Would the United States win the battle to save Taiwan from China? Not according to a series of Pentagon simulations and war games. In an effort to figure out what would happen should U.S. forces come to the defense of Taiwan, the Pentagon has determined that the U.S. might be defeated and certainly would suffer heavy losses of personnel and equipment.
Among military strategists, there is even debate about whether American aircraft carriers, generally thought to be critical for the relief of Taiwan, are vulnerable today to Chinese missiles and could be destroyed from long distances—perhaps as far as 1,000 miles or more.
It wasn’t always this way.
In 1996, China conducted a massive missile “exercise” and began to mass troops, suggesting that the “exercise” was a cover for an invasion of Taiwan.
Stephen Bryen was in Taipei along with R. James Woolsey, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency early in the Clinton administration, and Admiral Leon “Bud” Edney, who only four years before had been Vice Chief of US Naval Operations. They felt the fear and anxiety rapidly spreading on the island.
They wondered what Washington was doing, and the three of them hit the phones to push the Pentagon and the White House to act. Up to that point, President Bill Clinton, along with the National Security Council, had been unwilling to respond mostly because they were all about improving ties with China and enlarging mutually advantageous trade. As the danger grew and loomed, and the situation was approaching a dire point, Clinton finally sent in two carrier task forces.
With the carriers steaming toward Taiwan, the Chinese backed down. While we don’t know everything, it is likely that the Chinese estimated that in a confrontation with the United States, and especially with the fighter planes on our carriers, an invasion would fail. In any case, to get their troops onto Taiwan, China did not then have the landing craft they needed, leaving them to rely on commercial ships that could fairly easily be sunk by U.S. aircraft.
But from that situation, China understood that to take over Taiwan it needed to significantly improve its navy and air force, acquire defensible landing vessels, and find a way to kill the American aircraft carriers. China has had 25 years to fix these problems and has done so by building very modern fighter planes (including the stealthy J-20) and nuclear bombers, landing ships such as the Type 075 Yushen Class large deck amphibious ships that can carry troops, helicopters, and armored vehicles, and carrier killer missiles.
In the carrier killer category is the Dong Feng (East Wind) DF-21D, a two stage solid fuel anti-ship missile with a range of 900 miles or more. This ship can be guided to its target by satellites and by drones. It is said to have a maneuverable reentry vehicle (warhead) making it difficult to defeat. Future versions of the DF-21D may also have multiple independently targeted warheads (MIRVs), adding to the DF-21Ds lethality and making it even more difficult to kill.
The United States is deploying AEGIS cruisers and new types of interceptor missiles such as the SM-3 (RIM-161 Standard Missile 3) and SM-6 (RIM-174 Standard Extended Range Active Missile), and the AEGIS radars have been improved. These newer systems are usually included with carrier task forces and may be able to stop a DF-21D attack, but whether it can stop a swarming DF-21D attack is unclear.
China is preparing on the one hand and watching the United States on the other. It isn’t clear at what point, using what strategies, China would reach the conclusion it could successfully attack U.S. aircraft carriers. Unfortunately, the same is true on the American side: it isn’t clear that the United States could stop a Chinese anti-carrier missile attack and we won’t really know until it happens.
But even if the carriers could get through, the Chinese Air Force is far more capable than it was 25 years ago. China is working to improve its stealth capabilities and match the American F-22 even more than the F-35, which is more of a tactical aircraft and is less stealthy than the F-22.
Unlike the United States, China is not a democratic country with a free press and free social media. If Chinese planners are willing to lose 400 aircraft and dozens of ships in what they believe will be a successful mission to defeat the United States, that will be part of their calculus.
But when the president asks Pentagon planners what to expect if we came to support Taiwan, he will get some bad news that could cause serious domestic pushback. He may be told a carrier could go down, or we could lose 50 to 75 fighter aircraft. This means the president has to consider the possibility of a public response to thousands of casualties and billions in lost hardware.
Much depends on the courage, political and moral, of the president. But the instinct in Washington would likely be an urgent attempt to push Taiwan into a negotiation with China that would end with Taiwan becoming Chinese. In effect, surrendering. That would get the United States off the hook but would be a dire warning to our friends in Asia that the sky was indeed falling and there was no hope or help to be had from the Americans.
Unless another formula is found.
Appeasement will, in the end lead to world war; it is impossible to believe that China would be satisfied just swallowing Taiwan. It should not be forgotten that China has an insatiable anger about Japan and what Japanese forces did to China in the 1930’s and 1940’s—the millions who were slaughtered, and the use of germ and chemical warfare by Japan against civilians, mainly Chinese.
The 1937-38 Rape of Nanjing/Nanking or the Nanjing Massacre, which may have killed as many as 300,000 Chinese, mainly civilians, is one of the many unavenged atrocities China remembers. Once China has chased away the Americans, Japan is the next target and the Japanese know it, that is why Japan calls a possible invasion of Taiwan an “existential threat.”
Allies in the Pacific can prevent this only with an entirely new strategy to deter China from attacking Taiwan. Instead of relying on far off carriers and waiting for the Chinese to create an incident or provocation to trigger a conflict, we need to take steps to change the game now by reinforcing Taiwan.
The best and fastest way would be to create a single Taiwan Military Command that includes Japan, the United States, and Taiwan. There is no coordination command mechanism today with Taiwan or Japan. The current American approach—to do it ourselves—is not viable. Japan has F-35s and F-15s, a small but good navy, and excellent submarines. Taiwan has modernized F-16’s and CK-F-1 home built fighters. All of these have to be used to block China, but they need to operate in a coordinated manner. For example, we must coordinate Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) assets so we can operate efficiently against the enemy and not kill each other.
A single command structure would let China know it has a significantly larger problem on its hands than just Taiwan, and that the United States and Japan and Taiwan have access and support from multiple bases on Taiwan, on Okinawa, and in Japan. With that sort of challenge, China cannot hope to isolate Taiwan and frighten away the Americans.
In addition, in a conflict, the air and naval bases, particularly in Japan and Okinawa (including American, Japanese, and Joint bases) should be available to Taiwan’s Air Force and Navy. This changes the game in two ways: Taiwan could operate from bases outside the island, meaning that Chinese attacks directed at Taiwan will not ensure a Chinese victory, and China would be confronted with threats from multiple bases and significant coordinated air and naval assets of the allies.
With a multi-base and support system to confront China and a common command, China’s strategy crumbles.
The Pentagon should run new simulations with a single military command and multiple bases mutually supporting the effort to block a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Given the potential game-changing nature suggested here, China would understand that it is contained, much as NATO successfully contained the USSR from 1949 until its collapse in 1991.
The current administration needs to turn around its policy approach of global retreat and appeasement, which will ultimately lead to war, and adopt a new strategy to deal with China before it is too late.