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A Short Course in the Sino-American War
A Flexible Curriculum for the War for Taiwan
I keep a framed WWII propaganda poster on my wall that exclaims “Books are Weapons in the War of Ideas.” Turns out, they also make pretty good weapons in actual wars. Knowing is half the battle, after all. And after 20 years of the Global War on Terror, the neglect of military history in most American universities, and the general rise of anti-intellectualism in the United States, the best-educated fighting force on the planet and its policymakers remain insufficiently informed on the finer details, and sometimes even the big picture, of a conflict in the Western Pacific. The question I am most often asked, aside from “when are you making an audiobook for EX SUPRA?” is “how do you know this and what do you read?” when it comes to discussing US-China conflict, Taiwan, and the future of warfare.
In my graduate studies there were plenty of China or mil-oriented courses, but there wasn’t one that took the whole joint fight and broader competition and put it into a single syllabus. A lot of what I learned I did on my own and in support of my day jobs. Operations people don’t often do politics and strategy, and vice versa, but the problem is that you need both to do your job well. Most frustratingly, these courses are very rarely focused on the practical application of this knowledge beyond memos. The best practical Taiwan fight education I got was a single wargame with the GU Wargaming Society. How can we expect young policymakers and field grade officers to work the problem if we don’t teach it? So, I decided to fix that. What follows in this week’s Breaking Beijing is A Short Course in the Sino-American War over Taiwan. From strategy and technology, to tactics and logistics, consider this the “get smart” curriculum for green INDOPACOM staff officers and incoming Hill staffers alike. Depending on your background, you may have already read some of the recommended readings, so focus on your weak spots and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.
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Notes: This is not meant to be a replacement for China or policy studies. This syllabus is meant to fill a knowledge gap for people trying to get a better grasp on an unfamiliar problem set from undergraduate student to brigade commander. If this were to be stretched out to a semester long course, more than half would focus on the heavier texts listed below, with the final third of the course focusing on modern operations and planning. So if I don’t have your preferred version of the history of China or if you’re annoyed that I don’t touch on IR theory, I don’t particularly care. Those courses already exist.
The CCP and America in Competition:
By More than Providence by Mike Green: The Kissinger Chair at CSIS, Mike wrote the definitive research text on the evolution of US engagement and policy in Asia from US’ founding to present day. Not every chapter in this book is necessary for understanding US-China competition, but no book paints a better picture of America’s relations with Asia from Mahanian strategies of island colonization to strategic folly on the continent. It’s a long read but not the usual dry academic text.
The Long Game by Rush Doshi: Presently the NSC Director for China, Dr. Doshi has written the premiere academic case, documented through thorough primary source research, for the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy from technological competition to Taiwan. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Doshi’s recommendations at the end of the book, but there is no better collection of “receipts” for CCP’s grand strategy and ambitions. If you aren’t convinced that China’s got a bigger strategy, you will be after you read the Party in its own words.
Chaos Under Heaven by Josh Rogin: The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin does an excellent job in documenting the movers and shakers of the US’ China policy under the Trump administration. No matter your perspective on the previous admin, it’s important to understand exactly what went on, who did what, and how we ended up where we are today. Once you know the goings on behind the scenes, you get a better understanding of how the US government works (and doesn’t) when it comes to China policy.
Spies and Lies by Alex Joske: As the leading researcher on CCP influence campaigns, Joske does an outstanding job at detailing stories of Chinese espionage and influence throughout the world. While Peter Mattis’ Chinese Communist Espionage is still the definitive text on Chinese intelligence operations, Joske’s is a shorter read and more about how the CCP operates abroad. If you have time, read Mattis as well, but Joske’s will do for getting up to speed!
Matt Pottinger’s Remarks on the CCP: Here former Deputy NSA Pottinger gives an excellent speech, originally in Mandarin, on US-China relations, Chinese ambitions, and the problem with trying to manage China policy in the US. He delivers an excellent line about China threat perception that I quote often: ‘“It’s a mindset that on Monday says “It’s too early to say whether Beijing poses a threat,” and by Friday says “They’re a threat, all right, but it’s too late to do anything about it now.”’
War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable: It’s a few years out of date (2016) but the Rand corporation does a pretty good job of hitting the highlights on a generic US-China war. Consider this a 10,000 foot view before diving into the Taiwan specifics.
How does Taiwan fit into China’s grand strategy? Can China achieve its goals without Taiwan?
Consider the US’ strategy for China in the 19th Century, how might that play into CCP perceptions of the US today.
