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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

A U.S.-China War over Taiwan: How Bad Could It Get?

If things don’t go China’s way, Beijing could try for a rematch at a more auspicious time, and it lays colossal weight on the island.

U.S. Navy vs. China?
STRAIT OF MALACCA (June 18, 2021) The Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) transits the South China Sea with the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Halsey (DDG 97) and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67). Reagan is part of Task Force 70/Carrier Strike Group 5, conducting underway operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rawad Madanat)

Beware, China. And Taiwan, and Asia, and America. Just after the holidays, a team from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a hefty report entitled The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan. It is jam-packed with insight. One hopes it finds avid readership among the uniformed services, their political masters, and Congress.

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The report details the design and results of an unclassified wargame set in the Taiwan Strait in 2026, toward the end of the much-discussed “Davidson window,” which postulates a Chinese attack on Taiwan by 2027. The game overseers ran twenty-four iterations, changing different variables—political and strategic decisions, alliance politics, strategy and operations, weaponry and sensors available to the combatants—to identify cross-cutting themes, and to compile findings and recommendations applicable across a variety of likely circumstances.

On the whole the CSIS game struck a more upbeat note than games conducted by the armed forces themselves, which tend to prophesy bitter defeat. The First Battle of the Next War observes that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generally lost or fought to a stalemate under most plausible scenarios. The coauthors attribute the disparity between think-tank and Pentagon games to the fact that the CSIS hosts factored history into the game’s conduct alongside more traditional statistical methods.

Bringing in non-quantitative measures is wise. Military sage Carl von Clausewitz warns against trying to reduce a messy, complex affair like warfare to rules and formulas. Relying overwhelmingly on the probability of a kill during an exchange of fire employing certain weapons and sensors, as Pentagon games are wont to do, feels like flouting Clausewitzian counsel.

History is an antidote to fixating on numbers.

Probably the three biggest themes to emerge from the report are this: Taiwan must take ownership of its own defense rather than depend on outside intervention for survival; to succeed the U.S. armed forces must obtain permission from the Japanese government to operate from U.S. bases in Japan; and the U.S. military must bulk up its magazine of air-launched anti-ship ordnance to the maximum extent possible in order to sink a PLA Navy amphibious task force trying to cross the Taiwan Strait.

Otherwise Taiwan will fall. The island and its protectors will be unable to concentrate enough firepower at the time and place of battle to prevail.

The early chapters in The First Battle of the Next War are interesting, but they focus more on game design than actionable takeaways. The coauthors turn to the results of the game and their findings and recommendations around halfway through the report. That’s where makers and executors—and funders—of strategy should concentrate their attention.

For instance, the coauthors urge Washington to prime the armed forces and American society for the realities of great-power war. And to do it ahead of time. No cross-strait war, they say correctly, will be a standoff, pushbutton, antiseptic affair. It will be bloody, and costly. Losses will be grave. The U.S. Navy typically lost two aircraft carriers and between ten and twenty major surface combatants depending on the iteration of the game. Aircraft losses were traumatic, as were casualties to aviators, mariners, and soldiers.

In all likelihood, life will imitate gaming.

In other words, it’s worth disabusing service folk and American citizens of the notion that the United States, its allies, and Taiwan can score a quick, decisive victory in the Taiwan Strait. That assumption is what we’ve grown accustomed to since the Soviet Union’s demise. America’s post-Cold War era of martial supremacy—and easy triumphs over outmatched foes—has come to a close. History has returned. Statesmen and senior commanders should acculturate the services, the U.S. government, and the populace to basic facts of warfare now.

Let’s zero in on a couple of critical points from the report. Strikingly, one weapon system comes up again and again in the report, namely the AGM-158B Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER). The report doesn’t quite tout the JASSM-ER as a war-winning capability. But close.

Here’s why. Designed chiefly for air-to-ground missions, the JASSM-ER is a precision strike weapon boasting a range officially estimated at 575 miles. That’s standoff range, beyond the reach of PLA Navy ships’ defenses. This lethal missile is also plentiful in the U.S. Air Force inventory. The air arm will boast an estimated 3,650 of them by 2026. By contrast, the newfangled AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), a JASSM-ER derivative optimized for shipkilling, is scarce in the Air Force and Navy inventories. (At present Air Force B-1B bombers and Navy F/A-18 fighter/attack jets are certified to tote LRASMs.)

The numbers are humbling. The services will field 450 LRASMs or so in 2026. That’s a shallow magazine for fighting a peer competitor. But it appears the air and sea services can multiply their inventories of air-launched shipkillers through software necromancy. The coauthors note that the U.S. Navy leadership requested funding for JASSM-ERs in its budget request for fiscal year 2022, justifying the request in part to augment the sea service’s capability for offensive anti-surface-warfare missions. For going against surfare warships, that is.

Evidently a software upgrade can give the JASSM-ER an anti-ship capability that duplicates—to some extent, anyway—the destructive potential of the purpose-built LRASM.

