If the United States were to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, it would likely be American fighters and bombers, not warships, that would turn the tide of the conflict.
Recently, we discussed the results of a series of 24 war games held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank that outlined the possible outcomes of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. These games were carried out using a variety of different scenarios — including seemingly likely, optimistic, and even extremely pessimistic sets of circumstances.
In all but two scenarios, Taiwan was able to maintain its independence from the Chinese invaders (at least for the time being), but in even the best-case scenarios, that victory came at an immense cost for Taiwan, the United States, and nearby ally Japan. While a number of iterations ended in stalemates that favored Taiwan’s eventual victory, the only two scenarios that saw Chinese victory came when Taiwan was completely abandoned by Western support, and tellingly, when China managed to keep American airpower out of the fight.
Here’s what we learned from this series of wargames.
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America would likely lose two aircraft carriers in the first days of fighting
While American airpower would be instrumental in the defense of Taiwan, it likely wouldn’t come from America’s fleet of Ford and Nimitz class aircraft carriers.
In the weeks leading up to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, America would likely lean on the longstanding tradition of using a large-scale show-of-force meant to demonstrate resolve in the face of aggression and, hopefully, deter a conflict from starting at all. This is often accomplished by sailing one or more powerful aircraft carrier strike groups into the region, each of which offers more combat power than many entire nations.
This flexing of cold steel certainly does send a message, but in a conflict over Taiwan, it could also be a fatal mistake. By sailing carriers into the Taiwan Strait or surrounding area, these ships would begin a conflict in direct firing range of Chinese anti-ship hypersonic, cruise, and ballistic missile volleys.
Over the course of the CSIS series of war games, Chinese players repeatedly took advantage of this doctrinal flaw, usually sinking two American aircraft carriers before the end of their second turn of play (within the first week of conflict). Even when playing with the operating assumption that American air defense capabilities would perform very well, the volume of fire made available by Chinese missile stockpiles made overwhelming these defenses an inevitability in even the most optimistic of scenarios.
Likewise, when American teams started massing fighters in Guam or Japan as a deterrent presence, those masses of jets quickly became tempting targets for missile strikes, wiping out dozens of fighters before they could ever reach the fight.
As the CSIS report points out, strategist Thomas Schelling once said, “A fine deterrent can make a superb target.”
Because American force posture dictates that these carriers would likely be in-theater at the onset of fighting, the CSIS team recommended not using a carrier show of force and instead, keeping carriers at a safer distance as tensions rise. This, however, would be politically difficult, as Taiwan would almost certainly urge a broad and powerful U.S. presence nearby.
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How the air war for Taiwan would play out
There are a number of political, geographical, and technological factors that would dictate the way in which American airpower could support the defense of Taiwan.
The loss of two aircraft carriers, as well as their respective air wings, would deal a massive blow to American power projection in the region, but airstrips in Japan and Guam would remain vital to continued combat operations. As such, American bases on nearby islands would almost certainly become the target of repeated Chinese missile strikes, which accounted for a whopping 90% of American and allied aircraft losses throughout all 24 iterations of play.
In other words, the vast majority of destroyed American fighters were lost on the ground, rather than in the sky, effectively rendering their stealth advantages somewhat moot.
But America does have a deep magazine when it comes to airpower platforms. Fighters would be extremely important to securing victory — but the most instrumental platforms would actually be America’s bombers.
Defeating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan ultimately comes down to destroying China’s invasion fleet before it transfers enough troops into Taiwan to start making significant gains. In a way, this eases the complexity of the situation for American strategists, who don’t need to identify high-value targets within the sprawling expanse of heavily defended Chinese territory. Instead, defending Taiwan becomes a simple question of, “how many anti-ship cruise missiles can you throw at these ships?”
As such, the way this fight plays out, according to CSIS, would be heavily reliant on two specific munitions deployed by fighters and, to a much larger extent, bombers: Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), and its sister system, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range (JASSM-ER). These two weapons are so influential on the outcome of this fight that, according to the 165-page report assembled by CSIS, the JASSM-ER’s performance against maritime targets alone could make victory practically assured.
“In games where the JASSM-ER has maritime strike capabilities, the abundance of U.S. munitions made U.S. strategy an almost uncomplicated exercise.”“The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), January, 2023
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The one missile that could save Taiwan
The most valuable weapon in a fight for Taiwan would likely be the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM. However, as the CSIS war game team points out, America’s stockpile of these weapons, at a projected 450 by 2026, would fall far short of getting the job done. Instead, America would need to rely on the (not-publicly-proven) maritime capability of the LRASM’s sister munition, the JASSM-ER. CSIS predicts the U.S. will have 3,650 JASSM-ERs by 2026.
The AGM-158B JASSM-ER, itself an updated and longer-ranged variant of the long-serving AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, first entered service in 2014. With a reported range of about 1,000 kilometers (around 620 miles), the JASSM-ER is indistinguishable from its predecessor externally but internally swaps out the original weapon’s turbojet for a more efficient turbofan motor that couples with a larger fuel tank to allow for more than double the range of the original.
This stealthy cruise missile flies along pre-planned routes using GPS guidance throughout most of its flight path, before transitioning to an infrared seeker in its final approach. That infrared sensor can even use image templates and three-dimensional targeting models fed into its onboard computers before launch to identify up to eight potential targets as it approaches. In the past, the U.S. Air Force has claimed the JASSM-ER is accurate to within just three meters or so.
With a 1,000-pound WDU-42/B penetrating warhead, the JASSM-ER is extremely effective against a wide variety of surface targets, and thanks to its particularly long range and low observability, it offers American aircraft the means to launch strikes against Chinese targets from outside the reach of land or ship-based air defenses.
