US could defend Taiwan from China – at great cost – The Business Standard

January 22, 2023
The phrase “war game” has always struck me as a particularly unfortunate oxymoron. War isn’t Dungeons & Dragons, and any language that takes away from its absolute horror only makes it more likely. (And don’t get  Dr. Strangelove started on “nuclear game theory.”)
That said, massive military operations, from the failure of the Spanish Armada to the success of D-Day, are largely about variables, including luck. And one of the best ways humans have to look at variables and luck is to play games, over and over, until a pattern emerges. That’s what a small team at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington did recently with a very scary and all-too-possible scenario: a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
The dominant result after 24 simulations was a nightmarish glass-half-full/half-empty situation. Taiwan, with US support, would be able to hold off a Chinese invasion force, but at the price of mass carnage: “The United States and its allies lost dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and tens of thousands of servicemembers. Taiwan saw its economy devastated. Further, the high losses damaged the US global position for many years.” You can read the entire recap here.
This week I emailed with the study’s creators: Mark F. Cancian of CSIS, Matthew Cancian of the US Naval War College, and Eric Heginbotham of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel and Matthew’s father, and I did an interview in 2021 about wasteful Pentagon spending.) Here is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange:
Tobin Harshaw: Your report is nearly 200 pages long, but people naturally glommed on to two takeaways: “We would win, yay!” Or “We would suffer devastating losses, oh no!” Which is getting the bigger immediate reaction?
Cancian, Cancian and Heginbotham: Judging by reactions from journalists, the high casualties seem to be the most striking element for most readers.
Q: Can you very briefly run through how the war game worked?
A: The project developed a war game with hundreds of tokens that include forces from the US, China, Taiwan and Japan. Air and naval operations were played on a 5-by-6 foot map that covers the Western Pacific. Ground operations were played on a separate map that covers Taiwan. A 70-page “rules for umpires” lays out game regulations. Die rolls, combat-result tables and computer programs calculate the end results.
The war game has players on two sides: China and US-Taiwan-Japan. Typically, there are two or three players on each side. Players came from a variety of senior governmental, think tank, and military backgrounds.
Q: Why was playing the game 24 times the magic number? What is the “base scenario”?
A: There was nothing magic about 24. What was important was that the number be large enough to run the game in many different scenarios and with many different players to get a sense of the variety of approaches and outcomes. Most games, classified and unclassified, are played only once or twice.
The base scenario included assumptions that we considered the most likely. For example, we assumed that the US could use its bases in Japan, but that Japan would stay neutral unless its territory was attacked by China. An alternate excursion covered the possibility of Japan being strictly neutral.
Q: Why did you choose 2026 as the year for the invasion? How would things be different if Xi rolled the dice this year or next?  
A: We chose 2026 for two reasons. First, it is the date that many US officials have identified as a time of significant danger for Chinese military actions against Taiwan. Second, it was the end of the Pentagon’s planning period — what’s called the Future Years Defense Program — so there was good data on US military plans and equipment.
Q: I was fascinated that you based some of the Chinese approach on famous historical landings: Normandy in World War II, the UK in the Falklands. Given the massive advances in technology, what are the elements that are simply constant in all modern warfare?
A: The issue of amphibious lift has not fundamentally changed since World War II because it is not a problem of computing power: It is a problem of moving large tonnages from Point A to Point B and landing on a hostile shore. The main lesson of these histories is that things never go according to plan. Invariably, the rate at which people and equipment move is slower than planned, due to the friction of war.
Q: You noted that Ukraine’s resistance to Russia is not an apt model for Taiwan’s defense. 
A: In the Ukraine war, the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization have not sent troops directly into combat, but instead have sent massive amounts of equipment and supplies. Russia has not been able to interdict this overland flow. However, the “Ukraine model” cannot be replicated in Taiwan because China can isolate the island for weeks or even months. Taiwan must start the war off with everything it needs.
Q: You say that China will “quickly destroy” Taiwan’s current naval and air forces. What do Taipei and Washington need to do differently in terms of equipment and training?
