Army of the Pacific
Explaining the US Army's Role in the Fight for Taiwan
“We’re fighting a war just to get to the war.” That’s the mantra I find myself muttering in exasperation more and more these days. The political and bureaucratic obstructions in trying to prepare for war are many, and not unique to the military sector. However, there are few things that irk me more than when petty interservice rivalry, let alone “last-war” thinking, disrupts national security.
There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your particular shade of camouflage, but when it clouds your judgment to the point that it disrupts your ability to think clearly at the strategic level, you need to hang it up. You’re no different than the people who start bar fights over sports teams. Much of the Army, from budgeting to PME, is out of sync with the Pacific fight, meanwhile the Navy would like to raze HQDA and collect the insurance money to buy more boats. Now, each service has had a myriad of failings both in terms of procurement and personnel over the last decade that should’ve led to the sacking of multiple tiers of leadership. And despite being an Army guy, I do happen to believe the Navy needs more money, ammo, personnel, and ships for the coming fight. But on the other hand, it’s hard for me to ignore the operational reality of a Taiwan fight: the US Army has a critical role in the fight over Taiwan and it really hasn’t been articulated in a way that DC, let alone the general public, understands. So, I’d like to do that for them.
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Previously, I’ve talked a bit about what it would take to defend Taiwan. I talked briefly about the role of advisors in the lead up to the war and the importance of the ground fight on Taiwan for attriting the PLA and buying time for the US Navy. Now, I want to take the time to expand upon that and dive into specifics in terms of units, capabilities, and what support can be offered by policymakers to make this a reality. These roles really fall into four buckets: advising, sensing, logistics, and denial/delaying actions. Let’s begin with the advisors.
Help Me, Help you
The US Army has a variety of advisor assets at its disposal, the most publicly known being US Army Special Forces, colloquially known as the Green Berets. Specializing in matters of unconventional warfare, SF is a force multiplier and can wreak havoc behind enemy lines either on their own or by working and developing local assets. The nearest SF unit to Taiwan is 1st Battalion, 1st SF Group on Okinawa. On and off throughout the years, it’s been reported that 1/1 and others make an appearance on Taiwan. This is good, but it is nowhere near the level of assistance needed by Taiwan. There are other non-Army SOF units operating in and around Taiwan as well, but even when combined, those are still rookie numbers. If you want to really build out Taiwanese forces, you need a permanent presence of advisors larger than even the units we rotated to Ukraine prior to the invasion earlier this year. You need a permanent advisor mission on the island.
The Army’s real advise and assist capability comes from the Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) whose most recent iteration were stood up during the 2010s. SFABs are composed of mid-grade officers and NCOs with the technical and operational expertise to advise and assist in the more conventional aspects of war from managing maintenance cycles to integrating air and artillery assets. As was reported by Melissa Chen in Vice, Taiwan’s military (particularly its reserves) need help with even the basics from shooting to land navigation. SFAB will not only train Taiwanese soldiers in large quantities, they will train Taiwanese instructors.
The final component of the advise and assist mission is the most sensitive: integrating US and Taiwanese forces on the ground. For a variety of counterintelligence and security reasons (like the Taiwanese govt and military is riddled w/ spies), actually coordinating between the two militaries is incredibly difficult. While it’s unlikely we’d ever get back to the days of a joint US-Taiwan Defense Command like we had during the first Cold War, we can at minimum train Taiwanese soldiers how to coordinate with US air and naval assets. These soldiers will be the first to encounter the PLA in an invasion, and the more people (and systems) capable of guiding LRASMs on target from over the horizon, the easier it will be to sink PLA Navy ships in the Strait. The need to see the target flows well into our next mission.
Sense and You Shall Find
In the immediate run-up to a PLA invasion of Taiwan, and during the war itself, the ability to see the enemy will be paramount. Given the vast distances and sporadic clutter of the Pacific fight, losing track of the enemy is the last thing you want to happen because target reacquisition (especially once jamming and other counter-surveillance ops take place) will be incredibly difficult and anxiety-inducing. You should neither have confidence that your sight picture is true nor that the enemy can’t see you better than you can see them. The Army has the personnel and assets to augment the variety of sensors from orbit to marine reconnaissance already in theater. The more eyes on the ground, and in the sky with Army-owned UAS, the more resilient our targeting infrastructure will become when the missiles start flying. Sure, the Marines and SOF are better at operating in these littoral environments, but their numbers are limited and strained by the mission. The Army is here to augment, not replace those personnel. I don’t know a commander that wants less information.
Moreover, what many of these assets can see, they can also be outfitted to blind. Army electronic warfare capabilities are just as critical to masking Allied movements and positions as our sensors are to finding the PLA. Shoot and scoot is the name of the game.
