The United States, Taiwan and Japan could defeat a hypothetical Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan in 2026, but likely at the cost of hundreds of aircraft, two aircraft carriers, up to two dozen cruisers or destroyers, and tens of thousands of casualties — about half as many casualties as the U.S. sustained over 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan — in just three weeks.
That is the prediction made by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a national security think tank based in Washington, D.C., after running 24 iterations of a war game focused on a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Though the U.S. and its allies achieved victory in most scenarios, that victory would likely prove too costly in the long-run, as the massive losses would possibly give China the chance to launch a more successful invasion in the future.
“Victory is not everything. The United States might win a pyrrhic victory, suffering more in the long run than the ‘defeated’ Chinese,” wrote CSIS in the report of its findings, which was released earlier this week. “The United States should therefore institute policies and programs to make winning less costly in the event of conflict.”
To avoid such an outcome, CSIS recommended strengthening U.S. diplomatic and military assets that proved key to winning the conflict in their war games. These included bolstering Taiwan’s ground forces; hardening U.S. air bases in Japan and deepening its ties with that country; buying more long-range anti-ship missiles; and preparing both the U.S. public and military leaders for large numbers of casualties in order to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Wargaming is a central part of how the U.S. military prepares for future conflicts. However, CSIS noted that most of the relevant war games where U.S. military leaders prepare for a possible conflict with China are classified, which leaves public debate on the issue “unanchored.” That means most policy makers lack the “shared understanding of the problem” that CSIS argues is essential for U.S. policy to be shaped in a way that could defeat an invasion with minimal casualties, or deter China from launching an invasion in the first place.
There are limitations to the CSIS war game. For example, the lack of access to classified information means the exact capabilities of weapons systems and new domains such as space and cyber warfare are unknown. The CSIS wargame is also focused on an amphibious invasion of Taiwan as opposed to other forms of conflict involving China. The think tank argued that amphibious invasion represents “the most dangerous threat to Taiwan and is thus the first course of action that needs to be analyzed.”
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Despite these limitations, CSIS argued that it “produced a coherent and rigorously derived picture of a major threat facing the United States.” Many of the report’s recommendations are also consistent with calls that experts in the national security field have made for years, though there are a few surprising twists which make sense within the parameters the think tank established.
How it plays out
When the conflict started in the game, Chinese air and naval units surrounded Taiwan, blockading it from friendly cargo or military ships and making it impossible for the U.S. and allies to send significant amounts of troops and equipment. China then launched an invasion across the Taiwan Strait and was almost always able to establish a beachhead on the other side. However, the challenge for China was how to sustain that beachhead and bring in reinforcements so that it could push up from the less-defended south of the island, through the rugged, mountainous terrain of Taiwan’s center and into the north, where China must capture the capital of Taipei City in order to achieve decisive victory.
With those goals and restraints in mind, the focus of the war-fighting nations crystallized into very specific objectives. For China, the goal was to maintain the use of military amphibious ships in order to bring in new troops and supplies until operational ports and airfields could be captured, which would allow the use of civilian merchant ships and cargo planes. For the U.S., the objective was to sink those amphibious ships using air and naval forces; and for Taiwan, the objective was to use its ground forces to defeat China’s invading army.
CSIS also stressed that it was of vital importance for the U.S. to not attempt attacks on the Chinese mainland due to the massive military cost it would likely incur and to the possible escalation of nuclear warfare.
“China’s success or failure hinges largely on its ability to defend the amphibious fleet long enough to achieve its objectives ashore,” CSIS wrote. “Much of the maritime and air battle therefore revolves around the U.S. effort to sink that fleet, and China’s effort to defend it.”
Most scenarios saw the Taiwanese ground forces frustrating the Chinese advance, but not without massive damage to Taiwan’s civilian transportation and basic services infrastructure. The U.S. and Japanese air and naval forces were also successful in disrupting Chinese resupply efforts, but not without massive losses and damage to air bases in Japan, which China targeted with long-range missiles.
Given this bag of mixed results, CSIS argued that the U.S. must strengthen what worked in the war games, such as long-range missiles and submarine strikes, and improve its weaknesses, such as its vulnerable airfields. Doing so would help the U.S. and Taiwan achieve victory in a possible conflict at lower costs, and possibly deter a conflict from starting in the first place.
CSIS laid out four recommendations without which the U.S. and Taiwan cannot defeat a Chinese invasion. The first recommendation was to strengthen Taiwan’s ground forces. Right now, Taiwan is spending too much money on large surface ships and advanced aircraft, which China would destroy in the first days of a conflict, CSIS argued. Instead, Taiwan must conduct “rigorous combined arms training” and shift spending to more cost-effective solutions such as coastal defense cruise missiles, mobile surface-to-air missile launchers, mines, and missile boats.
“Mobile SAMs were more effective for air defense than fighters because of their greater survivability. They are also less expensive,” the think tank wrote.
Such a strategy may sound similar to the one Ukraine has been pursuing since Russia invaded the country last February. However, CSIS’ second recommendation is that the ‘Ukraine model’ of success does not apply to Taiwan. In Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies sent large amounts of equipment and supplies to Ukraine and Russia had no way of stopping that supply. However, China can blockade Taiwan for weeks or months, so if China does decide to invade, the U.S. “must quickly engage in direct combat” if it hopes to defeat the invasion.