A: For 70 years, Taiwan has maintained a balanced force of naval, air and ground capabilities. These were appropriate when Chinese power-projection capabilities were weak. Now that the Chinese have powerful air, rocket and maritime forces, Taiwan needs a different structure. In the game, Chinese missiles quickly destroyed Taiwanese surface ships and aircraft. A more effective structure would de-emphasize vulnerable combat aircraft and surface ships and emphasize instead land-based anti-air and anti-ship capabilities. This is what some commentators have called the “porcupine strategy.”
Q: Given the long timelines in research, development and production, the US isn’t going to come up with breakthrough weaponry within three years. So, using what it has, what is the very most important thing the Pentagon should focus on?
A: From a programmatic (as opposed to policy) perspective, several recommendations stand out:
Increase the arsenal of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, because the current inventory runs out after only a few days.
Fortify air bases in Japan and Guam. Develop decoys and the ability to operate from civilian airfields. In the game, 90% of coalition aircraft losses are on the ground to Chinese missile attacks.
Prioritize submarines and other undersea platforms. Submarines were able to enter the Chinese defensive zone and wreak havoc on the Chinese fleet.
Prioritize sustainment of the bomber fleet over fighters. The range, missile-standoff distance and high carrying capacity of bombers presented the People’s Liberation Army with daunting challenges.
Don’t surge forces forward during crises, because these forces will be vulnerable to a Chinese first strike.
Q: You note that “While other allies (e.g., Australia and South Korea) are important in the broader competition with China and may play some role in the defense of Taiwan, Japan is the linchpin.” Does Tokyo, especially with the current center-left government, have what it takes to stand strong against severe losses?  
A: We talked to many former Japanese officials and nongovernmental experts. They were comfortable with our assumptions about Japan allowing the US to use its military bases in Japan, Japan not taking part initially, but Japan participating if China struck the Japanese homeland. Japan certainly has powerful military forces that would make a difference in a conflict. Recent statements by the Japanese government indicate an increasing willingness to stand up to China, including with military force. Nevertheless, our report has been front page news in Japan and sparked a debate about Japan’s role in such a conflict.
Q: Recent war games by the RAND Corporation and (reportedly) the Pentagon show the US and Taiwan unable to successfully keep China from taking Taiwan. How is your dominant scenario different?
A: We hypothesize that many classified war games are designed to “stress the system” and therefore may make particularly pessimistic assumptions. Some of the games apparently look at the first few days of the conflict when US forces are getting hammered, and not at a longer duration when US reinforcements begin arriving. (Our games simulated three to four weeks of combat.) Finally, many games are designed to educate the players and not to gain insights about future forces and weapons.
Q: You don’t take on the issue of US Taiwan policy, such as the strategic ambiguity of Washington’s non-recognition of Taipei. 
A:  That goes beyond the scope of the project. We can say that, based on the game iterations, the US should intervene quickly if it is to intervene at all. Waiting just allows the Chinese to get more securely established on Taiwan and, as a result, the campaign to evict Chinese forces becomes longer and with higher casualties.
The three of us have different personal opinions about what US political strategy should be. However, we can all agree on the general operational outcomes that an unbiased investigation produces.
Q: You lay out some alternative, noncombat strategies for China to achieve consolidation over Taiwan in the longer term: blockade and isolation, a long-term bombing campaign like Germany’s against Britain in World War II, etc. Why wouldn’t China just do that?
A: Most commentators believe that blockade or gray-zone attacks are more likely than an amphibious invasion. We don’t disagree. Our argument is that an invasion is plausible given Chinese rhetoric and capabilities, and is the most dangerous Chinese course of action. Our intention is that the project initiate an ongoing conversation. It will not be the last word.
Tobin Harshaw is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and writer on national security and military affairs. Previously, he was an editor at the op-ed page of the New York Times and the newspaper’s letters editor. @tobinharshaw
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.


china / Taiwan crisis / US / War game
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