the damage, creating room for diplomacy and a cease-fire. Biden may want to reconsider protecting Taiwan without first establishing clear military options. The Pentagon needs to make sure that the White House understands the price that would be paid for protecting Taiwan.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Turner

    September 19, 2022 at 3:40 pm

    What ever happens, i hope us doesnt abandon and flee like it did in Korea and Vietnam hostilities.

    I hope they stand there and fight till the last minute for an autonomous territory.

    Chinese are known for the patience, they don’t take Swift decisions like that donkey putin.

    Chinese are planning naval superiority by 2033 and air superiority by 2048.

    Not to mention they will add trillions in GDP by bringing in hongkong under their control in 2049.

    US has lot of work to do,to fight the greatest threat of 21st century.

    They need to sort out high skill Visa issue, that’s troublling innovation,lack of proper education to minorities which directly harms the country, heavily polarised politics.

    Ex., China is saving hundreds of billion in oil by rapidly transitioning to EVs, which here we debate about EVs being woke and liberal, my god the stupidity of some groups in the country is mind blowing.

  2. Rich

    September 19, 2022 at 3:40 pm

    Strategy to defeat a Chinese invasion: Sink the transports and strike marshalling ports preferably via shore based anti-ship and land attack missile munitions. Likelihood of happening 50%

    Strategy to defeat China long term: blockade of all shipping; declare a no-go zone and sink anything that enters it. Likelihood of happening 25%

    Strategy to defeat China longer term. Stop financing the Chinese military through massive trade imbalances and selling them America piece by piece. Stop the addiction to cheap consumer goods and put Americans back to work again. Likelihood of happening 0%

  3. pagar

    September 19, 2022 at 3:45 pm

    Reckless USA involvement in Taiwan will guarantee complete destruction of the island in any all-out war as PRC will unleash massive firepower to overcome obstacles.

    That of course plays right into US strategy – fight to the last local inhabitant alive.

    During nam war, US combat jets napalm bombed south villages & hamlets killing masses of civilians US military supposed to be fighting for.

    There was one account of a US reporter who witnessed pigs feeding on roasted human remains. Humans napalmed by US forces. Humans LBJ swore to save and help when he first got well-fed US Marines involved in nam.

    However, PRC must first remove Xi jinping before making any move on Taiwan.Xi doesn’t know the front end or back arse end of a projectile. More stupid than Biden.

    Biden instead of talking cock and imperiling lives of innocent Taiwan villagers or folks could do something really really useful.

    Biden this Nov 2022 in Bali could get SEAL Team 6 to snatch Xi and whisk him off to Washington for exporting opioids to US consumers by the truckloads or shiploads.

    Biden needs to cooperate with Indonesia’s Kopassus, a notorious police unit trained by American specialists.

    With Kopassus help, it would be a cinch or piece of cake for Biden to grab Xi and take him back home. Heh, heh.

    The people of china would probably secretly greatly thank Biden for doing something useful for a change.

  4. Commentar

    September 19, 2022 at 4:05 pm

    China must have intelligent leaders to solve the prickly Taiwan issue, made more even prickly with each passing day by brazen US interference.

    First, arm itself to the teeth with conventional & nuclear weaponry, especially FOBS and spaceplanes and space stations optimized for total war.

    Then get hold of RS-28 rockets.One single RS-28 can easily wipe out a big country like Australia using its 20 onboard warheads.

    But before reaching for the ultimate military hammer punch, china should ban all flights by countries threatening to support Taipei from transiting Chinese airspace. This will cripple the economies of US client states or minion states and bring them and both uncle Sam and US Congress to their senses.

    Problems confronting people must be solved by intelligence and guile, not by US style of gang warfare, proxy gang fighting and summary execution of suspects.

    US police today still shoot people in their backs at traffic altercations or traffic stops with dozens of bullets from deadly police handguns. Thus how Biden gonna explain his game or his intentions over the island.

  5. xheavy

    September 19, 2022 at 4:18 pm

    I dont particularly enjoy the Prospect of defending Taiwan. We had maybe three decks out in that part of the world when Spar19 visited Taiwan. I followed that entire flight through in real time and watched as China emptied half their airspace on orders prior to a shooting war that day. I also saw eventually a pretty good amount of USAF assets come over from USA Mainland to join the party one way or another. Awacs and other special planes from our Tinkers AFB in Oklahoma and all sorts of other activity.

    If I was China, invading Taiwan I would simply have half a million Jetskis. One soldier driving with his kit for three days the other providing some sort of defensive action for the two hour trip across the ocean to the Island. Maybe in bad weather.

