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Firing for Effect
The Basics of Defense Planning from Supply Chain to Splashdown in the Taiwan Strait
If you seek peace, prepare for war. Sounds easy enough right? Buy enough guns, put enough people in uniform, and tell the other guy to sit the fuck down or else.
But which guns, how many people, and what makes the other guy sit down, and for how long?
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Such is the question about 100 miles off the coast of mainland East Asia. Simply put: China wants to take Taiwan at a date to be determined and with options ranging from peaceful to obliteration. (Of course, given the PRC’s track record of “managing” minority and rebellious populations, crimes against humanity are certain regardless of how or why PLA troops end up on the island of Taiwan.)
For the sake of this newsletter, I will not dive into the reasons for the conflict itself, the Chinese Civil War, strategic ambiguity, or anything else. There is a lot of scholarly work on that subject and it requires a lot of time to get through. In this case, we are assuming that the war is happening, the US, Taiwan, and its allies, are fighting back, and Beijing is rolling heavy (no hybrid warfare half-assery.) Additionally, as so many articles have been written on the subject of defending Taiwan, I shall focus on the most critical highlights before providing some recommendations.
For its part, Taiwan is waking up to the increasingly near-term threat of a PLA invasion. The US is waking up as well, but neither party seems fully committed to a specific plan of defense. At least publicly, it seems difficult for the Biden administration to sync up on exactly when the PLA might be ready and intend to invade. The exact why’s and when’s have been written by many in many forms, myself included. In this particular case, I want to ( as always) provide specific options for the near term. After all, any good military planner considers the enemy’s most likely and most deadly courses of action. Regardless of whether or not the PLA may invade in 2024 or 2034, it would be irresponsible to not plan for both. What is convenient for us is certainly not convenient for the PLA, and vice versa.
So, assuming we know conflict breaks out and deterrence fails, how should we plan? Let’s start with an ideal end state.
The ideal end state for the United States and Taiwan is a return to antebellum status quo (ie, Taiwan is independent of Beijing’s boot) and Beijing is incapable of feasibly crossing the Strait anytime soon to try to take Taiwan again. Anyone who pushes farther than that is asking for a pipedream that results in military fiasco. An occupation of the PRC will not work, and possibly go nuclear. If regime change happens in Beijing, it will because of internal dynamics stemming from the war or otherwise. A thunder run to Beijing is not in the cards, no matter what anyone says.
In fact, even achieving the ideal end state will be incredibly difficult for a variety of confounding factors for the US and its allies, geography, and Beijing’s insistence that the PLA not fail. A short war is not in Taiwan’s favor. If we hope to keep Taiwan free, Beijing’s dream of a quick victory must be turned into a bloody battle of attrition until the PLA can no longer cross the Taiwan Strait in any militarily effective fashion by air or sea. Now, as planners we have our ideal end state and in the broadest sense means of victory (attrition). Next we have to get into the nitty gritty from logistics to bullets (this is where the recommendations come in.) As we know, it will take some time for the US (with most of its forces scattered across the world, short on ammo, and with a smaller Navy) to actually assemble for battle and fight the PLA in the Western Pacific. Every hour counts.
How do we achieve attrition when the PLA is some 100 miles from Taiwan’s shores? By slowing them down, propping up the Taiwanese military, and and then pinning those PLA forces in the Strait, in port, and on Taiwanese beaches and in urban centers. In a rather sort of twisted logic, if conflict is going to happen, you want PLA planners to incorrectly think they can cross quickly and let those initial amphibious landing forces do so. Once they’re there, you fix and finish them on the beaches so as to slow down everyone behind them like the Kyiv traffic jam. This is where US and Allied subs can help most, both by deploying obstacles like smart mines and hunting down PLAN vessels and making their commanders risk averse and operations resource intensive for security; thereby dragging resource away from the invasion itself.
