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World War III? What Could Happen if China Invaded Taiwan

A U.S. Air Force 509th Bomb Wing B-2 Spirit refuels from a 351st Aerial Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker during the Bomber Task Force training exercise over England, Aug. 29, 2019. The B-2 aircraft will operate out of RAF Fairford, England, and will exercise there at U.S. Air Forces in Europe's forward operating location for bombers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan)
A U.S. Air Force 509th Bomb Wing B-2 Spirit refuels from a 351st Aerial Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker during the Bomber Task Force training exercise over England, Aug. 29, 2019. The B-2 aircraft will operate out of RAF Fairford, England, and will exercise there at U.S. Air Forces in Europe's forward operating location for bombers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan)

Hundreds of warplanes burn on the tarmac of airbases in Japan and Guam. Over a hundred large warships strung across the sea floor of the Taiwan Strait and Western Pacific beyond. Tens of thousands of lives were lost in just a few weeks of violence.

Wargame for Taiwan

This was the outcome of a series of wargames undertaken by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), simulating an amphibious landing operation in Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2026. The games’ design and outcomes are detailed in a report back in Janyary by retired Marine colonel Mark Cancian and researchers Matthew Cancian and Eric Heginbotham

Played in 3.5-day turns by opposing Red and Blue teams, the analysts sought to realistically simulate a broad variety of factors ranging from the volume of long-range missile stockpiles to the density of aircraft deployed over runway space, political restrictions on operations, and combat on air, ground, and sea. Situations were iterated 23 times, usually including variant technical and political assumptions – such as less effective missile defenses than expected, or delays before U.S. intervention – to assess the impact of those contingencies. 

The authors write that they calibrated the rules based on historical precedents, including the logistical offload throughput of amphibious landings at D-Day and Okinawa, hunting successes of World War II submarines, and past failure/success rates of anti-ship missiles and ship-based missile defense systems.

In contrast to classified Pentagon wargames set in later timeframes, all but three of the CSIS games resulted in decisive or partial Taiwan/U.S. victory, with the outcome sometimes decided within two weeks, but with less favorable scenarios dragging on longer. Usually, U.S. warplanes and submarines sank so many of the PLA Navy’s specialized amphibious landing ships that it became impossible for China to supply and reinforce the 30-60 battalions of PLA marines and soldiers that managed to land in southern Taiwan.

But Taipei’s and Washington’s victory came with staggering losses of warships, aircraft, and personnel at a rate not seen since World War II. Furthermore, several major components of the U.S. military prove either ineffectual or excessively vulnerable—if the wargame’s combat models are to be believed.

Fortunately, a Taiwan invasion is unlikely to occur by 2026; nor would it necessarily take place under the circumstances envisioned in the wargame. But exploring possible costs, risks, and ‘moving parts’ of such a terrible conflict is surely of interest to all parties

Japanese bases—prerequisite for a successful defense of Taiwan

U.S. airpower ordinarily hinges on relatively short-range jet fighters—F-16s, FA-18Es, F-22s, and F-35s—as well as somewhat longer-legged F-15s. However, despite capacity for in-flight refueling, these fighters can only bring sustained combat power to Taiwan’s defense if based relatively close. Here, the viable options are limited to carriers (proven vulnerable to attack), the island of Guam (useful, but at 1,600 miles away, still too far from theater to be ideal), and above all bases in Japan.

Cancian assessed it was likely (but not guaranteed) Japan would allow U.S. warplanes based there to fly combat missions to Taiwan. But those bases would pose such a big threat—and tempting target—that PLA players were highly likely to attack them, to ruinous effect. But those strikes were likely to cause Japan to join hostilities, contributing its own submarines and airpower

That chain of causality involves a lot of likelys—so there’s ample possibility things could play out differently. The CSIS games did simulate scenarios where Japan did not join hostilities, or even refused U.S. access to bases in Japan. In that contingency, prospects for a Taiwan/U.S. victory were poor, with China able to devote more missiles to blast aircraft massed in Guam.

Australia was the only other ally expected to assist the U.S. in the war’s early phases, most importantly via bomber basing.