Hope and Hellfire, Express Delivery
The support infrastructure needed to enable the defense of Taiwan will be massive, and most of it exists solely on the drawing board. In EX SUPRA, I flesh out futuristic logistics delivery systems, but for the present we just need the basics: airfields, watercraft, and forward-stored munitions and supplies. Simply put: we need to pour concrete. While the Navy and Air Force also have engineers, Army engineers are more numerous and will reduce the strain on Navy and Air Force projects in peacetime. We need more airfields for plane diversions and staging operations to complicate PLA targeting and to reduce strain on fuel supplies.
In terms of watercraft, the Army has more transport craft suited for shore landings than the Navy. If you want to move Marines and soldiers between islands in significant numbers, you need the Army. Unfortunately our lift capacity here has been seriously neglected, most of the craft are ancient, and still not close to the numbers we would need. In other words, if you’re a staffer or policymaker reading this, more watercraft please.
And for munitions and supplies, when the Army goes to war it brings everything. The more we can store near the frontlines before the war, like we have done in Europe to great effect, the less the strain on our systems and the sooner our forces are ready to fight. If you’re a policymaker reading this, now would be the time to start coordinating and funding munitions stockpiles, spare parts, and emergency supplies like generators, food, and water, on Taiwan and on the islands where we’re building our new airfields. The fewer moving parts during the war, the better. The Army knows how to do all of this, it’s done it in Europe and Korea, it’s a proven formula. In fact, the Army already has civilians and soldiers managing some port functions and logistics across the Pacific but nowhere near the capacity necessary.
This We’ll Defend
The Army’s motto. No matter how many cool gadgets or buzzwords it gets, the Army’s mission always comes down to the proverbial last one hundred yards. On Taiwan, the best Army assets we can have staged on the island at war’s outbreak are the Army’s new (and still in-dev) Multi-Domain Task Forces (MDTF). Unsure what that is? Let me translate: the Army wants to take a bunch of “fires” assets like electronic warfare, air-defense artillery, and long-range artillery, and put them in units that can be attached to specific missions. Even if we can’t get them on Taiwan, positioning them in the Philippines or the Ryukyus will be crucial as well. In this case, we stick these assets under a single command on Taiwan, with the mission of to deny the PLA local air superiority and protect key assets on the island from PLA intelligence collection, communications disruption, and long-range fires. The other services do not have the assets to accomplish their own missions and augment the Taiwanese at the same time. The Army has to pick up the slack, especially in the short-term while the Army advisors train up the Taiwanese military. You’ve seen all those maps with PLA “denial” bubbles stretched out across the Pacific, well an MDTF can help do the same for Taiwan. This isn’t an invincible shield, but exercises and wargames for years have shown that denying the PLA air superiority, and slowing and confounding PLA artillery and air targeting can make or break the invasion.
Now, this all the work the Army can do in peacetime and in the first hours of the war, but I did mention the last one hundred yards. The Army needs to not only delay the PLA invasion to buy time for the Navy to steam across the Pacific, it needs to be able to get onto the island and fight for every inch alongside their Taiwanese colleagues. In this case we are assuming we can’t park a Stryker or light infantry brigade on Taiwan in peacetime, as much as I’d like to (lots of political and escalation challenges to consider though it is not impossible.) It shouldn’t be surprising that the units most capable of responding to this crisis in the time allotted are airborne units. Unlike in EX SUPRA (where in 2037 the 82nd Airborne jumps into Kuala Lumpur under heavy fire), these units may not have to actually jump in but rather land at a runway held by the Taiwanese or if necessary, US Army Rangers. The more you think about it, the messier it becomes…so if you’re a policymaker, start working on getting the Army there in peacetime. Now.
Once on the island, the Army will help coordinate fires with Allied assets, establish defensive positions, and depending on the timeframe, bring crucial light armor to bear against PLA mechanized infantry and airborne forces. The odds aren’t great, but if the 82nd and company can help hold the line against the PLA long enough for the US Navy and Air Force to fight its way across the Pacific, the odds begin to turn in our favor, knowing that we will still have a long way to go.
Some in the Army, like USARPAC Commander Charles Flynn already know this is the way the Army will have to contribute and fight in the Pacific. Integrating this within the hivemind of the Army writ large, as well as the joint force and Congress, is the challenge. The Army is meant to augment the joint force, the Taiwanese military on the ground, and make the PLA hurt for every inch of territory while ferrying our own forces to the frontline faster. Unlike the last 20 years, the US Army isn’t the center of the fight, but it’s also not irrelevant, in fact it’s far from it.
If you would like to read more about the future of US-China conflict, the invasion of Taiwan, an Army-centric Pacific war story, and what the world looks like if Taiwan falls, check out my novel, EX SUPRA. 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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