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What Would War With China Look Like?

President Xi Jinping has made it clear that China's conquest of the island nation Taiwan is "unstoppable" and has instructed his military to be ready to invade three years from now. He intends the annexation of Taiwan to be his legacy.

President Joe Biden has dropped our deliberately vague "strategic ambiguity" policy and has four times said the U.S. will "defend" — not just assist, as with supplying weapons — but defend Taiwan. He may soon be replaced, but we don't know what Donald Trump would do.

Dark clouds loom on the horizon, and yet, as in the title of Part I — "Focused on Ukraine and Israel, the U.S. Neglects the China Threat" — far too little attention is being paid to a cataclysmic storm approaching just three years out — or possibly less.

We'd better wake up.

Is Taiwan Prepared?

Part I compared the assets the U.S. and China could bring to the fight. What about Taiwan?

article illustration
Since 2017, the Taipei government has been raising its defense budget by meager 5% a year to arrive at only 2.5% of GDP currently. With a budget less than a tenth of China’s ($19 billion versus $231 billion), Taiwan's military prefers to buy big-ticket conventional hardware — airplanes, tanks, submarines. Frustrated American advisers see that China can readily bomb the island's runways, rendering expensive jet fighters useless. Nevertheless, Taiwan will have more than 200 F-16 fighter jets by 2026, including almost 70 of the newest Block 70 aircraft at $63 million apiece.

In contrast, American strategists wish for Taiwan's emphasis to be preventing the PLA (People's Liberation Army) from getting ashore in the first place. This is the so-called “porcupine strategy” by which Taiwan bristles with asymmetrical weapons to fend off the invader, weapons such as:

 U.S. Switchblade drones that would terrify Chinese troops on landing crafts.

 Inexpensive sea mines strewn in the limited landing zones of the rocky island.

 Shoulder-mounted Stinger missile launchers to take down Chinese aircraft at a cost of $120,000 to $150,000 apiece.

 Turkey's Bayraktar drones, which have been so effective in Ukraine, and at $2 million are far more affordable than F-16s.

  U.S. Harpoon missiles with 500-pound warhead and 70-mile range for sinking Chinese ships trying to cross the Taiwan Strait.

Unlike Ukraine, where weapons can be delivered from neighboring countries, Taiwan will be unreachable once the war starts. The time for arming the island is ticking away.

The U.S. has been exasperated over the years by Taiwan’s inexplicable aversion to facing the probability of war in the face of mainland China’s threats. The increased harassment by Chinese jets over the past year has perhaps jostled that complacency. Not until this year did Taiwan extend compulsory military service, and to only one year; it had until now been just four months. Conscripts barely get enough ammunition for training. An account of one recruit said that boot camp was more like summer camp, that in physical training such as jogging the pace is set to that of the slowest man, that long hours were spent on drill and ceremony, and that as a half-marathon runner he had finished his four months thirteen pounds heavier "in the worst shape of my life".

It should be inconceivable for U.S. troops to have any role defending a Taiwan that has so little interest in defending itself. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal a year and a half ago, longtime military strategist Edward Luttwak called out the the "persistent fecklessness" of the Taiwan government's defense policy "whose bottom line is that the island should be defended by others while Taiwan’s youth can continue to play video games."

to besiege the island fortress...

Threats against Taiwan have been intensifying. Chinese warplanes regularly violate Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Warships menacingly circle the island. Beijing warns the new president, Lai Ching-te, who just pledged to defend the sovereignty of Taiwan, to back away from any notion of independence. An incident could trigger war. Biden would be called upon to honor his ill-considered bombast.

Taiwan presents a daunting challenge to a China considering invasion, though. Troop ships having to cross the hundred mile strait from the mainland are denied any possibility of surprise. China would have to shift its military assets to its eastern coast which will easily be detected. Beijing would be undertaking one of history’s biggest amphibious landings, faced with traversing the choppy waters of the hundred-mile wide Taiwan Strait. An invasion's timing will be constrained by two annual monsoons and other seasonal weather events.

Before any invasion, China would likely launch days to weeks of all-out bombardment by its air and naval forces and by rocketry fired from both sea and mainland to inflict maximum harm on the population and infrastructure. Even before that, to keep the United States and allies at bay, China might launch a preemptive strike, its missiles aimed to take out key American bases in Japan, and any U.S. ships in the region.

There are few beaches on the edges of the island that offer good prospect for amphibious landings. The eastern side is mostly lined by cliffs or gradients that are too steep, and are immediately hemmed in by a mountain range that runs almost the length of the 245-mile long island, with peaks reaching over twelve thousand feet.

On the western coastline are uniformly shallow waters that mean article illustration
Taiwan has few beaches (highlights) that
could support an amphibious landing.

troop ships would have to anchor a mile or so offshore, with landing craft ferrying troops to the strand highly vulnerable to Taiwan’s onshore defenses. That leaves few suitable stretches for the PLA to come ashore, as the graphic shows.

Hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to confront an island of 23 million people. The crossing takes hours, with ships vulnerable to Taiwan’s fleet of F-16 jet fighters, and U.S.-provided weaponry such as Harpoon anti-ship missiles. That vulnerability continues in the weeks and months of fighting, because China’s invading forces will need to be entirely resupplied by sea.

If they can gain a foothold, China’s troops would then contend mostly with urban combat owing to the island’s densely-packed population. Beijing’s ultimate objective is political, the primary mission the control of the capital city Taipei. But Taipei is located at the northern tip of the island, in a bowl, surrounded by mountains, and accessible only through passes easily blocked by Taiwan defensive forces.

...or to strangle it from a distance?