What do China’s methods of influence around the globe suggest about its broader strategy and desired place in the world? How might Chinese corporate influence impact US decision-making around Taiwan?
Taiwan in Context:
CSIS Explainer on China and Taiwan: Consider this the simplest explainer on the current state of affairs around Taiwan. I’ve explained some of it in Breaking Beijing before, and the previous section touches on Taiwan in every text. There is a lot of very dumb commentary around Taiwan so it helps if you know the basics first before diving into the fight on the beaches and in the staterooms.
The Chinese Invasion Threat by Ian Easton: The best parts of Ian’s book are laying out the whys of a CCP focus on, and invasion of, the island of Taiwan. There’s a lot of bad commentary in the American domestic politisphere about why the CCP is the way it is, so let’s skip that and just get right into the CCP v. Taiwan issue.
On TSMC: 90% of the world’s high-end semiconductors are made in Taiwan. If it plugs into a wall, it probably has TSMC components. You need to understand the value and challenges of semiconductor manufacturing in order to understand the impact of a Taiwan war beyond Chinese expansion.
The 2027 Timeline: There are a hundred articles out there on the near-term threat, I happen to like this balanced approach by Derek Grossman.
Why fight for Taiwan?
What do we lose if we lose Taiwan?
How do we compete with China without spiraling into conflict?
What is the most likely window for conflict, and can we only plan and prepare for one scenario?
Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War July 1937-May 1942 by Richard Frank: The most important chapters are those that cover the China campaigns and the fall of US islands immediately following Pearl Harbor. We Americans get so little education on the battles during WWII on Mainland China and this book does some to correct that. In the same way that studying the fall of the French to the Germans in 1940 helps us understand European operations, so to does this book helps us get a grasp for the land and amphibious failures early in the Pacific campaign.
This Kind of War, TE Fehrenbach: The first 70 pages will do. While Fehrenbach’s book is about the Korean War, the first 70 pages go into detail on the gruesome challenges of large-scale conflict in urban and mountainous environments, something that should sound familiar to anyone who studies Taiwan operations.
Pacific Crucible, War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942, Ian Toll: Part one of Toll’s masterpiece collection on the Pacific War, this book focuses on the failures and evolution of the US Navy in the lead up to, during, and immediately following the outbreak of conflict during WWII. Many of the logistical and cultural challenges of then remain today.
Combined Arms Warfare in the 20th Century by Jonathan M. House: An excellent survey of combined arms warfare in the last century, it’s not too long or dense a read, and perfect for those who are less familiar with the challenges of military operations.
Operation Albion: Overlooked by the fields of France, Operation Albion was a German amphibious operation against the Russians in the Baltic during WWI. An excellent case study that has many lessons for a Taiwan operation.
Logistics in the Falklands: The front lines thousands of miles from home, a military caught off guard, and the mass and geographic advantage in the favor of the aggressor…where have I heard that before. Paired with Operation Albion, the Falklands are an excellent case study in demonstrating how to overcome the aforementioned challenges when no one thinks you can.
Present-Day Operations and Tactics:
Active Defense, M Taylor Fravel: Fravel’s book on People’s Liberation Army doctrine and strategy is unmatched as it is the history and evolution from founding to near-present day. If you want to understand where the PLA is going, you must understand where it comes from as it evolves from peoples’ war to mechanized and intelligentized force. Pay close attention to the 1990s onward.
ATP 7-100.3 “Chinese Tactics”: The US Army’s explainer on Chinese tactics. This really gets down to the basics of how Chinese commanders think about the battlefield, and for those more steeped in US operations, where we differ and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Gone are the days where everything is based upon what the Soviets/Russians will do. Pay attention to their intelligence and targeting sections.
Report to Congress on Chinese Naval Modernization: This report covers how the PLAN has grown and evolved in the last 20 years relative to the US Navy. Not everything deserves a one to one comparison, but it’s a good wakeup call.
Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3rd Edition: I’m not a Navy guy by any means, but this textbook helped me lean the basics and evolution of US Navy operations throughout the ages. Sailors surely have more advanced texts to study from, but if you’re not a sailor, start here.
Agile Combat Operations: The USAF’s new doctrinal concept. Much like its sister services, the Air Force wants to learn how to fight in a distributed manner, this is its attempt at that. I have my qualms with it, especially Rand’s mathematical approach, but it is headed in the right direction and is a far cry from the last 20 years of close air support from fixed bases in the Middle East.
Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations: The Marines EABO manual is the most advanced and developed of the new service doctrines. The basics are that a certain portion of the Marine Corps is being set aside to redevelop itself as a sensing and long-range shooting force meant to disrupt and deter PLA ships within the First and Second Island Chains of the Pacific. It’s shoot and scoot meets amphibious operations. I could give you two dozen articles on EABO to read, but with so much misinterpretation out there, just read the source.
The Impact of Space Operations: There’s not really a good public manual for space operations. But understanding the impact of space operations and the guaranteed collateral damage, can help you understand what’s at stake and explain to your peers that there’s more to it than “hey we can see everything from the sky.”
Chinese Logistical Improv: Tom Shugart provides an excellent case study on Chinese civ-mil fusion and how the PLA tries to augment its military capabilities and address shortfalls through “civilian” craft. This isn’t the only challenge the PLA faces, or its only case of ingenuity, but I particularly enjoy it because it is so clever at scale.
America’s Fuel Shortage in the Pacific: Tim Walton at Hudson is one of the best when it comes to understanding America’ logistics shortfalls in the Pacific. He’s written a few papers and presentations on those challenges, but no challenge is as troublesome in my mind as the question of fuel. Sure we don’t have all the ships we need, but even if we did, we can’t gas em up right now.
The Army of the Pacific: Is it tacky to cite yourself? Too bad, I’m doing it anyway because beyond the buzzwords, my piece on the Army’s role in a war for Taiwan has gotten pretty good reviews and I literally can’t think of anything I would recommend to someone on it without a little bit of heartburn.
Command and Control: Chris Dougherty at CNAS and who has designed many a Taiwan wargame has an excellent paper on command and control, disruption of it, and differences between US, Russian, and Chinese approaches to C2. When was the last time your intel officer explained the difference between Chinese and Russian operations to you? Or did you just assume they all follow the same Soviet model you learned in basic?
What are the common themes of the new service doctrines? Do our technological capabilities match our plans?
How do we apply the lessons of the past to the employment of new systems and doctrines?
Where are we falling short and where is the PLA overhyped?
What logistical challenges do we face?
Technology and the Digital World:
Like War: the Weaponization of Social Media by PW Singer and Emerson T. Brooking: I’ve talked a lot about Phase Zero operations and how the CCP’s influence campaign might shape decisionmaking prior to the war. In order to understand what particular influence ops the CCP may run in Southeast Asia, you need to deep dive into regional studies. But if you want to get a grasp for the mechanics of modern influence, then this is the book to read.
MCF: A very easy one-pager from the State Department on the concept of Military-Civil Fusion in China and its implications for industrial production in the lead up to and during a war.
Chinese Cyber activity: Not only is this an excellent overview from CISA on Chinese cyber activity, it links to a bunch of other reports on Chinese threats and cyber operations.
The New Fire by Ben Buchanan and Andrew Imbrie: Ben Buchanan is the architect of Georgetown’s AI and National Security program. This easy to read book is essentially the entire syllabus in a few hundred pages. Understanding where we actually are when it comes to AI, and not what senior leaders and lobbyists hype, is important to understanding what technology we can deploy to assist the war effort in the near-term. Ben also wrote a great book on cyber statecraft.
How might social media be used to influence us prior to an invasion of Taiwan?
What aspects of AI can actually be used in the near-term to aid the war effort? Where is AI overhyped and how can we fix that?
Capstone Wargame (Optional): If you want to make all this learning a bit sporting, might I suggest we play a game? As again, the purpose of this curriculum is to grow operational knowledge. So consider the following for a group exercise (adjust as necessary depending upon audience, may it be a class, an LPD, etc.)
-The group is divided into two teams: Red and Blue. Red is the PLA, and Blue is the US, with allies (including Taiwan) covered by the adjudicator for the sake of simplicity. If you want to make it more complicated and feel you have the knowledge base, then make a third team for allies (green).
Prior to the exercise, each student will be assigned a component of the command under which they follow and will be responsible for making the best operational plan for their area of responsibility, explaining their shortfalls and opportunities somewhere between 3 and 5k words. Once papers are submitted, the curriculum concludes with a wargame between Red and Blue starting right before the invasion and playing through for as long as time allows. The goal is to understand just how it feels to think about the war when you have minds competing against you. I’ve played quite a few of these and not only are they fun, the experience is incredibly rewarding. If you need help designing the specifics, I know some folks.
If you would like to read more about the future of US-China conflict, the invasion of Taiwan, and what the world looks like if Taiwan falls, check out my book, EX SUPRA. It just got nominated for a Prometheus Award for best science fiction novel! And if you have any suggestions for topics for future newsletters, please send them my way on Twitter @Iron_Man_Actual.
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