Chinese and foreign media have recently reported that the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a heavyweight think tank in the United States, has conducted scenario planning looking toward war in the Taiwan Strait.
Participants included former senior military officers, senior government military and political experts and fellows from think tanks such as the RAND Corporation and the Center for New American Security (CNAS).
The scenario planning had been scheduled for a long time. It caught a lot of attention as it happened after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.
The CSIS assumed a war will break out in the Taiwan Strait in 2026. Such an estimation could be based on the prediction of the former commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, who said in his testimony before Congress that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be ready to attack Taiwan in 2027.
It assumed that the attack would consist of six to eight rounds, each of them lasting three to four days. In total, it would last for three to four weeks.
The scenario planning indicated that in most (but not all) scenarios, the Taiwan military would not fall completely, but Taiwan’s economy and infrastructure would be basically destroyed.
It said the US military in the Western Pacific would pay a heavy price while the PLA would control one-third to half of Taiwan Island. Then the PLA would not be able to maintain its supply but the US military’s supply would continue.
The scenario planning will run until September, with a final report scheduled for December. So far, 18 of the 22 rounds of possible attacks have been carried out.
After the PLA’s drills, the CSIS may change the settings of its scenarios and even add more scenarios, in order to have a new understanding of the war in the Taiwan Strait.
In the scenarios, the US lost 500 to 900 US aircraft and more than 20 warships, including two aircraft carriers. However, the PLA lost 150 amphibious and surface vessels. Taiwan’s navy and half of its air force were eliminated in the first round.
Most news reports were vague about the scenario planning settings, but an article published by the US Breaking Defense website on August 11 provided more information.
- The main attack of the PLA comes from amphibious landings.
- It is difficult for the PLA troops to achieve landings.
- The US military can use Japanese bases.
- Neither China nor the US will use nuclear weapons.
- The number of weapons and forces in 2026 is estimated based on publicly available information.
- No matter how the war begins, it ends up being a protracted war between China and the US.
- The PLA must deploy all its troops. If it only deploys those in the Eastern Theater Command, it will be defeated in the first round.
- Both sides have less to worry about when no nuclear weapons will be used.
- Whether the Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) will participate has a great impact on the result of the war. It cannot stop the PLA from landing on Taiwan but can prevent the Chinese troops from occupying the entire island.
- The PLA will not be ready for a war by 2027, but maybe in 2030-2035.
- America can only hope for a pyrrhic victory, but will be unable to overcome some other crisis after the war.
It is not difficult to see that the United States’ thinking on the Taiwan Strait war is still at the level of the Battle of Kinmen in 1949 or the Battle of Normandy in 1944.
They believe that the biggest threat of the PLA to Taiwan Island still comes from direct landing and that the landing must be quick to get ahead of the US and Japan’s intervention.
So they think the key mission of the US and Taiwan is anti-landing, which refers to interception at sea and containment at landing places.
Taiwan Island is not far away from mainland China but it is not close either.
Even if the Taiwanese army is weak, the PLA has to deploy one or two large army groups. There are technically only a few ways for a large army group to land in Taiwan directly.
- Hovercraft beach landing
It requires a large area of flat beaches but there are only a few in Taiwan, which is not a secret. These beaches have long been the focus of Taiwan’s defense.
- Helicopter landing
The distance across the strait is long while the PLA does not have enough helicopters. It’s an option for small troops but not large army groups.
- Parachute landing
Soldiers cannot carry heavy equipment and it’s hard for them to gather. It’s not suitable for large army groups.
Taipei is the focus of Taiwan’s defense, and the towns are dense, so it is not easy to go straight to attack Taipei.
In the scenario planning, those who went straight to Taipei were easily repelled.
So most of the red teams (representing the PLA) chose to land at southwest Taiwan’s Tainan or Kaohsiung. But they faced a supply problem due to a longer distance from the mainland. They also faced attack from Penghu during their journeys.
Landing at Tainan at that early point in the war is not the best option for the PLA.
China’s different concepts
The PLA demonstrated a completely different operational concept in its drills in the Taiwan Strait. It dispatched a large number of naval, air and rocket forces, but did not focus too much on amphibious attacks.
It is not because amphibious attack is not important, but because it is not the only option. In fact, the PLA has practiced amphibious attacks many times.
The PLA does not have to stick to specific tactics but can flexibly switch its forces at the north and south ends of the Taiwan island.
The US has repeatedly encouraged the Taiwan military to avoid fighting against the PLA in naval and air battles but adopt an asymmetric “hedgehog defense” strategy (using handheld missiles). The US seems to agree that PLA has naval and air superiority.
The scenario planning has shown that the US and Taiwan combat aircraft and surface ships had little effect but shore-to-ship missiles had a more important role. Under such circumstances, it is not wise for the PLA to land in Taiwan directly without using its sea and air superiority.
The only reason for a quick landing is that the PLA wants to avoid the United States’ military intervention. But it does not seem to be a reason anymore.
US military intervention would definitely complicate mainland China’s military reunification of Taiwan.
In the latest exercise, all the preparations of the PLA were aimed at blocking the US military’s intervention. The PLA has improved its area-denial capability and is more and more confident of its ability to withstand the US intervention.
In the scenario planning, almost all scenarios ended in a stalemate.
If the PLA can stop the US intervention, there is no urgency for it to land on Taiwan.
Quick landing is important but not by a large army group, which moves slowly and requires strong supply, especially in urban areas.