Carnage on the runway

Cramming hundreds of advanced U.S. fighters into a few bases within range of Taiwan might be the U.S.’s only option—but creates an inviting target for China’s large arsenal of short and medium-range ballistic missiles

Lacking hardened aircraft shelters (HASs), landed U.S. warplanes were blasted apart by ballistic missiles spraying numerous cluster bomblets over a wide area. In ‘base’ game scenarios, the U.S. and Japan aircraft losses averaged 449 jets—90 percent on the ground or carrier deck. In more pessimistic scenarios for Blue Team, U.S./Japanese losses increased to 646 on average. 

Cancian describes the apocalyptic scene: 

“… late-deploying units to Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa will land at a base that has entire squadrons of wrecked U.S. and Japanese aircraft bulldozed to the side of the runway, hundreds of wounded in the base hospital, and temporary cemeteries to handle the many dead. Missile attacks and air combat will have wiped out squadrons that arrived only a few days earlier.”

He notes the U.S. could reduce those losses substantially by constructing hardened aircraft shelters (estimated at $6 million each) shielding aircraft from cluster weapons, forcing China to devote many more missiles. Japan could also permit U.S. military aircraft to disperse to its civilian airports, greatly diluting the effectiveness of Chinese strikes. But that’s a big if. 

To be fair, the Pentagon has begun practicing Agile Combat Employment (ACE) tactics to disperse combat aircraft, which Cancian argues is good but insufficient.

In some of the game’s iterations, the Blue Team also chose to strike airbases in mainland China, causing similar mass destruction of PLA aircraft, increasing the average number destroyed from 155 (all in the air) to 327.

Surprisingly, the game attributes only modest significance to air-to-air combat; because combat air patrols hunting enemy fighters are more fuel intensive, and sinking PLAN amphibious ships was seen as a higher priority, Blue Teams mostly assigned U.S. fighters to the latter missions. The base game didn’t accord a qualitative air-to-air advantage to the U.S. military due to China’s use of longer range PL-15 and PL-21 air-to-air missiles, and the PLA’s ability to safely deploy airborne early warning planes near their own air defenses.

Bombers all the way

The U.S.’s most effective weapon proved to be its fleet of long-range bombers—old B-52s, supersonic B-1 bombers, and B-2 stealth bombers

The reasons are threefold: 

-the bombers have the range to conduct strikes from bases in Hawaii, Alaska, and Australia—largely beyond the reach of Chinese missiles 

-they can deliver many weapons in each strike 

-each can (or could if upgraded) launch JASSM-ER and LRASM stealth cruise missiles from beyond the range of air defenses.

Therefore, relentless sorties by these bombers gradually sank most of the large warships blockading Taiwan and amphibious ships needed to transport PLA troops to beachheads.

There’s a catch: by 2026, the report estimates the U.S. will only have 450 ship-killing LRASMs—all expended in the war’s first few days. However, LRASM is derived from the JASSM-ER, projected to number 3,650 weapons by 2022. Because JASSM has an infrared seeker theoretically useable against moving targets, Cancian believes these could receive software updates, making them at least partially effective against ships. That would permit Air Force bombers to sustain standoff-range anti-ships attacks for weeks

However, Cancian also ran game iterations without anti-ship effective JASSMs, resulting in a steep increase in U.S. losses.

Non-stealth warplanes could safely deliver LRASM/JASSM-ER missiles, particularly B-52s and B-1s. However, the wargamers found stealth aircraft useful for employing more abundant, shorter-range weapons like the JSOW and JDAM glide bomb to targets with good odds of evading air defenses. 

It’s worth noting, China’s fleet of old H-6 bombers is also effective, as an H-6K regiment could pulse 96 supersonic anti-ship missiles toward U.S. warships in one massed strike.

Anti-access/area-denial—all it was hyped to be?

In the 2010s, the idea that China’s long-range missile weapons, including exotic anti-ship ballistic missiles, would create anti-access/area-denial zones for surface warships became a buzzword in security discourse—then faced a backlash by critics arguing the term was over-hyped and misleading.

However, the CSIS wargames seemed to validate the concept; China could launch so many anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles from aircraft, warships, and shore-based launchers that U.S. surface combatants couldn’t approach Taiwan without being destroyed. 

For example, in almost every game iteration, two U.S. carrier strike groups deployed near Taiwan in a show of force hoped to deter war were lost (along with 96 onboard fighters) in the first turn before they could distance themselves, their air defense missiles exhausted.

Subsequently, dense PLA anti-ship firepower prevented powerful U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class cruisers from entering weapons range to affect the conflict around Taiwan. And even then, 15-25 U.S. were usually lost during hostilities—the higher rate approaching one per day. Cancian argues the U.S. Navy should deploy rescue tugs and floatplanes in anticipation of such huge losses.