If so the JASSM-ER would become a literal force multiplier for the U.S. and allied anti-ship arsenals, in effect adding thousands of anti-ship munitions to the stockpile. The deeper the missile magazine, the more engagements a fighting force can undertake, and the longer it can keep up operations. And the more engagements it undertakes, the better its chances of pummeling a hostile force—such as, say, a Chinese invasion fleet making its way to Taiwan—into scrap.

Because the CSIS wargame was unclassified, the coauthors profess agnosticism on the degree to which the JASSM-ER is fit for seaborne missions, and how many missiles will be repurposed by 2026 if it is. Part of the ambiguity surrounding the JASSM-ER-to-LRASM transformation is deliberate. Military magnates tend to be closemouthed about details of weapons and sensors. They disclose enough to discomfit and deter potential foes, while remaining vague about technical characteristics to deny competitors an accurate understanding of U.S. armaments should war come.

In an effort to peer through the fog, the coauthors posit that the JASSM-ER will have at least modest anti-ship capability by 2026 and that some will have been converted for sea service. But they also ran some variants of the game without this new weapon, yielding sobering results. In those scenarios the allies soon exhausted their supply of standoff LRASMs, then had to resort to shorter-range weapons. That meant firing platforms had to close within reach of PLA Navy ships’ anti-air missiles. Losses of allied combat aircraft mounted as Chinese brought their defenses to bear.

Lastly, it’s worth commenting on the report’s odd-seeming title: The First Battle. The wargame, the coauthors contend, may have merely explored the first phase in an on-again-off-again struggle for Taiwan. Even learned commentators sometimes oversimplify Clausewitz’s observations on how wars end, contending that he says “the outcome is never final.” No. What the Prussian master does say is that “even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final” (my emphasis). That’s because “the defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”

The vanquished can try to overturn the verdict of arms. But a challenge isn’t a sure thing.

So a lasting victory in the Taiwan Strait is possible, and worth striving for should China mount an amphibian assault across the strait. But strategic and geographic facts endure. War would set all combatants back, including China. Neither Taiwan nor China is going anywhere. Beijing could try for a rematch at a more auspicious time, and it lays colossal weight on the island. It’s willing to pay a great price for its goals. Whether the United States and other friends of Taiwan would be game for periodic rematches is less certain. China might lose this round, as the CSIS game suggests it would. That, however, may not be the end of the story. Plan accordingly.

Read the whole thing.

Author Expertise and Experience: Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes is also a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Mario

    January 23, 2023 at 12:41 pm

    Let’s be serious. Disregarding the fact that China has never won, nor will it ever win, a Western army, technologically light-years away, it cannot mount a Normandy landing more than 50 miles from its shores. It is far beyond the capabilities of a medieval-minded military with 1980s equipment.
    China had the opportunity to be an economic power, now it only has a more or less slow decline.
    In the end, just like India: an overpopulated country that cannot feed its inhabitants and they have to emigrate to the free world.

  2. JACK

    January 23, 2023 at 3:40 pm

    Seems to me it would be better for the United States to develop its own semiconductor industry here in our country. The cost would no doubt be high but I’m sure it’ll be less than half of the cost of a war or China

  3. 403Forbidden

    January 23, 2023 at 7:32 pm

    Hmm, a US-china war, over anything, whether over taiwan, over covid, over xi jinping or oven the oxygen in the air, will result in one of two things.

    One, a repeat of nam.

    In 1964, LBJ won the presidential contest on a promise not to send US boots to nam. Just months later, US marines and rangers were there alright. Accompanied by press photographers.

    Ten years later, and after 5 million deaths, saigon finally fell, with the very last US copter taking off from its embassy rooftop.

    Second, a repeat of the 1900 military expedition.

    In 1900, a US force marching for tientsin in china was beaten back by the so-called boxers.

    In response, a large foreign military force was collected to teach the boxers a lesson which they and their descendants would never forget.

    Among the massive force was the great US contingent. Thus the boxers were defeated on their own soil that was wetted with their own blood and forced to pay massive reparations and hand out concessions like sweets.

    The 1900 military expedition waa so successful that japan organized a similar one in september 1931 that resulted in things like unit 731.

    That september 1931 campaign was however a story with a different ending. It resulted in the birth of the 1949 revolution that enabled the boxers’ descendants to finally hurl off the foreigner’s yoke and become the giant it is today.

    So, whay will the coming US- china bring. The final end or final doomsday for all the boxers descendants, or a second revolution to throw off the foreigners’ yoke but this time covering whole of east asia, from japan in the north to austraia in the south.

    (Interestingly, australia will soon be celebrating australia day, or the day when the lucky island was transformed from being a black or colored homeland into a white one.)

  4. Stefan Stackhouse

    January 24, 2023 at 11:35 am

    “Taiwan must take ownership of its own defense rather than depend on outside intervention for survival”

    You could top right there, for that is what it all comes down to. Taiwan does what it takes, and it stands. If it doesn’t, it falls.

