For the first time in December, two Chinese carrier battle groups deployed at the same time. They did it just a few weeks after the Chinese Navy’s newest big helicopter carrier began trials at sea.
These are significant achievements for the PLA Navy, which is definitely progressing in all areas. However, when it comes to “the most hazardous place on the planet,” as the Economist properly defined the Taiwan scenario last year, they could be a red herring.
To strike the island, China does not require massive, advanced warships. This is easily understood by looking at a map and seeing that the medium-sized island is less than 100 miles off the coast of China.
Would the US need the 3rd, 5th, and 7th fleets if it tried to invade Cuba? Hardly. Without the backing of the US Navy, the US Army and Air Force would most likely be sufficient. The same may be said about Taiwan, which has the misfortune of being a near neighbour to a nationalistic, rising powerhouse.
Thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles (not to mention devastating rocket artillery) would annihilate Taiwan’s air defences, destroy runways, and knock out crucial communications hubs in the first phase of an attack.
Hundreds of PLA Air Force bombers and assault planes would then have free rein over the island, with surveillance drones and hovering “kamikaze” missiles providing essential support.
Aside from defeating Taiwan’s meagre navy and air force, the main goal of these operations would be to open corridors over the island with huge firepower, allowing PLA soldiers to enter via parachute and helicopter.
Beijing has been improving its airborne forces to the point where all three major services now parachute jump on a regular basis. Furthermore, exercises show that Chinese airborne personnel are attempting more difficult leaps, particularly at night, in coastal locations, and even over water.
According to Chinese sources, the PLA may have over 450 transport planes ready to deliver these troops. China has also assigned its most advanced Y-20 transport plane to its paratroopers.
Following extensive research into key airborne operations like as Normandy, the PLA recognises that these troops require increased firepower and mobility, for which special light tanks, jeeps, and anti-tank weapons have been produced.
A parallel effort by a massive fleet of transport and attack helicopters will provide essential support to the PLA’s parachute troops. China has been fielding two types of transport helicopters and two types of assault helicopters at the same time, demonstrating the critical significance of helicopters in the growing PLA, and in a Taiwan scenario in particular.
This tight manufacturing schedule is bolstered by plentiful Russian imports. In a December 2021 analysis titled “The Celestial Rotary-wing Empire,” a Russian PLA analyst put the PLA force at 1,500 helicopters.
China might plausibly expect to land 50,000 soldiers in the first wave, and well over 100,000 in the first 24 hours, thanks to parachute and heliborne forces.
It’s worth emphasising that Chinese strategists are well aware that the first assault waves would incur a high rate of losses, but they see this as an essential price to pay in order to win.
At the same time as Chinese strategists are striving to overcome the firepower problem with aerial assault, they are focusing their efforts on the supply issue. Parachute-dropped pallets and hefty drones created particularly for this purpose will resupply Beijing’s heliborne and airborne forces.
Most Western defence analysts seem enthralled with China’s amphibious task force, which is lauded in PLA news broadcasts on a daily basis. Beijing’s planners, on the other hand, are fully aware that an amphibious assault against dug-in defences using slow and visible assault vehicles are dangerous.
While armour may be used, the major forces arriving on the beach will be soldiers in small, light vessels that can be created quickly. This strategy is in accordance with current amphibious warfare thinking.
“Smaller ground units and capabilities scattered across large areas [may]… accomplish outsized effects,” said two US strategists giving advice to the US Marine Corps not long ago.
The PLA has shown a strong interest in light craft operations in recent years, reflecting its emphasis on the small size and greater dispersion.
These vehicles are fast, stealthy, and inexpensive, but their most noticeable feature is their diminutive size, which allows them to be carried and launched by nearly any civilian vessel, including China’s massive fishing fleet.
Inflatable rafts with outboard engines, small landing craft, and high-performance vessels will all be examples of such vessels. A 16-meter “new type high-speed watercraft,” notably the Type 928D assault boat for ground forces, which was announced in January 2020 by a Chinese shipbuilding magazine, is at the other extreme of the range.
Chinese attack squads might reach the whole Taiwan coastline in four or five hours in such vessels, which could easily be hidden in enormous storage spaces near China’s massive ports.
The aforementioned assault vectors do not rely primarily on warships, but they do rely on a huge force of highly trained assault troops, particularly Special Forces.
During the war on terror, as elite units in the Western military grew in number and capability, Beijing likewise made significant investments in similar capabilities.
A correspondent for the Atlantic got a peek of China’s commitment to developing these forces a couple of years ago when he weighed them up during an international counterterrorism competition. The PRC teams did not let anyone down.
If one frequently follows Chinese military news, it is clear that these elite forces are being trained in covert infiltration, night operations, and sniper techniques, securing hard targets, urban combat, and mountain operations.
These troops would wreak havoc in Taiwan’s backcountry, cutting roads and attacking headquarters, but they would also secure key targets such as high land, airfields, and small ports.
Special forces personnel may have already secured certain landing places when Chinese forces arrive on Taiwan’s shores.
It should come as no surprise that the PLA enjoys special operations. “Use ordinary force to engage; use extraordinary force to conquer,” stated Chinese strategist Sun Tzu more than 2,000 years ago.
American planners, on the other hand, appear to prefer counting how many amphibious tanks can be deployed in the water, despite the fact that the large ships transporting the tanks may be targeted by American torpedoes and missiles.
Models that look for a “technology silver bullet” to stop a Chinese invasion ignore the fact that Taiwan is largely made up of mountains and cities. To put it another way, this will be a classic infantry battle.
It’s worth noting that amphibious tanks have never been a decisive factor in beach assaults, not at Normandy, Inchon, or the Falkland Islands. Airpower, supported by a large missile, drone, and long-range artillery forces, was essential in previous conflicts, and China has plenty of it.
Airpower will, of course, have a significant impact on an infantry battle, but soldier motivation will also be critical. In this regard, China appears to have a significant advantage over Taiwan, which has struggled to defend itself.
With a greater understanding of the local terrain and current Chinese military doctrine, American planners would be well to get genuine about this possibility.
If favourable geography, combined with highly trained and motivated special forces — not to mention the obvious first-mover advantage — allow Beijing near-total mastery in a Taiwan scenario, these factors also mean Taiwan is the wrong place for Washington to draw a “red line” in the Asia-Pacific, as this analysis suggests.
With a greater understanding of the local terrain and recent changes in Chinese military theory, American strategists would do well to get genuine about this scenario.
If favourable geography, combined with highly trained and motivated special forces — not to mention the obvious first-mover advantage — afford Beijing near-total mastery in a Taiwan scenario, these factors also mean Taiwan is the wrong place for Washington to draw a “red line” in the Asia-Pacific, as this analysis suggests.