However, where most of the analytical focus is on amphibious assault, the PLA will require mass airlift (via airborne and heliborne forces) to cross the Strait ahead of the slow-moving amphibs in order to shock the Taiwanese defense forces and secure airstrips and strategic sites. So in that case, you have to do everything you can to attrit both tactical air (think fighters and attack aircraft) and cargo aircraft as soon as possible. No matter who runs the wargame, if the PLA dominates the local airspace over and around Taiwan, its game over, man. As we have seen in Ukraine, overconfidence in the air can have longstanding negative impacts on operations. So not only do you have to kill birds in the air, you have to hit their airfields in “safe” territory in the invader’s homeland to slow their operations cycle.
On the ground, we must make the PLA fight for every inch. Arming citizens is certainly an approach, but good training, obstacles, and resolve all matter here. Good info ops before and during breakout of conflict that the US will come to push back the PLA, and that the Taiwanese government will not capitulate matters a lot. As we saw in Ukraine, a strong, charismatic leader who doesn’t run can make or break a fighting force. The same will be required of the Taiwanese leadership.
Essentially, the fight comes down to replicating what happened in Ukraine. But unfortunately for Taiwan, it is not a one for one case study. Ukraine could trade space for time, had fluid land borders for arms imports and critical supplies from NATO, and 8 years to essentially reform itself and study the Russian problem. Undoubtedly, the PLA are studying from the Russian mistakes. Not all of which are easy fixes either (as they both have weak NCO corps’, Yes Men in positions of power, and are vulnerable to sanctions). However, application of airpower, targeting, and logistics networks are all things the PLA can fix sooner rather than later.
Understanding all of this as a baseline for framing the Taiwan fight in terms of what you need to succeed, what are my recommendations?
Expand bilateral training with US and Taiwanese forces, ideally off the island and away from the prying eyes of the PLA. While small groups of SOF can help with asymmetric warfare, they don’t have the time or numbers to be effective with the whole Taiwanese military. Rotating Taiwanese forces to US training areas like we do other allied partners can help. However, that won't fix the problems with the Taiwanese reserve forces. As I mentioned in my last post, we must incorporate Taiwan into the State Partnership Program and put National Guard trainers on the island as we did with Ukraine. Additionally, an Army advisor brigade (SFAB) should be dedicated to training for Taiwanese defense.
Congress should authorize a peacetime lend-lease scheme for relevant asymmetric weaponry, including anti-personnel, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft munitions from both the US and its allies. Our industrial base needs time to build itself out, so in the mean time we must pull from allies as well. Specifically, UK systems like Starstreak and Brimstone will be quite effective. This isn’t without precedent, and the traditional means of arms sales to Taiwan are bogged down. We cannot wait until the war starts like we did with Ukraine.
Congress should prioritize foreign military sales to Taiwan by creating a ranked priority list of arms recipients, and pressure State and DOD to free up the multi-billion dollar backlog of arms sales awaiting shipment to Taiwan from the last two decades.
Prop up and expand the US military industrial base for munitions, critical components, and the workforce. In this case, that means providing funding for excess capacity and skeleton crews at new facilities, funding security and functionality upgrades for older facilities, stockpiling munitions and parts for a long war, and retaining the shrinking, skilled workforce. All the industrial facilities in the world don’t mean anything if people aren’t around to run them.
Congress should incorporate survival resources (energy, food, water) into the US foreign aid budget, specifically for Taiwan. However, this account should be able to be expanded for other allies under threat. In a future post, I will write about how to create a “resource disruption mitigation” account for USAID as climate change ramps up in order to reduce conflict outbreak that might distract from US competition/deterrence with the PRC.
Congress should fully fund INDOPACOM’s request for an information operations budget. Oahu has said over and over again that it is losing the info fight in Southeast Asia. I’ll have a future post dedicated to info ops (as if the horrors in EX SUPRA weren’t enough) at the strategic level and how to direct influence at specific partners and adversaries.