It’s worth noting A2/AD skeptics argue the reconnaissance and command-and-control capacity to reliably form a real-time spotter-to-shooter kill chain targeting moving ships in the vastness of the Pacific is harder than many realize. That may cast doubt on the efficiency with which both sides’ anti-ship missile arsenals are converted into hits in the game.

Marine and Army ground forces were useless in Taiwan fight

Due to China’s missile-based blockade of Taiwan – reinforced by a picket line of surface warships and submarines – attempts to deploy U.S. Marine or Army ground forces to Taiwan by air or sea proved futile in the game; those forces were destroyed in transit whenever it was attempted.

Cancian argues those outcomes give reason to question the concept investing in Marine Littoral Regiments (MLRs) and Army Multi-Domain Task Forces expected to assist the Navy’s battle for sea control using truck-mounted anti-ship missiles. Even when an MLR began the forward deployed in Taiwan (considered unlikely for political reasons), it sank five ships with its 72 Naval Strike Missiles (range 115 miles), but then couldn’t resupply. In Cancian’s estimation, the MLR’s output was equivalent to one raid by a bomber squadron. 

By contrast, he argues it’s more useful to increase the number of land-based anti-ship missiles sold to Taiwan, including 400 Harpoon missiles on order. He also notes that longer-range Maritime Strike Tomahawks (possibly 1,000 miles) could allow an MLR in Okinawa, as well as surface warships, longer-reaching anti-ship utility.

Submarines deliver the kill

Besides bombers, the other U.S. system that could effectively hunt littoral waters near Taiwan was the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarines. In the target-rich environment of the Taiwan Strait, each submarine sank an average of eight large PLA ships per week. 

As nuclear-powered subs can operate indefinitely underwater, they were unaffected by China’s many anti-ship missiles and constrained primarily by their need to replenish after expending all torpedoes. However, dense anti-submarine assets protecting the PLA amphibious force did manage to inflict 20 percent attrition on deployed U.S. submarines every game turn—losses the U.S. couldn’t make back at present rates of construction/retirement.

Taiwan’s ground forces are key

In the game, PLA missile attacks easily obliterated Taiwan’s navy and air force in a couple of days. Only Taiwanese squadrons in fortified mountain bases survived but struggled to generate sorties due to cratering of their exterior runways. Cancian thus joins the chorus of analysts arguing Taiwan shouldn’t invest in large ships and jet fighters.

More survivable are Taiwan’s land-based anti-ship and anti-air weapons, and its ground forces, which must contain PLA landing forces at the beachhead, preventing them from securing seaports that enable China to resupply the invasion using its many civilian ships.

One major assumption of the wargame’s scenario is that Taiwan’s forces will vigorously resist invasion. Sometimes, however, a country’s armed forces or ruling elite collapse and concede quickly at the sudden onset of war. But predicting a country’s willingness to fight to the last can be tough, as Putin discovered to Russia’s detriment in his invasion of Ukraine.

Critique of CSIS approach

Wargames are unavoidably imperfect attempts to simulate reality—though some more so than others. So it’s unsurprising that several experts on Asian-Pacific security have criticized aspects of the CSIS wargame’s mechanics, underlying assumptions and findings. 

Perhaps the most salient is that China is unlikely to attempt an invasion of Taiwan by 2026 while suffering such a capability mismatch—Beijing’s own military modernization plans to peg the mid-2030s, or optimistically 2027, as when its military will be ready. The PLA Navy will by then have many additional amphibious ships, missile destroyers/cruisers, aircraft carriers, stealth aircraft, combat drones, and hypersonic missiles.

Some argue it’s more likely the PLA would initiate a prolonged blockade and/or bombardment of Taiwan before attempting an amphibious landing—a longer timeframe posing more politically complex choices for the U.S. and Japan.

Lastly, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the realism of the game’s combat mechanics because a real-life maritime-centric conflict of such an enormous scale has not been fought since World War II. Thus it can be debated whether shocking outcomes in the wargame reflect clarifying insights, or originate from flaws in combat resolution rules or scenario assumptions.

Despite these issues, the CSIS wargames arguably still provide food for thought on the terrifying human, political and technical implications of an all-out conflict over the fate of Taiwan, and call attention to the likely strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National InterestNBC, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

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Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News,, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.