Monday, April 11, 2005

The Taiwan Crisis: Part III

OK, this is my long-delayed Part III on China's intentions to invade Taiwan. This focuses on a scenario for invasion. It is speculation based on reading numerous articles and posts over the last few years layered on to my assumptions about what the Chinese would need to do based on their military strengths and weaknesses.

Part I on Chinese intentions is here. Part II on the Norway 1940 example of an invasion without the proper tools is here.

So, on the assumption that China will invade on the eve of the 2008 summer Olympics in Peking, how will they do it?

May to July is a non-monsoon window for the Taiwan Strait region (the other is October) and so would fit very nicely with the assumed pre-Olympics timing. [Correction: See here for corrected typhoon seasons in the area]

I also assume that the Chinese want the war over fast. I'm not sure whether our threat to stop buying cheap toys and clothing from China is more of a threat to Peking than their threat to dump treasury bonds and dollars is to us, but with the uncertainties of economics to the certainty that we'd cut off oil imports and the certainty that we could hammer the People's Liberation Army if we gear up for war just as we did in Korea, the Chinese want the war over fast. Plus, as one reader noted, if there is an economic panic prior to a war, the whole question of whether economic dislocations will harm America or China will be moot. Nor would a foreign (you know what I mean) adventure be an alien solution to a domestic problem. Generally, a long war invites complications and more chances for unplanned events to intrude on their plans. The threat of nuclear war argues for a fast war, too.

I further assume that the Chinese want to keep this a localized conflict so they won't open with a Pearl Harbor-style attack on our forces at Guam, Okinawa, or any other US bases in Japan. They may not even be capable of seriously hitting bases successfully so far away. An ineffective attack would be counter-productive. Why bother emphasizing the internal nature of the conflict if you are going to internationalize the crisis by attacking other nations? When the war needs to be won quickly before the US and Japan intervene, why make it easier for America and Japan to intervene by essentially deciding for us? Why give the UN cause to get involved? Absent direct inter-state conflict, our response could be delayed critical days or weeks.

So the plan will be a direct and fast assault on Taiwan to win before any outside power can save Taiwan from conquest. The Chinese will have four main missions for their military in an invasion: One, landing nine army divisions and one Marine division on Taiwanese territory plus dropping three parachute divisions and one air landing division. Two, securing the sea and air lines of supply and reinforcement from China to Taiwan. Three, keeping American forces away from Taiwan long enough to finish the conquest. This will also include non-military measures. Fourth, the Chinese must defeat the Taiwanese army and conquer the island.

Surprise will be important. The Taiwanese military has problems but it is far from toothless. And US and Japanese naval and air power are capable of defeating the Chinese at sea and in the air. With tensions high over the obviously increased Chinese military capabilities and their long history of saying that Taiwan must be absorbed into China, a nice charm offensive will be in order to lull potential enemies. In late 2007, China could initiate or accept more cross-Strait talks on various issues. They might even—in the spirit of the Olympics—suggest talks on how to have the Taiwan athletes march in the opening ceremonies. Perhaps behind a symbolic contingent of all Chinese marching under the PRC flag, the remaining Chinese athletes will march in under flags of their home provinces, so the Taiwanese could march under the Taiwanese flag. Whatever the details, the point will be that the warm fuzzy of the Olympics will be used to create a false thaw after years of tension.

With the Olympics to protect, the Chinese will have a perfect cover for a general mobilization and heightening of military readiness and activity to mask attack preparations. If the Chinese move infantry units around by sea transport it will get the world used to this activity. You can't hide all attack preparations so just make sure nobody suspects the real reason for the military activity. Remember, achieving surprise doesn't require you to hide all your activities; it requires you to make sure the enemy interprets what they see in a manner that leads the enemy to miss the obvious and fail to connect the dots.

The Chinese should also announce in late 2007 and early 2008 lots of lucrative purchase deals with Canadians, Europeans, Japanese, and even American firms. If the Chinese can quickly conquer Taiwan, this will increase the calls for peace by lots of nations or companies eager to keep those contracts intact.

Setting Up the Invasion
First, the Chinese will want to isolate the battlefield. This will start a week before the opening shots.

The Chinese should arrange an accident in the Panama Canal that blocks the waterway quite solidly for a good two weeks. Perhaps a volatile cargo will make it too risky to move fast until all the facts are in about the cargo and what it will take to secure it before refloating the ship and getting it out of the locks. Our carriers may not be able to use the canal but smaller warships and supply vessels use it, not to mention pure civilian traffic that relies on the canal. The disruption will hinder our movement and provide a warning jolt to our economy.