It should be evident by now that invading Taiwan could be a costly mistake. A country ruled by a dictator is subject to his whims and an ego that may be persuaded of invincibility. So it could happen.

Far more sensible is a blockade. As an island, Taiwan is almost entirely reliant on imports. With the largest navy in the world, China is better positioned to interdict all shipments of food, oil, and essentials. Hundreds of its warships as well as planes could ring the island preventing cargo from reaching Taiwan ports. Ships and submarines facing outward from the ring would be arrayed to block intervention by the U.S. and its allies hoping to aid the embattled island. In fact, our navy would have to hold itself in considerable remove from a mainland bristling with missiles that can destroy our ships even hundreds of miles distant as Part I enumerated. Our navy would have to attack the blockade from afar, by its own missiles and by flights of attack planes.

A blockade would be difficult to defeat at such long range. Hoping to supply Taiwan, as has been possible with Ukraine, presents an insuperable problem. Ships would need somehow to evade the blockade to arrive at Taiwan ports, only to be bombed while trying to unload.

Without energy, heat (if in winter), cooking appliances, lighting, phones, internet, all rendered inoperable — "In two weeks, Taiwan would start to go dark," Richard Chen, Taiwan's former deputy defense minister, told The New Yorker, "and people would start to go hungry." Taiwan could be brought to heel from the internal rebellion of empty stomachs.

the U.S. disadvantage

Whether to confront an invasion or a blockade, U.S. forces — ships, submarines, fighter jets, bomber aircraft — are mostly thousands of miles of ocean away, and once in theater must be re-supplied from great distances. The PLA’s navy and China’s militarized coast guard are right at home.

China has seeded its coastline and the artificial-island bases it has built up in the South China Sea with a formidable array of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile installations. Stealth guided missile destroyers, coupled with air defense networks, present a shield against our fighters and bombers from breaking through mainland defenses. Drone swarms launched from the mainland would harass and cripple intruding ships. Long range missiles known as "carrier killers" are capable of targeting our ships at distances of up to 2,000 miles, China claims.

These assets will likely inflict heavy cost on any attempts by the U.S. to knock out those defenses. Our carriers and warships will be forced to stay well out at sea.

Our attack aircraft are still the world’s best but other than carrier decks there are only two air bases within a radius centered on Taiwan that would not require re-fuelling. Both are in Japan. China has 39 air bases within 500 miles of Taiwan. Allied sorties would operate at long range, needing mid-air re-fueling from tanker planes for the round trip.

Our submarine fleet is superior to China’s and would likely be our strongest weapon, sinking ships on the picket line of a blockade, or transport ships supplying an invasion. China's growing fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines would be in the hunt for our aircraft carriers.

All the while China can be expected to deploy cyberattacks and possibly space weaponry to disable or destroy satellites that U.S. forces rely on for inter-ship and aircraft communication, and geographic positioning

We might be forced to adopt an indirect approach to overcome our inability to get in close — something of a blockade of our own. China is overwhelmingly reliant on imports of fuel, food to feed its 1.4 billion people, and the raw materials that feed its industry. Our navy out in the Pacific or west of the South China Sea could sit in the shipping lanes at key points such as the Malacca Strait between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra to block commercial vessels on their way to Chinese ports. The Chinese Communist Party is afraid of rebellion more than any external foe and hunger could trigger uprisings. The hazard of this strategy is that it might induce a panicked Beijing to use nuclear weapons.

we're not what we used to be.

In a world suddenly aflame in wars and threats of more, the U.S. is unable to keep up. Supplying Ukraine and now Israel with munitions has drawn down supplies. American defense contractors, fewer in this new century owing to consolidation, have not been able to quickly boost production. “We are doing all we can to help ramp up industrial capacity, speed up production and reduce long lead times,” State Department official Mira Resnick said in September at a congressional hearing about Taiwan. But we don't hear President Biden expediting output under the Defense Production Act.

Our few shipyards struggle to provide the surface warships and submarines the Navy needs to counter China's superiority in numbers. And we no longer build ships for the merchant marine fleet, the U.S. having virtually done away with its own merchant marine. To resupply a war against China from materiel depots at U.S ports, we would need to contract for foreign-flagged ships of doubtful willingness to run the gauntlet of Chinese subs. China looks on and takes note of U.S. vulnerability.

The U.S. has for decades designed and built ever more sophisticated and costly jet fighter aircraft, culminating in the troubled F-35 which, at a bleed-out $80 million a copy, has left the Air Force with the oldest fleet in its history. So, build a multitude of less costly fighters. Rather, the plan is to buy still more F-35s. According to a General Accountability Office report of last September, the Department of Defense plans to add 2,500 more F-35s to the 450 produced to date, at a life-cycle cost of $1.7 trillion. That means the life-cycle use of each F-35 comes to $680 million.

The U.S. now has the B-21 stealth bomber but it only flew for the first time last November and building the minimum fleet of 100, at about $700 million each, that the Air Force says it needs to prevail against China, will take years beyond Mr. Xi's intimated date for attacking Taiwan. That leaves the Air Force instead with its 70-plus B-52s that are on average 63 years old. Even its 45 or so B-1s are 37 years old on average.

The Air Force has bought onto the idea of drone swarms as a way to overwhelm an enemy and plans to buy 1,000 to 2,000 for as little as $3 million apiece, a tenth of the cost of the basic F-16. But the vagueness of 1,000 or 2,000 — which is it? — says it's just a plan and, as our earlier report took note of, there is no evidence of any U.S. industry currently building drones.

Former U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Harry Harris has said America is building a military force for the 2030s when the acute challenge is in the 2020s.

This series will wrap up in Part III.

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