If Yanks Hesitate in Battle of Taiwan — Even for a Week — We Lose

A new war game foresees America as victorious in every scenario in which three hurdles are met, setting the stage for a furious air and sea battle.

Via CSIS/Mark Cancian
The American team ponders a move during the Taiwan war games. Via CSIS/Mark Cancian

A yet-to-be-released Taiwan war game shows, in almost all scenarios, that Communist China would be defeated — provided three things happen. First, that Taiwan resists, second that America engages militarily within one week, and third that Japan allows the use of its soil to stage attacks. 

The war game suggests that once China attacks Taiwan, the communists’ primary goal would be to get — largely by sea — soldiers and supplies onto the island held by Free China. America’s primary goal would be to sink communist vessels as quickly as possible, using missiles fired from submarines, fighter aircraft, and bombers. 

“Sink the fleet and it’s all done. Without that, they can’t supply their troops, they can’t do anything,” an MIT researcher involved in the war games, Eric Heginbotham, says.

The games do not involve exercises with real military units. They involve a group of people — in this case former senior government officials, former generals and admirals, and a few academics — playing different sides. The players decide what moves to make and computer programs determine, based on history and analysis, the result of each move. The American team might choose to, say, launch bombers against Chinese ships, but a computer program would decide what the result of that launch is.

Conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, this war game involved 24 iterations: three with base case — the most probable —  assumptions, and then 21 more iterations with different assumptions. A full report is set to be released in January.

The latest games conducted suggest that Communist China’s secondary goal would be to “destroy our Air Force on the ground with tactical ballistic missiles and our Navy before it gets close to Taiwan with anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles,” in order to prevent our ability to sink their ships. 

The Taiwanese goal would be to hold off the communist army on the island until enough Chinese ships are sunk that the on-island enemy forces cannot be sustained and become vulnerable to capture. For context, in one version of the game, America doesn’t react at all, and it takes the Chinese army two and a half months to take the island.

So the question is, will these preconditions be met?

Regarding whether the Taiwanese put up resistance, Mr. Heginbotham reckons that they “will fight if the U.S. is there,” but that they will “fight badly.” Taiwan’s army, he explains, is “really unprepared and isn’t getting more prepared quickly, if at all.” Since 2010, Mr. Heginbotham says, Taiwan’s army has dwindled to 100,000 from 200,000 persons and “the army hasn’t really gotten better.”

If getting smaller were part of a modernization effort, that would be “okay,” Mr. Heginbotham adds, but this was a “failed effort to transition to a volunteer force.” That doesn’t mean all is lost. The Taiwanese, he notes, “don’t have to fight well … but they do have to fight tenaciously.” 

The leader of the war game, Mark Cancian of the CSIS, urges the Taiwanese to enhance military readiness. In all iterations they ran, the Chinese army got onto the island and the Taiwanese needed to fight them on the ground. 

The second question is whether America engages militarily quickly enough. “Some of the worst cases” seen in the war games, Mr. Heginbotham says, “are when the U.S. shows up late,” failing to “engage for a week or 14 days.”  

Speed is of the essence. Unlike ground battles that move at a crawl or a walk, Mr. Heginbotham explains, “naval battles last hours at the longest, minutes at the shortest.” Says he: “These missiles fly at the speed of sound, and you can launch hundreds of them at a time.”

America has the capability to move quickly. We have submarines in theatre, bases in Japan, Guam, and South Korea, and bombers that can fly from anywhere. The concern is that “there will be a strong temptation to try to do this on the cheap” by supplying the Taiwanese instead of engaging American troops, Mr. Cancian’s son, Matthew Cancian, who holds a doctorate from MIT, says. 

The game, he says, shows that strategy to be a complete failure. When the American side tried that approach, the Chinese sank the ships carrying supplies and shot down planes when a no-fly zone was attempted. By that point, in some cases, “China had gained enough ground that a U.S. intervention couldn’t reverse it.”

“Just supplying weapons will not work,” the younger Mr. Cancian says unequivocally. “What we have done in Ukraine will not work.”

Once fighting begins, adds his father, a Marine who retired as a colonel, it will not be possible to get anything onto the island of Taiwan: “Whatever weapons Taiwan’s gonna fight the war with they have to have when the war begins because you can’t get any ships or aircraft in there for at least for a month or six weeks.” 

It is also unclear whether the Japanese would allow American forces to launch attacks from Japanese soil — though it is deemed likely based on numerous conversations the war game team had with Japanese officials — an action that would almost certainly result in Chinese attacks on Japanese soil, and Japan’s eventual entry into the war.

America would need Japanese soil from which to base and launch fighter aircraft. While Japan and the United States are treaty allies, bound to come to each other’s defense, the treaty does not require the Japanese to let America use its soil for a war with another country. So a political decision would need to be made, one that Mark Cancian is “pretty confident” would be favorable to America.

One reason is that many Japanese officials believe that if China were to take over Taiwan, it would be much more difficult for America to defend Japan in the event of an attack, especially their outlying islands, some of which are only a hundred miles from Taiwan. 

In all scenarios, Japan would be a lynchpin, but it is worth noting that the U.S. also has bases in South Korea and Guam and is working to expand its presence in Singapore and elsewhere to create more flexibility. The Marine Corps, for one, has recently moved a number of units to Guam from Japan.


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