In a new study looking at a possible Chinese attack against Taiwan, the RAND Corporation has concluded that the air war, at least “could essentially be over before much of the [American and Taiwanese] air forces have even fired a shot.” While grim, that assessment isn’t the entirety of what the report’s authors concluded. As with any military operation, such a conflict is obviously much more complicated than simply wiping out the air assets of an adversary.
The study is an updated version of one that RAND conducted on the same topic in 2000, when the think tank concluded that a Chinese attack would likely not succeed against Taiwanese and American air and land defenses. The new report, though, updates those conclusions given the recent Chinese investment in short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), which are becoming more accurate, and more numerous. It would take between 90 and 240 SRBMs, the report estimates, to “cut every runway at Taiwan’s half-dozen main fighter bases and destroy essentially all of the aircraft parked on ramps in the open at those installations.” This would “knock the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) out of the war for long enough to launch large-scale air raids on Taiwan intended to destroy any aircraft parked in shelters, as well as other hardened targets.”
Damaging or closing ROCAF’s bases would give the Chinese Air Force effective control over the Taiwanese skies as well as the Taiwan Strait, which would allow it to hit the island with air-delivered precision- guided munitions while preparing for a ground invasion.
In the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, military analyst Andrew Krepinevich outlined this Chinese strategy, known as “Assassins Mace,” which envisions using preemptive ballistic missile attacks to destroy or damage the U.S. military’s communications networks and “deny U.S. forces the ability to operate from forward bases, such as Kadena Air Base, on Okinawa, and Andersen Air Force Base, on Guam.” RAND also finds that if U.S. bases were hit, the USAF would be “unlikely to be able to compensate for the hundreds of ROCAF fighters burning on their parking ramps, trapped behind cratered runways, or hiding in underground shelters.”
But a successful air attack doesn’t guarantee that Taiwan would fully capitulate, which means that the Chinese would have to send in ground forces. To thwart this, RAND suggests a “Four Rings” strategy:
-- “Thinning the herd” of approaching ships using what amounts to unordered fire of longer-range ASCMs.
-- Slowing the approach to the beach with modern sea and surf mines.
-- Engaging assault vessels, whether large ships or small craft, on their final run to the beach with concealed or very mobile shortrange missiles, such as Hellfire.
-- Combining air-delivered weapons with direct and indirect fires to damage or destroy Chinese ships or craft while they are unloading ashore.
Amphibious invasions are notoriously difficult and bloody, even for forces that control the sky, and it’s unclear if the Chinese army would—even after ballistic missile and air bombardment—have the capability at this point to mount one. But as the report notes, it’s not clear why China would launch a coordinated set of strikes against Taiwanese and American forces in the Pacific in the first place. Given the somewhat less frosty relations with Taiwan in recent years, the deep and abiding linkages of the American and Chinese economies, and the international condemnation and possibility of a wider conflict with the United States, for Beijing to start a war—at least in the foreseeable future—makes little strategic, political, or economic sense.