The Last Option
Why You Don't Want to Have to Liberate Taiwan
It is far from an impossible task, but also far from desirable. Last week, I talked about the general operational concepts and some feasible policy recommendations for defeating a PLA invasion of Taiwan. This week, I want to make the point of why it’s better to stop the PLA sooner rather than later when it comes to a fight over Taiwan. In EX SUPRA, I talk about a world in which we lost Taiwan to the PLA and the global conflicts that ensue in the years after. If the PLA takes Taiwan, we should try to take it back, but I want to show why it will be better for everyone to prepare to defend Taiwan rather than have to liberate it from a potential PLA occupation.
In this scenario, we shall work with what everyone has at this very moment in order to highlight the need to take policy action now. We shall assume the PLA succeeds in invading and occupying the island of Taiwan within about three weeks. The PLA in an ideal world would like to do this in much less time, but let’s give Taiwan some credit and not ignore the concept of friction. For the US’ part, let’s assume that the US has lost access to Okinawa and operations from Guam are disrupted but not wholly out of commission. US airfields in Japan have similarly disrupted with cratering munitions and US naval facilities bombarded by PLA missiles. Based upon known PLA capabilities and doctrine, these are reasonable assumptions regularly played out in wargames. We can assume some PLA assets have been hit by long-range US strikes and in-theater forces, but our targeting picture has been disrupted via space and cyber operations. It can be reasonably assumed the PLA has similar long-range targeting problems from US operations.
Thanks for reading Breaking Beijing! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Within these three weeks, the US has contended with disrupted logistics nodes, disinformation operations impacting command and control, and has attempted to mass its scattered global forces somewhere around Hawaii. The US will likely have lost some organic WESTPAC assets in the initial missile barrages, but it is also fair to assume that some have scattered and are disrupting PLA operations or at least moving to regroup. What we will have lost are many of our port assets, making staging operations in the Western Pacific (to include refuel and rearm) very difficult. Our allies will be able to help us, but only we have the capacity to launch a full-fledged amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Additionally, as we attempt to regroup and stage for a counterattack, our allies like Japan and Australia will have to contend with the PLAN on their own. Support of our allies during this time will also be a strain on our logistics, but also complicate PLAN naval operations.
Let’s start on the fictional Day 21, when the Taiwanese conventional military has surrendered and the PLA declares a successful conquest. Undoubtedly, Taiwan’s mountainous terrain provides for some level of partisan warfare, and remaining scattered Allied units and submarines will confound PLA consolidation across the region. During this time, the PLA will move to occupation and pacification operations, of which the People’s Armed Police, will undoubtedly bear the brunt of the effort. From Hong Kong to Xinjiang, the PAP has spent decades refining its methods of suppression, torture, and genocide. The Taiwanese people will suffer unimaginable horrors whether we fight for Taiwan or not, but if we fight, they have a chance at remaining free or regaining their freedom. This is your reminder that Taiwan is a thriving democratic country, friend, and polar opposite of the genocidal regime in Beijing. As the occupation pulls on the PRC’s resources, the US will attempt to mass its own and drive across the Pacific.
By Day 30-45, depending on a few confounding variable like the operational status of the Panama Canal and munitions supplies, the US should be able to mass most of its serviceable battle fleet. Note this is a very rough approximation, and should not be viewed as a hard timeline. As the fleet drives West, it may encounter PLA air, surface, and subsurface forces operating from places like the Solomon Islands or even the PLAN fleet around the Second Island Chain and South Pacific. At present, it would be incredibly hard for the PLA to sustain these operations this far from its shores for any sustained period of time. As I have said previously, this is why a war of attrition favors the US in some ways. We have a long windup, but the PLA is still not built to operate that far from its shores. The ships are there, the infrastructure is not. We cannot allow that to change in any meaningful way over the next decade. The US military will very likely be able to suppress these distant operations meant to stall and target the US Navy and Air Force in traditional safe operational zones. The farther the US fleet drive West away from Hawaii, the harder our own logistics will become. For example, US navy ships cannot at present reload their missile magazines at sea. And without changes to port infrastructure and defenses, our ships would have to reload all the way back at Pearl Harbor. (This is without the likely munitions shortages we would face across the board after years of purchases at minimum sustaining rates that don’t meet wartime operational needs.) Additionally, the US would face a shortage of viable airfields and refueling tankers, not to mention overall fuel capacity with the unfortunate, but necessary, closure of Red Hill on Oahu. There is a very real chance our fleet would go into battle running on fumes and with half-full magazines. These are things we can fix today, but have yet to execute for what amounts to a lack of a sense of urgency. But let’s assume the best and say we can find and successfully engage and destroy the bulk of the PLAN, which is larger and has a shorter logistics tail, for at least as long as it takes to stage an amphibious assault on Taiwan. This would take a lot of ammo and likely weeks to months. We’d also lose thousands, if not tens of thousands, of sailors and billions of dollars in warships that will hamper our later effort to secure and invade Taiwan. It will take years to rebuild the fleet. You are now looking at at least a three month extension to the conflict. Even with best-case supply scenarios, our skeleton crew industrial base would still be struggling to get up to speed with the war effort.