Chinese activities in Cuba and Venezuela will also be heightened to distract the US in our own hemisphere and make us wary of sending power to the Taiwan region. These two nations will be encouraged to act up to add to the distraction.

My guess is that the Chinese will not try to encourage the North Koreans to invade to distract us. Assuming North Korea is even around then, the Chinese will restrain Pyongyang. My guess is that the need for a localized war will preclude such a distraction. A Korean and Taiwan wars at the same time will make it seem like a general Chinese offensive and make it easier for the US to intervene—not harder. We do react to big enough threats. If done, this would be hard to ignore.

Pre-H Hour Activities
The actual invasion will have started before the shooting starts. Special forces and intelligence officers will infiltrate Taiwan, placing navigation aids to guide parachutists and missiles, and preparing for direct attacks on Taiwanese strategic assets. They might even stock warehouses with consumable supplies and vehicles to be used by the invaders.

Civilian merchant ships on scheduled arrivals will be loaded with supplies, weapons, and light infantry battalions and will sail into Taiwanese ports on both coasts.

China's nuclear ballistic missile subs put to sea.

Some older PLAN submarines outfitted as minelayers will set sail on training missions and arrive off the east coast of Taiwan prior to H-Hour.

The Chinese should also initiate cyberwarfare against Taiwan on a massive and continuing scale and small attacks against the US, Japan, and European countries that end within a few hours. The message to the West will be look at Taiwan and what we can do and look at how we penetrated your security. Don't mess with us. This will start at the moment of attack, H-Hour.

The Chinese should also announce that for the duration of the internal suppression of separatists, they will exercise all due caution by holding their dollars and treasury bills and other foreign currencies in order to prevent this unfortunate internal event from impacting the global economy. They will also announce that they are halting all oil imports as a safety measure against any Taiwanese attacks that could imperil the health of the sea and assure the Chinese people that Chinese oil reserves are more than adequate to supply China's needs while the separatists on Taiwan are brought to heel.

The threat of breaking the world's economy, the promise of refraining from doing so if the world stands aside, and the boast that China can ride out the loss of oil imports for an unknown amount of time will be designed to keep the world neutral, pro-Peking, or at least delay a decision to side with Taiwan.

Warships, amphibious warfare, and drafted commercial ships loaded with troops put to sea and aircraft take off.

For the first impact, Chinese special forces and intelligence operatives hit radar stations, assassinate leaders, sabotage crucial bridges and tunnels, hit Patriot missile sites and communication centers, anti-ship missile batteries, ammunition depots, and strike at air fields.

The light infantry on the merchant ships in Taiwanese harbors will unload and attempt to seize the ports on the west coast or, on the east coast, sabotage facilities and otherwise prevent the Americans and Japanese from using them to reinforce the Taiwanese. Their very presence will deter or at least delay reinforcements.

A ballistic missile barrage will hit Taiwanese airfields, naval bases, army barracks and vehicle parks, leadership targets, air defense and anti-ship missile batteries, and ammunition depots shortly thereafter. Perhaps the Chinese use electromagnetic pulse weapons to fry Taiwanese electronics. Perhaps the Chinese use chemical weapons. This is Chinese territory after all and so not an inter-state issue. The chemicals won't kill many but they will slow down the Taiwanese who will have to avoid contamination, decontaminate, and otherwise cope. It will also tend to show the Taiwanese that the Chinese are deadly serious.

Taiwanese officers turned by the Chinese may order their units to disband or stand down; or Taiwanese units may be given confusing or ineffective orders by defecting officers or Chinese psychological warfare units that will mimic Taiwanese authorities. These actions may take Taiwanese units out of the fight or at least delay them. How many will be vulnerable I do not know, but any defections or collapsing units will demoralize the loyal units and leave Taiwan's leadership uncertain of the loyalty of the military. When trust is broken, people may look to save themselves at the first hint of their own defeat.

Air attacks will follow quickly, with obsolete aircraft thrown into the battle without regard for losses while the higher tech stuff is used more carefully. Possibly their role will be to secure an air corridor for the airborne assault to come. The Taiwanese pilots will at least tire themselves out swatting the old Chinese aircraft out of the sky.

A dribble of ballistic missiles will continue to hit Taiwanese airfields to disrupt operations and slow sortie rates with aircraft continuing to roll in regardless of losses. Even crappy 1960s-era aircraft can knock out modern fighters if they are on a runway refueling and rearming.

