A war-game exercise reveals holes in U.S. deterrence strategy.
Good news: The Chinese military can’t easily seize Taiwan by force. That’s the gist of the headlines about a recent war game from a Washington think-tank. But that’s not the full story, and the details in the 160-page report show that even a victorious fight for Taiwan would be a ruinous affair, and the U.S. is still showing little sense of urgency in deterring it.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies set out to test what would happen if China attempted an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Analysts played the war game 24 times, and in most instances U.S. intervention beat back the invasion. Taiwan remained an autonomous democracy, albeit as a ravaged island without basic services like electricity.
War games are a product of choices and assumptions, but there were four preconditions to defeating an invasion, none of them guaranteed. First the Taiwanese have to fight. The island is ramping up its spending on defense but its conscription and readiness are underwhelming. Condition two: Arms need to be pre-positioned; the U.S. can’t pour in weapons over friendly borders after the fight starts a la Ukraine. American weapons deliveries to Taiwan now lag years behind orders.
Three: The U.S. must be able to rely on its bases in Japan. American fighter jets lack the range to commute to the war without Japan’s outer islands, one more reason Tokyo is America’s most important Pacific ally. The fourth condition? The U.S. “must be able to strike the Chinese fleet rapidly and en masse” with long-range weapons.
The cost in blood of U.S. sailors and airmen would be enormous. “In three weeks,” the report notes, the U.S. would suffer “about half as many casualties as it did in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Commanders would have to “move forward despite a high level of casualties not seen in living memory.”
The American public has no experience since World War II of enduring dozens of lost ships, including two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers (crew: 5,000) badly damaged or lost in most scenarios. The casualties and equipment losses compound the longer the U.S. waits to intervene, a warning about the costs of political indecision in a crisis. It’s also worth asking if a U.S. President in his 80s would have the stamina and concentration to manage the flood of difficult decisions coming at him.
The weapons that can help win faster are available, yet the U.S. is making little progress in acquiring them in sufficient numbers. In the war game, American attack submarines “wreaked havoc” on the Chinese fleet. The U.S. Navy now has a fleet of about 50 attack subs and a goal of 66, but the shipbuilding plan doesn’t hit 60 boats until 2045. Congress wants to buy three hulls a year but the U.S. industrial base delivers about 1.2.
Another war-winner: Long-range anti-ship weapons, known as LRASMs. Bombers could fire these weapons without having to enter contested airspace, which significantly reduces U.S. casualties. One problem: “The United States expended its global LRASM inventory within the first few days in all scenarios.” The Pentagon should run a public campaign to buy a LRASM to save American pilots, and procure them in the thousands.
One known unknown is how well the Chinese military would perform, a warning to the Communist Party. A contested amphibious assault, across about 100 miles of ocean, is a varsity operation, much harder than rolling over a land border as Vladimir Putin did in Ukraine. The last time a Chinese combat plane shot down a manned aircraft was 1967.
Missile defenses may work well in peacetime testing but fail at higher rates in combat. One question Chinese President Xi Jinping might ask himself, after watching Mr. Putin’s travails in Europe, is whether the reports he’s receiving on his military’s prowess are accurate.
Some readers may conclude the answer to all this is to let Taiwan fall, but that would end America’s status as a credible global power. U.S. allies would recalibrate their alliances, and rogues would take more risks. All the more reason to spend the money and energy on demonstrating to China that it will lose a Taiwan war. CSIS has done a service in putting out an unclassified document that can educate the public on what is required.
Appeared in the January 20, 2023, print edition as ‘Who Would Win a War Over Taiwan?’