“[D]elays and half measures by the United States would make the defense harder, increase U.S. casualties, allow China to create a stronger lodgment, and raise the risk of escalation,” CSIS wrote.
However, sending troops in the form of air and naval strikes presents its own problems. The U.S. has air bases throughout Japan that would be essential for sending aircraft to strike Chinese naval and ground targets with the help of aerial refueling tankers. However, most of those bases are within striking distance of Chinese long-range missiles, a fact that China took full advantage of in the war games. Ninety percent of U.S. aircraft losses in the war games took place while the aircraft were still on the ground, where they could be targeted by long-range missiles that can also destroy runways and other airfield infrastructure.
The U.S. Air Force lost 12 to 32 percent of its operational fighter/attack strength, which “would degrade U.S. power for decades,” CSIS said.
“The dilemma for aircraft is that they are vulnerable if based close to Taiwan but less useful if based farther away,” the think tank explained. “The United States must aggressively attack the Chinese amphibious ships to prevent the Chinese from establishing a foothold in Taiwan. However, this means moving many aircraft forward before the Chinese missile threat diminishes.”
The U.S. and Japan have active defenses that can counter Chinese aircraft and missiles, but they will not be able to hold off the large volume of such missiles that China could bring to bear. To minimize the effect of that arsenal, the U.S. must also invest in passive defenses: more concrete, hardened shelters for each aircraft, larger expanses of tarmac for dispersing aircraft, and greater dispersion to civilian airfields. However, such dispersal and hardening will require working more closely with Japan.
Right now the prevailing interpretation of the Japanese constitution “prohibits the establishment of a combined (or joint) command with the United States,” the think tank wrote. There is also no standing joint command with the Japan Self Defense Forces, inconsistent boundaries between different Japanese services, and differing interpretations of the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Japan. For example, many Japanese officials think the U.S. must obtain their permission before flying combat sorties from their soil, while many U.S. officials think they can launch combat missions from Japanese soil without such permission.
“This disconnect must be remedied immediately, lest it leads to delays or disruption of war plans during a crisis,” the think tank wrote.
The last recommendation is simple: the U.S. needs more long-range anti-ship cruise missiles for striking Chinese ships and ground targets without putting U.S. aircraft at greater risk. Two missiles in particular stood out during the war games: the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), a stealthy, air-launched ground-attack cruise missile and its anti-ship variant, the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM).
It is unclear whether the JASSM-ER can strike naval targets, CSIS wrote, which will be necessary for defeating Chinese shipping so that China cannot reinforce its invasion of Taiwan. By 2026, the U.S. will have roughly 3,650 JASSM-ERs available, but only 450 LRASMs. The U.S. will need many more to halt an amphibious invasion, but the U.S. Air Force must also be able to fire the LRASM. Right now it is only certified for the U.S. Air Force B-1 bomber and the Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18E/F fighters.
“Given the LRASM’s centrality in destroying Chinese surface forces, it needs to be employable from all aircraft for maximum flexibility,” CSIS wrote.
Since a successful air campaign will likely hinge on putting a large amount of standoff weapons downrange, CSIS argued that Air Force bombers will be more useful, since they have a larger payload and longer range than fighters, though anything that can fly and deliver missiles would come in handy.
What is the U.S. doing about it?
Though the CSIS report may appear grim, the good news is that several military experts are already in tune with its recommendations, though whether the larger military establishment is listening is another question.
“Pouring concrete overseas, making investments in logistics and supporting materials, and operating in a distributed manner is anathema to many in the Defense Department who are accustomed to efficient operations and prefer to spend money on tanks, ships, airplanes, and sophisticated missiles,” wrote Stacie Pettyjohn, a senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, in a 2022 essay for War on The Rocks. Pettyjohn also participated in the CSIS war game and similar war games at CNAS.
“The United States should improve the resiliency of its posture by embracing a multi-faceted system of passive defenses,” Pettyjohn added. “This will only happen if senior defense officials or members of Congress make it a priority.”
The U.S. Air Force is also pursuing new concepts such as “multi-capable airmen” and “agile combat employment” which would allow the service to operate effectively from smaller airfields and with fewer airmen. CSIS said this was a promising concept, but the service must also focus on hardening its bases so that they can keep operating with the efficiency and speed that smaller airfields simply cannot generate.
“Rather than attempting to tack dispersion onto a predetermined force structure and doctrine, the Air Force needs to engineer survivability into its structure from the ground up,” wrote CSIS, which pointed out the Swedish air force’s Flygbassystem 60/90’s network of “concrete command bunkers, mobile maintenance teams, and multiple dispersed runways” as an example of a holistic doctrine of Air Force survivability.
“This all points to benefits in shifting toward a fleet of smaller, stealthier ships integrated with unmanned decoys,” CSIS wrote. “Such ships would be better disposed to the soft kill of incoming missiles. In addition, it will not be as devastating to lose smaller, cheaper, less-capable ships.”
The U.S. has its work cut out for it if policymakers hope to avoid the massive casualties that CSIS predicts would occur if China invaded Taiwan. But if policymakers commit to a better approach, it might mean that nobody has to die at all.
“To be deterred, China must doubt their ability to prevail through force of arms,” the think tank wrote. “This requires U.S. military capability to be manifestly sufficient for the task.”
Update: 9/13/2023; This article has been updated to show that Stacie Pettyjohn participated in the CSIS war game and similar war games at CNAS.
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