The Chinese will drop their parachute divisions near Taipei to go right for the jugular by seizing the center of government. (I've read the Chinese can lift 22,000 in one day so this should be possible.) With an airfield secured, the Chinese will airlift their urban cavalry division to march on the capital itself. The parachute units will try to cordon off the capital to keep reinforcements from coming in to the rescue.

[Let me link to a later post showing that an amphibious assault can aim for Taipei, too.]

Broadcasts will urge the Taiwanese military to stand aside. Some might. The Chinese will announce that unlawful combatants, which will include all the Taiwanese military, will not be treated as POWs but as criminals. The Chinese will claim the world considers this an internal matter and give wide play to any real statements to that effect. If any US Senator urges caution in reacting, that too will be played to the Taiwanese. The Chinese want the 23 million Taiwanese to feel alone and facing the power of 1.3 billion Chinese charging hard at them. Of course, ethnic solidarity will be emphasized and the pride of a powerful China able to end the long humiliation at the hands of the West will be used to convince Taiwanese soldiers to defect or go home.

The Chinese will also announce that all of "their" ports on the island of Taiwan are now closed, enforced by minefields and submarines. And with Chinese troops on the ground coming off their merchant ships where they hid, a physical presence will add to the statement.

Qemoy and Matsu will come under artillery and air attack and the Chinese will make it look like they will be targeted with invasion. Perhaps vaguely worded statements and quiet messages sent to foreign governments will try to convey the impression that the Chinese aren't really going for Taiwan but are just going to reclaim Quemoy, Matsu, and the Pescadores Islands. Kind of like an October War strategy of the Egyptians to grab the Suez Canal to break the impasse rather than being an invasion to drive all the way to Tel Aviv. Keeping the fact that China is going for the whole ball of wax for as long as possible will help delay any US and Japanese intervention.

Major fleet elements of the PLAN, including their carrier battle group(s), will deploy to the north and east of Taiwan to complicate any American or Japanese decision to send forces to help Taiwan.

The Main Invasion
The amphibious invasion will not look like D-Day in 1944 despite the many claims that it would be impossible for the Chinese to pull of a Normandy-style invasion. The Chinese simply won’t be carrying out a D-Day-style invasion. Remember, the Germans held an Atlantic Wall in some strength. The ports were rigged for demolitions and the allies had to land on beaches and then take ports. The objectives were the ports but the ports were too highly defended to attack directly. If the ports hadn’t been defended and rigged to blow, we would have hit the ports rather than use a more difficult over-the-beach approach.

The peacetime Taiwanese army will largely be in their barracks or struggling to reach the coast where the Chinese will be hitting relatively undefended and operating ports. If subversion or psychological warfare operations against the Taiwanese army are successful, not all units will move to fight the Chinese and the ones that do will be wary of their neighbors and so will fight and move more cautiously. Leadership will hesitate moving units because they will be unsure of loyalties. Slowing down the reaction of the Taiwanese units will aid the Chinese in heading inland and securing ports.

China's modern diesel-electric submarines will screen the northern and southern entries to the Taiwan Strait. They will mine the gaps with the subs backing up the minefields and protecting them from minesweepers.

The PLANs amphibious warfare ships will be used to lift the Chinese marines to the Pescadores Islands to seize that position as a staging area for helicopters and air cushion vehicles to shuttle follow-up forces to Taiwan itself. This will also have the effect of nullifying the anti-ship missiles based there.

With light infantry already unloaded from civilian shipping in Taiwan's harbors, the invasion force will sail in to reinforce them. Obsolete warships, either converted into troop ships or just emptied of most ammunition and crammed with troops, will make a high speed dash for the ports. Merchant ships taken into the service of the PLAN will begin lifting 9 divisions of infantry from widely spread ports. Roll on/roll off ships will carry heavy armor and artillery to unload in the ports. From the Pescadores, additional forces will be sent against the beaches of Taiwan with the amphibious warfare assets and air cushion vehicles to spread the Taiwanese out.

Forces will move out as soon as possible to head inland and relieve the airborne assault forces at Taipei. With Taiwanese brigades dribbling in (or not, depending on psychological warfare, special operations, and air attacks), the Chinese will try to keep the ports out of Taiwanese artillery range.

If the US intervenes, the Chinese will use whatever anti-satellite weapons they have and will try to slow down the US by threatening us with attack. I think they will refrain from striking first but will put forces in positions that will be threatening to us if left alone. The time it will take for the US to decide to engage Chinese PLAN forces will be valuable. The Chinese will sacrifice their fleet to take Taiwan, if necessary. They think long-term, remember? So what if they need another twenty years to rebuild what we sink?