    By the halfway point of day one, there should be a million infesting Taiwan and the shooting would have erupted. Heavier assets are forming up wherever China thinks best and go to Taiwan as the situation evolves. I would not send less than two million over.

    The Navy in addition to Taiwan has one job. Hunt and eliminate the US Carrier Groups. Same with the Airforce, clear the skies. Peterson AFB (NORAD) KC, OMAHA and Washington and a few other places will suffer nuclear attacks as part of a way to disrupt US Response. St Louis is the National Transport Command. Poof no more city, no staff to organize the trains, trucking and so on. Our mobilization will be further disrupted when certain databases are also destroyed. If the USA does not possess the information or has to fall back to pen and paper? It is just as good as killing actual Military assets in battle.

    Our Carriers have been rotting in Port for ages. Onesies and twosies go out to sea, overstay their welcome and then come back in need of refit. You can expect those carriers to be destroyed in port on both of our coast. Poof. Including the little decks.

    Not everything will be bad news or gloom and doom. Taiwan is pretty much able to whistle up almost two million trained or experienced prior military to the fight from as they are Islandwide. In about ten days they will no longer possess the fuel stocks and other necessary items that they depend on for staying alive in destroyed ports.

    Two to Three weeks after that Taiwan will be China and that will be that. There will be alot of acreage turned into radioactive glowing parking lots and additional wars break out as other Nations get their shots in.

    My computer happens to be a whole lot of Taiwan Technology in the form of electronics imported and distributed around the USA for computer parts and so on. That will all go away. If I needed to replace the computer it will have to be done with non Taiwanese skill and quality. I for one will do without after such a war.

    Taiwan will fight. USA will use what they have on hand and lose the rest. Eventually Taiwan will be China. And for us to invade would be suicide. We would not possess the means or the ability to do it and that would be that.

  6. David Chang

    September 19, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    It is hard to defeat socialism warfare, but we must against them since Charles Darwin and Karl Marx declared the war.

    They will tell us more lies and destroy our power plants, bases, airfields, satellites, but we cannot give up.

    We must change our assumption from “nuclear war is not possible” to “nuclear war is possible,” and act to deter that reality. We cannot approach nuclear deterrence as usual but calculate approaching situation humbly.

    May we never forget the price that has been paid for our freedom and grant us the courage to protect what God have given us.

    God bless America and ROC.

  7. Kevin Hall

    September 19, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    The trump card of a US attack would be B-2’s, B-1B’s and B-52’s use of JASSM and LRASM’s within 12 to 24 hours. Along with the Virginia’s and Los Angeles class sub missile strikes, with our targeting technology would end a Chinese amphibious assault very quickly.

  8. Jack

    September 19, 2022 at 6:40 pm

    The US should build inside of the US immediately factories to make whatever electronics that we currently get from Taiwan…. It will cost a lot but it will cost less than a war of China

  9. Terminator

    September 19, 2022 at 9:17 pm

    Pagar and Commentar are possibly paid trolls.
    Check their past comments on Chinese / Russian topics.

  10. Steven

    September 19, 2022 at 9:58 pm

    You people are so stupid. CYBERWAR, SUBMARINES. DONE.

    Next.

  11. David Chang

    September 20, 2022 at 7:21 am

    God bless people in the world.

    On December 24, 1946, CCP defeat U.S. Marine Corps first time in Beiping, the Republic of China, and causing the withdraw of U.S. military from mainland China.
    I hope the U.S. military never forget this day.

    U.S. Indo-Pacific Command shall concentrate on defending blue-water.

    God bless America.

  12. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 20, 2022 at 1:39 pm

    US wargames have consistently indicated that the US and SK would likely be defeated in this scenario.

  13. CRS, DrPH

    September 21, 2022 at 1:27 am

    I seriously wonder if Taiwan doesn’t have a nuke sitting around….there are many sources in the world (Pakistan, India, N. Korea etc.), and they would be prudent to sneak a “back-pack” nuke into Beijing, pre-positioned to decapitate the Chinese military and government. If anyone on the planet is motivated to do something like this, it is surely Taiwan.

  14. J Hayward

    September 22, 2022 at 10:26 am

    What exactly IS Taiwan anyways ? Its an island the size of Maryland that has no resources .. is this worth risking a nuclear holocaust ? Plan B should be to give the Taiwanese people a way out and leave behind nasty sanctions to cripple China’s economy.

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