Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Taiwan Strait Imbalance

The Chinese have been increasing their military power while Taiwan has dithered on new arms purchases. The Department of Defense annual report on Chinese military power highlights the trends. Arthur K. tipped me to this analysis:

In the 2002 report, for example, the Pentagon could still reassure itself with the knowledge that the air forces of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan not only have "enjoyed dominance of the airspace over the Taiwan Strait for many years," but still maintained "a qualitative edge over" the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). In contrast, the new report observes that the PLAAF and the PLA Navy now have approximately 2,250 operational combat aircraft, of which 490 are positioned within range of Taiwan and could conduct operations against the island without refueling. It also warns that "this number could be significantly increased through any combination of aircraft forward deployment, decreased ordnance loads, or altered mission profiles." Against the waves of fighters, ground attack planes, fighter-bombers and bombers—many of them fourth-generation aircraft—which Beijing could potentially send against it, Taipei only has some 390 fighters, most of which are American F-16s, French Mirage 2000s and Taiwan’s own Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs), which rely on 1970s and 1980s technology.

The naval balance has also shifted. The ROC Navy has a total of 97 ships, more than half of which are missile-armed coastal patrol boats. With 232 ships, the PLA Navy is the largest force of principal combatants, submarines and amphibious warfare vessels in Asia. Together, its closest naval forces to Taiwan, the Dinghai-based East Fleet and the Zhan Jiang–based South Fleet, include a nuclear attack submarine, 32 diesel-powered attack submarines, 17 destroyers, 36 frigates, 47 amphibious assault ships and 35 missile patrol craft. Even more ominously, the PLA has progressively increased both the quality and the quantity of its short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) systems which, in the event of conflict, could, according to the Pentagon report, be deployed against air defense systems "to support a campaign to degrade Taiwan’s defenses, neutralize Taiwan’s military and political leadership, and possibly break the Taiwan people’s will to fight."

Yet as I noted earlier about the report, somehow we've concluded that China is less capable of invading Taiwan than they were several years ago.

If Taiwan is to have enough military power to deter China from invading, or defeating such an invasion, or even just delaying a Chinese advance long enough for us to help, Taiwan needs to maintain their recent uptick in defense spending.

Yet right now, Taiwan's weaknesses give China an opening to secure naval and air superiority over the Taiwanese in the Taiwan Strait. The big question is how long it would take for Chinese forces to beat down Taiwanese air and naval power and whether China could translate that dominance into an actual ground invasion with airborne and amphibious forces.

The really big question is whether American forces like this (with help from Japan, I should add) can keep the air and naval balance from tipping in China's favor once shooting starts (tip to Mad Minerva for emailing me the link):

Aircraft carriers USS Kitty Hawk and USS Nimitz are both "conducting scheduled, routine operations in the Western Pacific," said Master Chief Shane Tuck, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. "With the Nimitz, that carrier's deployment includes its entire carrier strike group. For the Kitty Hawk, only the USS Curtis Wilbur is accompanying that carrier," Tuck said by telephone Thursday.

Forces like this will tip the balance back in our favor. Yet if the Chinese think that this is the year to finally solve their Taiwan problem, either before the Olympics or even after (and I've admitted that nothing is visible to me that indicates an invasion might be coming in the next several months), we'll need to see more "scheduled, routine operations" like this and other exercises the rest of this year involving Marine Corps and Air Force units, as well as reminders that our Ohio class cruise missile submarines are prowling the western Pacific ready for action.

It would be nice if the Chinese conclude they can't win when faced with our power, but they may believe they've solved the American problem.

It isn't like this would be the first time an enemy has miscalculated our resolve to fight.