With some luck, Chinese forces will be sitting in control of Taiwan, with the substantial forces on Qemoy and Matsu (I think a quarter of the Taiwanese army is on these two islands; though I read they have decided wisely to pull most back to the mainland at some point) left to surrender after seeing the defeat of the main Taiwanese defenses. American and Japanese forces gathering to intervene will now face not an intervention but a counter-attack with no Taiwanese military units to rescue. Ideally, monsoon season will be starting soon, giving the Chinese time to prepare defenses before October. European leaders may be calling for calm lest the fragile world economy be sent into a tailspin. With a puppet government set up on Taiwan recognized by Peking and as many states as China can get to issue supportive statements, the effort to portray this as an internal manner will be hammered home. And the longer a counter-invasion is delayed, the less likely it will happen.

And Taiwan will be part of China, as the Chinese communists have said they intend to accomplish for nearly sixty years.

No plan survives contact with the enemy, of course, and this is just a scenario that assumes the Chinese plan goes like clockwork. It could. But probably not. So to ward off all those who will protest that I don’t consider what our side will do, here are some of the things that could throw a stick into their spokes:

The Chinese could stumble at their home ports and screw up the loading, taking too much time and failing to maintain a tight schedule of throwing units across the strait.

The Chinese missile and air attack could fail to disrupt the Taiwanese air force. The Taiwanese might then shoot down the air transports and rocket the invasion flotillas.

Taiwan could figure out what the Chinese are doing and prevent the Chinese from seizing quickly seizing ports on the main island.

The Pescadores Islands could hold out and strike the invasion fleet with shore-based missiles. The Chinese amphibious follow-up attacks from here could be eliminated.

Taiwan’s navy might not be Pearl Harbored and make it to sea to attack the invasion fleet.

Taiwan’s two reasonably recent subs could get to sea. (The two other Taiwanese subs are museum pieces.)

The US or Japan might intervene promptly. Stryker brigade elements could be landed quickly to bolster Taiwanese morale. Marines from Japan could sail in to clean out the Chinese-held ports. More US Patriots could be flown in. Japanese and American F-15 aircraft might fly from Japan to fly cover using aerial refueling or some might base out of Taiwan itself. American carriers might be able to operate east of Taiwan to hit the invasion fleet. Ships and subs with anti-ship missiles might get in the act, too. P-3s could nail the Chinese diesels guarding the invasion corridor, leaving the merchant ship vulnerable to attack by Taiwanese, Japanese, and American subs and ships.

Long-range American bombers from Guam might slam the Chinese invasion flotilla or even hit Chinese airbases on China itself. Though I imagine we’d keep the fight localized by not striking the mainland. We might destroy the Chinese newly set up base on the Pescadores or the ports held by China.

Taiwanese units might not be vulnerable to psy ops or defection and instead move out promptly to crush the air- and sea bridgeheads while they are most vulnerable.

Taiwanese missiles might target Chinese assets on the mainland and discourage the Chinese people by the fact that the war is brought to them.

Who Will Win?
Like any war, it will be a fight to see if the Chinese can do enough right to balance out what they fail to do. Their success will depend on maintaining momentum in the face of losses that may be higher than Peking thinks likely. It will depend on whether Taiwanese morale holds.

I’m just saying that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the very near future is not out of the realm of possibility. It may be possible right now. Asserting it is (or will be) impossible does not make it so. Pointing out all the things we or the Taiwanese might do doesn’t mean we will or can do them, and doesn’t consider that China knows all those things and so will plan to defeat our plan. Pointing out the challenges China has to overcome doesn’t mean China won’t overcome enough of them to win.

We and the Japanese and Taiwanese need to take the threat seriously and prepare our forces to repel such an invasion. Being prepared is the best way to ensure that the Chinese won’t try to invade and that the Olympics will be remembered for a doping scandal or two and perhaps questions about communist judges in the women’s gymnastics events.

The communist Chinese want Taiwan very much. Even if the Chinese are doomed to defeat in a war over Taiwan, if the rulers in Peking think they can win there will be a war. That alone will be bad enough.

And the Chinese might win.

UPDATE: This post still gets occasional attention even a year later so it would probably be good to refer back to this post, which sort of sets the stage for this scenario.

UPDATE: I moved the original Geocities posts to Blogger.