That range is vital to protecting non-stealth heavy payload bombers launching volleys of these missiles, as defeating the Chinese invasion would be reliant on saturating the Taiwan Strait with enough weapons to overwhelm what could potentially be highly competent air defenses and score enough hits to sink dozens of amphibious ships ferrying troops and supplies across the 100-mile waterway.
The platforms that would be most effective at deploying JASSM-ERs toward Chinese ships are the B-1B Lancer (which can carry 24 missiles), the B-2 (which can carry 16), and the B-52H (which can carry 12). There are a number of fighters that can carry these weapons as well, including the F-15E and F/A-18 Super Hornet, but these fighters might be better used providing protection for these bombers against China’s long-range air-to-air missiles like the radar-guided PL-15 that’s claimed to have a range of 190 miles.
However, it’s not entirely clear whether or not the JASSM-ER could be as effective at engaging surface ships as its LRASM sibling. These weapons are, for all intents and purposes, largely identical, but the LRASM’s specialized anti-ship role comes with different guidance requirements that the Navy’s FY 2022 budget request suggests may be largely software-based. The Navy indicated that by updating the software in the JASSM-ER, it could potentially merge stockpiles of it and the LRASM for inventory purposes.
But even if the JASSM-ER doesn’t prove to be as adept at the anti-ship role as the LRASM, any maritime strike capability at all could have huge implications in this fight.
“If the JASSM-ER’s infrared target recognition seeker has even modest capability against moving ships at sea, the impact would be enormous. By mixing JASSM-ERs with salvos of LRASMs, Chinese ships would have to expend interceptors engaging incoming salvos of JASSM-ERs, allowing more LRASMs to survive.”“The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), January, 2023
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Stealth fighters will become vital as cruise missile stockpiles run dry
America maintains the largest fleets of stealth aircraft in the world, but despite the serious advantages stealth offers in terms of survivability, their presence in the Pacific presents interesting challenges for American planners.
As previously indicated, the vast majority of American aircraft losses in its defense of Taiwan — an average of 90% across all gaming iterations — came not while flying combat ops, but rather while parked on the flight lines of air bases across Guam and Japan (as well as those lost aboard two carriers sunk by anti-ship missile saturation attacks).
These wargames truly highlight the vulnerability inherent to America’s preference for active defensive measures against missile attacks. Relying on air defense systems to protect American airfields has proven effective against less-advanced attacks in the Middle East, but regardless of a system’s efficacy, it can always be overwhelmed by sufficient volume. The CSIS team recommends establishing more hardened structures for American fighters in Japan and Guam to help alleviate this threat, as well as to expand efforts for dispersed basing of airframes.
F-35s could prove incredibly valuable in coordinating defense for bombers carrying large payloads of cruise missiles, using stealth and situational awareness to prevent Chinese fighters in combat air patrols from engaging American bombers. The F-35 can’t carry the LRASM or JASSM-ER internally, making them poorly suited for delivering these weapons, but once stocks of each run low, the F-35 would be the best option for engaging Chinese ships with other, shorter-range, munitions like the Joint Strike Missile (with a range of around 345 miles) and JSOWs, which are actually glide-bombs with a range of 70 or so miles.
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CSIS findings suggest America needs more, cheaper jets — not fewer stealthier ones
This series of war games, like those played out by the Center for New American Studies in 2021 or the Defense Department in 2020, aren’t necessarily truly reflective of how a fight for Taiwan would play out, so much as a valuable tool toward better understanding the nature of such a conflict. That is to say that winning on paper isn’t a guarantee of victory in real life.
But there are interesting lessons to glean from this effort. Among them may be that America’s love affair with acquisitive and expensive air platforms like the forthcoming Next Generation Air Dominance fighter must be tempered by balanced acquisition practices that value lower-cost systems that be purchased and operated in higher volumes.
All the research and development costs of stealth offer little value when most F-35s are destroyed by ballistic missile strikes on the tarmac. The high cost and time-consuming nature of stealth fighter production raises serious concerns about America’s ability to replace lost platforms in a timely manner if a conflict lasts longer than a few weeks.
Likewise, these games serve as a powerful reminder of the value of American heavy payload bombers — even those lacking in stealth — as mules for stand-off weapons like the JASSM-ER. To that end, the CSIS team recommends doing all America can to maintain the largest bomber force possible, including continuing the effort to re-engine B-52s and prolonging the service lives of the B-2 and B-1B even after the B-21 enters service.
These bombers could even be supplemented in the fight by cargo aircraft like C-130s and C-17s using a program like Rapid Dragon, which allows cargo planes to deploy large numbers of palletized cruise missiles from outside the reach of Chinese air defenses. Supplementing these launches with volleys of America’s ADM-160 Miniature Air Launched Decoys (MALDs) would further bolster America’s cruise missile successes, going that much further to overwhelm Chinese defenses.
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Winning this fight would be much worse than preventing it from happening
While these war games made it clear that the United States has the capacity to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the cost — in terms of personnel and hardware — would be staggering. Losing thousands of troops, two aircraft carriers, and hundreds of combat aircraft would take years, if not decades, to recover from. And it seems likely that the American public would grow disillusioned with such a brutal conflict in short order.
While all but two of the 24 gaming iterations CSIS played out ended with Taiwan’s independence, the island nation would also be crippled by the devastating battle. While China’s losses would indeed be far greater, winning this fight wouldn’t feel much like a victory for anyone.
And while there are certainly valuable strategic lessons to glean from these war games, that may be the most important one. America’s goal is not, and should not, be to win the war for Taiwan’s independence. Instead, the effort needs to be ensuring America has the capability and the capacity to win in short order, and then demonstrating it in ways that sway China toward reconsidering its unification strategy.
Because the only real way to win this conflict is to prevent it from starting.
Modified feature image courtesy of the U.S. Navy
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