The US wanted to prevent China’s large army group from landing, so it focused a lot on how to fight against amphibious and supply ships.
In fact, by deploying a large number of small military units to infiltrate Taiwan, the PLA will not only increase the means of landing and supply, but also greatly increase its flexibility.
It can also create a psychological shock in the minds of the Taiwanese military and people that “the communist army is everywhere.”
PLA infantry soldiers with guns are more useful than missiles, guided bombs and long-range rockets fires.
The PLA’s powerful naval and air and missile strikes, plus small troops on the island, will greatly shake the confidence of the Taiwanese military and people, and strategically slowing the operations of Taiwan’s troops can create a huge threat to Taiwan’s anti-ship missile and radar systems.
Such a strategy will be very effective. Of course, reconnaissance and attack planes, strategic bombers and satellites should also be used.
Small military units are only auxiliary forces that help the mainland’s large army group land. If Taiwan’s troops do not surrender, the PLA will launch more attacks.
US military bases in Japan
It’s an interesting issue whether the US military can use Japanese bases. If US planes take off from Japan and attack the PLA at sea and on land, there is no reason for the PLA not to attack the US bases in Japan.
In CSIS scenario planning, one scenario is that the PLA preemptively attacked the US military bases in Japan and Guam before landing on Taiwan Island. Then Japan joined the war. And the US and Japan won the war.
This is a strange assumption. Even if the PLA attacks US military bases in Japan, it is unclear whether Japan will join the war. Or in the first place, it’s not necessary that Japan will allow American planes to take off from the bases in its territory.
With Dongfeng 16, Donghai 10 and Xian H-6, China has prepared in case Japan joins the war. But there is no reason for China to take the initiative to attack Japan.
In many scenarios, the US lost two aircraft carriers. They were the most powerful forces that could arrive in the Taiwan Strait within a short time but they were not able to stop the PLA from landing Taiwan. They could not even protect themselves.
Neither combat aircraft nor surface fleet proved useful. The scenarios showed the insufficient supply to US naval and air forces. The locations of bases, the numbers of flights and the flight ranges of aircraft were limiting factors.
It is also a strange assumption that the PLA would only deploy troops in the Eastern Theater Command. The Eastern Theater Command is strong but the PLA has never fought unprepared battles.
It is wishful thinking that all of China’s neighbors will stand together with the US and wait for an opportunity to invade China. Such a situation will not be seen in the foreseeable future.
Both China and the US are nuclear states. China has a policy of not being the first to use nuclear weapons. But the US has a policy, a tradition and an impulse to use them first.
The CNAS has done scenario planning before. The red team (representing Russia) threatened to use nuclear weapons while the blue team (the US) constrained its operations to avoid the scenario. In the end, the red team launched a nuclear bomb in Hawaii.
In the Taiwan Strait, neither China nor the US should rule out the possibility of nuclear escalation.
Marine Littoral Regiment
The MLR was a main research topic in the CSIS scenario planning. In the Taiwan Strait, its main weapons included naval strike missiles and HIMARS rockets, instead of F-35Bs, tanks or howitzers.
Whether the MLR can enter Taiwan in advance will have a great impact on the result of the war. However, there are several problems:
- Given that China reacted strongly to Pelosi’s visit, the MLR’s entry to Taiwan will definitely trigger a war.
- Once the MLR runs out of ammunition, it is impossible to replenish the supply. A C-17 military transport aircraft was shot down by the PLA in a scenario.
- The MLR can stop the PLA from occupying the whole of Taiwan but cannot prevent it from landing on the island.
Even if all 6,000 to 7,000 MLR soldiers are deployed to Taiwan by 2026, it is still insufficient in strength, not to mention that there is no time for deployment.
Without ammunition supply, the MLR will become a light infantry to support the Taiwan Army. It won’t be able to resist the PLA’s large army group, which at that later stage of the war may find that the time is ripe to land in Tainan.
In most scenarios, the MLR tried to land in Taiwan after a war broke out but failed. Without the MLR, the US and Taiwan defense was very difficult.
The US should be worried about the conclusion that the Taiwan Strait war will be prolonged although the US has certain advantages over China.
In this case, the US’ “preferred ammunition” (mainly various advanced and long-range missiles) will soon be exhausted. The domestic production capacity will be insufficient, and the replenishment of supply will be difficult.
If Russia, Iran or other forces challenge the US at this time, the US will run out of ammunition and food. In other words, the US will seriously suffer for supporting Taiwan. This may be the end of US hegemony. And this may change the view of US politicians and people.
The CSIS exercise has not yet calculated the economic impact and casualties of the war.
The two aircraft carriers have at least 10,000 officers and soldiers while there are 10,000 on other ships. Several thousand infantry soldiers and pilots will die. This is an intense burst of casualties not seen since World War II.
The Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the War on Terror had more casualties, but those accumulated over many years. The war in the CSIS scenarios only lasted for three to four weeks.
It remains to be seen how the PLA’s drills will change the settings of the scenario planning done by the CSIS or other institutions.
Chen Feng is a columnist of Guancha.cn, which originally published this article in Chinese as an exclusive manuscript. It is republished in English translation here with permission and has been edited slightly for length. This article is the author’s personal opinion and does not represent the Guancha platform’s or Asia Times’s opinion. It may not be reprinted without authorization.
Read: China’s Taiwan Strait drills: the new normal