So let’s assume it’s now Day 90-120. The US has somehow regained dominance of the waters east of Taiwan, but is struggling to conduct operations against the Chinese mainland because of resource limits and a dense anti-aircraft defense network. US sanctions and cyber attacks are beginning to take effect and are hurting the Chinese economy, but history suggests the PRC can sustain some pain at home…a lot of pain in fact. Undoubtedly, we are in pain at home too, but we’re pissed off at this point so no one is quitting just yet. It’s time to start setting the stage for a buildup to invade Taiwan. Here, there are few viable locations from which to operate. The Philippines would be the closest staging base that has enough space and cover to prepare for an invasion. But, eastern Taiwanese beaches aren’t great for landings and have little access to the more populated side of the country. So we’d have to push further west just to land on Taiwan. Operating from anywhere far to the west would be a serious challenge even under ideal conditions. Chinese doctrine over the last few decades has been built around the idea of stopping the US from building up such a force, a la Iraq 91 and 03, for primarily this purpose. We are now entering the arena of Chinese home field advantage. Still, the liberation is not impossible.
Let’s give it another 60-90 days of stalled fighting, staging operations, airfield and port buildup. War is not a constant push, but rather a tug of war. Consider the operational transfer of momentum in Ukraine and how long it can take to mass for an offensive. Maybe by now the US economy has went into full war mode and missiles are rolling off the assembly line. This would require a lot of political maneuvering, and possible some assumption of new and old executive powers. Of course, a buildup on this timeline assumes there is no PLA sabotage against the limited number of US production facilities, but homeland defense concerns are for another day.
We are now at 6 months into the war, the Taiwanese people have now suffered 6 months of brutality under the Chinese Communist Party, the world is likely without TSMC’s semiconductor facilities (which produces some 90% of the world’s high-end chips, this is described in detail in EX SUPRA) and the world economy is reeling. If the US doesn’t take action soon, it is going to be increasingly under pressure to terminate the war as the world would like stability and its money back and is beginning to doubt US military capability. We see a constant push-pull of support from our allies and partners, and even at home, for the war in Ukraine. So at 6 months, we begin using what resources we have to hit PLA-occupied Taiwan. This is our decisive operation.
We won’t have air dominance, but we should be able to strike some strategic targets, possibly coordinated with resistance forces on the island, and soften the landing for US forces. Let’s assume the best case scenario and say that we have been able to mass in the Northern Philippines for a shorter drive to the southwestern beaches of Taiwan, albeit under heavy fire. The 82nd Airborne is en route to insert behind enemy lines and seize airfields, just as the PLA airborne forces did at the start of the war. The remaining Japanese and Australian naval and air forces support our effort and guard our flanks. What remains of US missile stockpiles are being unloaded on PLA defensive positions and some ports to slow response time. However, something odd happens in Washington.
The assault is told to pause, amphibious forces of Marines and soldiers are told to remain in their staging areas. The CCP has relayed a message, along with photographic evidence affirmed by the remaining US satellite network, that the initially conventionally-armed missile systems like the DF-17, are now armed with nuclear warheads (these systems are currently dual-purpose) and in place around the island. PLA doctrine until this point does not discuss the fielding of these systems in this manner, but Beijing has now decided that this is the best way to permanently solidify its hold on Taiwan after repeated failure to stop the US advance. If the US invades Taiwan, which Beijing considers and controls as part of its core territory, Beijing will go nuclear.
Here is where the scenario ends. It is up to you if you want to think about the world beyond that. Either you go nuclear and play the game that can’t be won, or you end up in a world that looks a lot like the one described in EX SUPRA. Your choice.
In fact, your only real choice is to help defend Taiwan now, and with a sense of urgency. Don’t let the war, or the state of the world, get to such a point. Our best chance lies in deterrence, our second best chance lies in attritting PLA forces on the beaches and in the Taiwan Strait, and once occupation starts, there is little hope. And as I write about in EX SUPRA, no you don’t get to just ignore Taiwan in the first place. The geopolitical impact of climate change, CCP aggression, and global political shifts will make conflict at some point near impossible to avoid.
Now, a few notes on this scenario. I should note that a lot of what happens for the US is the best case scenario and in some cases I limited how hurt we might actually be by a Chinese first strike. I intentionally did not talk about things like China’s very near-future potential to hit Hawaii or the US homeland with hypersonic or conventional missiles at an operationally relevant pace, nor did I talk about US concepts like EABO (Marines with anti-ship missiles floating around WESTPAC), or JADC2. These concepts are still being fleshed out (I myself am a champion of EABO), even if they show promise, and are not a panacea to US logistical and geographic challenges. The point is, there’s not really a fight in the Pacific that we do want, but we want this one the very least. If we have to fight, we want one on our terms, and that is the scenario where we never lose control of the first island chain or the Western Pacific in the first place.
At this point, I normally do policy recommendations, but frankly this article is more about justifying why you should take my previous recommendations and warnings, seriously and for action. I hope this scenario forces instills a sense of urgency in all who read it. Sometimes the best motivation for action is painting the bleak picture of the consequences of inaction.
In my next newsletter, I will cover the intersection of climate change and national security, and what the impact of climate change driven-events will have for US policy in the Indo-Pacific.
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.
Thanks for reading Breaking Beijing! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.