    I wish them well, but it really is up to them. It really shouldn’t be up to us. We have already fought the wars of too many other nations for them.

  5. Conrad

    January 24, 2023 at 12:26 pm

    China invaded India through the Himalayas using their Army. The Hindus kill 56 chinese soldiers. The majestic dragon did what they do, turn back to China. That is what you need to do with China, hit them hard and watch how they run.

  6. Roger Bacon

    January 24, 2023 at 4:18 pm

    Maybe a war with China would be what it takes for us to get serious about stopping Chinese pentanol from poisoning 50,000 Americans every year.

  7. Simon

    January 25, 2023 at 1:30 am

    When Nixon wanted to pull China away from the Soviet Union they laid down one pre-condition. The USA must recognize Taiwan as a part of China.

    Then we gave China so many manufacturing jobs they got rich and powerful. And then we decide to reveal we never really meant it when we said Taiwan was a part of China?

  8. BC

    January 25, 2023 at 5:39 am

    OK 1 more time. Sorry if you were misled by Walter Cronkite, but this is the truth. The last U.S. solider left V.N. April 1973. Democrat Congress betrayed South V.N. by not resupplying them or protecting them when they were invaded 2 years later. The famous helicopter photo was of the CIA evacuating USAIDS Vietnamese workers from a building near the Saigon Notre Dam cathedral, not the the Embassy. 22 Gia Long Street, Saigon. Two years after the US left, two, TWO years, 730 days the North invaded. Ted Kennedy, McGovern and Biden allowed millions of boat people to die.

  9. ofer desade

    January 25, 2023 at 6:49 am

    sadly, china is learning from Ukraine that the west doesn’t have the stomach for war; and given a battle between the placid and the aggressive, guess who wins.

    cowards will always have a reason to hang back. they will call it realpolitik, pacifism, good sense, distance, objectivism, relativism…. isms ad nauseum’ism (you callin me a coward? where were you in Normandy, ‘Nam and Neufchateaux).

    but make no mistake: today, it’s Ukraine and Taiwan, tomorrow Germany, the UK, and Australia; and still, the US will hang back until – as the poem says – nobody is left to speak out for it.

  10. Ezra Teter

    January 25, 2023 at 10:15 pm

    The whole world would lose a war between China and the United States. If you think inflation is bad now just wait until the world’s largest manufacturer of just about everything is cut off from the global economic system. Millions of people would die on both sides. Also, though I certainly wouldn’t bet against the U.S. if they actually came over here and attacked us I wouldn’t bet against them if we went over there to attack them.

  11. Dan Bujold

    January 26, 2023 at 12:15 am

    Taiwan is as high tech as any country. One commentator was smart in saying we should develop our own chip manufacturing capability. I think the recently passed CHIP bill was addressing this. My question is, if seriously feeling threatened, how long would it take the Taiwanese to make nukes? Considering that Pakistan did it, NK did it, I have to believe that the Taiwanese could do it in six months to a year, but I am only opinionating. Any thoughts?

  12. Jacksonian Libertarian

    January 26, 2023 at 10:49 pm

    Of the 1st world investors that have been uplifting authoritarian China over the last few decades, the smart money has already left ($1+ trillion), and the stupid money must be looking at the continuously increasing risk with horror.

    Authoritarians like Putin or Xi think territory and resources are what makes a nation strong. They fail to understand that it is people that make a nation strong, because they just see slaves that must do as they are told.

    Democracies on the other hand use participation in free markets to engage all their Real Intelligences (RI, AI doesn’t exist), and utilized the efficiencies, creativity, and increased growth rate, to use the greatest force in the Universe: Compounding Growth.

    Authoritarians can’t use this strategy because political power negates the “Rule of Law” necessary for “secure private property”, and “free markets” can’t thrive where capital must be stashed.

    That said, any attack (no matter the result) on Taiwan will result in a Strategic Blockade of China, cutting off 98% of China’s trade, responsible for 40% of their GDP (plus massive economic dislocation costs), and permanently ending the 1st world investor driven decades long uplifting of China.

  13. Jack

    January 31, 2023 at 2:24 pm

    So I’ve read the report for myself, and I appreciate the limited scope. I have to disagree with the author of this article on one point. He said the neither Taiwan nor China are going anywhere. China is on the verge of imploding, and that is the best reason for something like this happening. Wars focus tension abroad. If they can win, it will help the CCP bolster their position as the leaders of China. Both China’s and Taiwan’s demographics are so horrible, they are going to get very weak in the 2030’s. China’s One Child Policy has hollowed them out and not they don’t have 30-40 somethings. I think Peter Zeihan is onto something when he says China will have another Mao/Cultural Revolution or it will enter a new Warlord Period regardless of whether on not they take Taiwan. I lean toward the latter as I don’t think the Chinese people will tolerate a Maoist move.

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