Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Taiwan and China

(This is a copy of content currently on the new site which is unavailable due to the outage)

James Dunnigan at the Strategy Page discusses the idea of an "out of the blue" (OOTB) attack by China on Taiwan.

What this means is that, during what appears to be peacetime maneuvers, the troops involved will suddenly move against a nearby nation and invade. ... The OOTB was most noticeably used, and successfully at that, when the Russian trained Egyptian army surprised the Israelis and recaptured the Suez canal in 1973. ... if the Chinese could get control of the air over Taiwan for a day or so, three Chinese airborne divisions could be dropped on Taiwan as well. Taiwan has always expected assistance from the U.S. Navy and Air Force. But without advance warning to get a carrier or two into the area, and a few hundred U.S. Air Force planes alerted for movement to Taiwan, Japan and Guam, the American assistance would be too late. 

An OOTB attack necessarily trades velocity for mass. By compressing decisive operations within a very short time span China puts aside its greatest asset, which is numerical superiority. The total force China can immediately put ashore is limited by its amphibious lift: one heavy division plus up to four light divisions.

It is estimated that the large and medium amphibious ships in service with the PLA could lift a whole heavy armour division, or 1.5 to 2 light infantry divisions and their some equipment in the first wave of a regional amphibious assault. However, if take the sealift capabilities of smaller landing crafts and merchant ships into account, the aggregate lift of China’s amphibious forces could reach as many as five divisions (60,000 troops and their equipment). 

An OOTB attack would be risky in the extreme. Because there are no landing areas on Taiwan's east coast, geography dictates that any amphibious assault be directed against the middle of the western coast. The five or so divisions, augmented by part of China's 3 airborne divisions would face Taiwan's 2 mech infantry and 10 infantry divisions, backed up by more than 7 armored brigades who know full well where they would land. Unlike the attacking troops, they will have armor on hand, artillery and plenty of ammunition. Taiwan has over 300 SP and 1,100 towed artillery pieces.

By process of elimination, the most attractive [though not most likely] target for an amphibious assault against Taiwan would be the coastal region between Tung-Hsiao and San-Wan. Midway between the northern Taipei urban agglomeration and the central populated region around Taichung, this coastal area is free of annoying mud-flats, and offers open terrain suitable for the build-up of a beach-head and subsequent decisive maneuver. A lodgement in this area would effective cut the island in half, and lay the foundation for subsequent operations to the north and south. 

Because the prospect of overrunning the Taiwanese defense force in a short time looks so unpromising the standard scenario for attacking Taiwan as described in a document called The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait imagines a deliberate and phased assault, with the island first being worn down by a naval blockade and prolonged bombardment. The actual invasion would be a "coup de grace".

An amphibious invasion of Taiwan by China would be a highly risky and most unlikely option for the PLA, chosen only as a last resort to force the total surrender of the island. It most likely would be preceded by a variety of preparatory operations to include a blockade, conventional missile strikes, and special operations on Taiwan. These operations would play a critical role in determining how China would pursue the coup de grace, with an amphibious assault only one facet of a multi-pronged invasion plan.

Yet a deliberate and phased attack has its attendant problems too; the biggest of which is that it allows the US time to mirror the Chinese buildup, something which the USN is precisely prepared to do. A Congressional Research Service document (RS21338) entitled Navy Ship Deployments: New Approaches available through CRS Gallery Watch describes a concept called the Fleet Response Plan, which rather than maintaining single battlegroups in three forward areas -- the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf region, and the Western Pacific -- will enable the Navy to surge a concentrated force to a threatened area.

In addition, the Navy is implementing a new Fleet Response Plan (FRP) that will improve the Navy’s ability to surge multiple formations in response to emergencies. ... Implementing the FRP, Navy officials say, will permit the Navy to deploy up to 6 of its CSGs within 30 days, and an additional 2 CSGs within another 60 days after that.

China's strategic choice then is between an OOTB pitting 5 or 6 lightly armed divisions against 12 Taiwanese to take advantage of surprise or to advance with a much larger force against up to 8 USN battlegroups. This is complicated by the fact that one US response to a Chinese blockade of Taiwan might include a counter-blockade of China's fuel imports. The growing Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern oil has a created a vulnerability that did not exist a decade ago. The Middle East Quarterly (hat tip: Kae) notes:

China's thirst for oil shows no sign of slackening. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, China is now the second-largest consumer of petroleum products in the world. Today, China imports roughly 2 million barrels of oil per day, half of which comes from the Middle East. The International Energy Agency predicts that within a quarter-century, China will import 10 million barrels a day, the current U.S. level. Beijing considers its Achilles' heel to be a U.S. naval blockade. ...

As a hedge against reliance on the U.S. Navy for sea-line protection, Beijing has constructed a naval base in Gwadar, Pakistan, not far from the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, facilities in Myanmar close to the Strait of Malacca, and the Kompong-Sihanoukville Port in Cambodia.

Yet America's dominant position in the Persian Gulf virtually ensures that no Chinese tankers would ever get so far as Hormuz, let alone Malacca if it came to that. Ironically, the bigger the Chinese economy becomes, the more vulnerable it grows to US countermeasures. And because any US-Chinese confrontation would be economically catastrophic for both countries, and to Japan and South Korea besides, Taiwan's real guarantee against invasion is that it is a poisoned pawn. It would cost China everything it worked for in the last two decades to swallow.