Congress should pass a damn budget, above inflation, on time so we stop cutting into operations, planning, and acquisitions. Beijing doesn’t have this problem and it is a gross unforced error on our part. Additionally, that budget cannot choose between the 2034 and 2024 problem set, it must do both.
Congress needs to fully fund Pacific military infrastructure. More than any fighter jet or missile system, we need to pour concrete. Harden installations, particularly fuel sites and airfields, from attack. Dozens of article have been written about how to do this. Get it done. If we can’t contest the airspace and actually keep birds in the air, we lose.
Please for the love of Athena put out a National Security Strategy.
Get on the same page with USINDOPACOM as to the immediacy of the threat. They can execute most of what is required, but force demands by other Combatant Commands like CENTCOM continue to water down our capabilities in the Pacific.
Stop letting the strategy fight with INDOPACOM be so public. You are losing. The last thing you want when bullets start flying is for commanders to go rogue or not understand the CinC’s intent. This means get a new CJCS who understands the Pacific fight. I recommend CMC General Berger.
Prepare sanctions, akin to those used against Russia, well in advance of war. They won’t deter China, but the faster they’re written, the easier they will be to put into place and the faster they impact the Chinese war effort. I will have a separate post on realigning the various economic warfare bureaus in the US government under one entity to streamline the execution of this process.
Fast track a replacement plan for Red Hill. Congress has already cleared the way for funding for a new fueling station(s). Get the engineers out there and start building. Pour concrete and don’t stop until the war is won.
End rotational deployments where permanent basing is feasible, reduce rotational deployments to other theaters that aren’t mission critical. We need a force ready to fight on Day 1, not one suffering from borderline burnout for absolutely no reason other than inertia. For the Army, that means more forward-stationed units in Europe and Korea, and ending the Kuwait rotation. For the Navy, that means cutting down on presence in theaters other than the Western Pacific. For the Air Force, it means spreading out the bomber force. For the Marines, that means probably having to suffer cuts to the big deck amphibs in favor of a prioritized Pacific mission in the near-term.
I’ll have a separate post in this series dedicated to working with allies, but the focus should remain on actually deploying anti-access systems and logistics nodes in concert with the broader war effort. For Japan this means actually allowing air and missile (AMD) defense around ports and naval bases and not just cities. It also must deploy longer range anti-ship missiles in order to cover Taiwan’s northern flank and to provide cover for a US naval advance across the North/Central Pacific. For the Philippines, it means allowing the US access to bases and missile deployments during peacetime *and* wartime. We need reliability and consistency. The Philippines would be key Taiwan’s Southern flank or a PLAN breakout into the Western Pacific to encircle Taiwan, as well as disruptive activities in the South China Sea. For most of our other SE Asian partners, overflight access is the most important thing they can provide for our planes coming in from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Australia to the South.
Working our way from the frontlines to the home front, we see that there is a lot of work to be done. But by building out the industrial base, following through on our arms sales to Taiwan, training and coordinating with the Taiwanese and other allies, and buying time for the bulk of our forces to arrive, we stand a chance at turning the PLA into the world’s largest artificial coral reef.
The above recommendations are all about posturing ourselves to fly aircraft, pull triggers, and mass forces in a timely manner, while slowing down the PLA’s ability to do the same. I didn’t mention cyber or space in this piece because I will have a separate post on that as well. In this case, I wanted to set the baseline for the traditional domains of warfare and explain the basics of what we need to achieve, and how. Please do not consider this an end-all, be-all to securing Taiwan.
In my next newsletter, I will cover what it would mean if we lost Taiwan, and how we might go about trying to take the island back. Hopefully that will underscore the importance of *not losing Taiwan in the first place.*
In the mean time, if you would like to read more on what the consequences of losing a war for Taiwan might look like, you should check out my novel, EX SUPRA. And if you have any suggestions for topics, please send them my way on Twitter @Iron_Man_Actual.
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