China’s rising firepower casts doubt on whether the US could defend Taiwan

WASHINGTON – The massive build-up of weapons in China has raised questions about the United States’ ability to defend Taiwan should war break out, reflecting a shifting balance of power in the Pacific, where U.S. forces once dominated, say officials and American experts.

In a simulated combat in which China tries to invade Taiwan, the results are sobering and the United States often loses, said David Ochmanek, a former high-ranking Defense Department official who helps run war games for the Pentagon in the group of experts RAND Corp.

In tabletop exercises with the United States as the “blue team” taking on a China-like “red team,” the Taiwanese air force is wiped out in minutes, US air bases across the Pacific are attacked, and warships and US jets are held at bay by the long range of China’s vast missile arsenal, he said.

“Even when the Blue teams in our simulations and war games intervened in a determined way, they did not always manage to defeat the invasion,” Ochmanek said.

A war over Taiwan remains the worst-case scenario that officials say is not imminent. But China’s growing military prowess, coupled with its aggressive rhetoric, is making Taiwan a potential flash point between Beijing and Washington, and a test case for how the United States will deal with China’s superpower ambitions.

The outgoing chief of the US Army’s Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, warned senators this month that the United States is losing its military advantage over China and that Beijing may decide to attempt to take control of Taiwan by force by 2027.

“We are accumulating risks that may encourage China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces can provide an effective response,” the admiral told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions … And I think the threat manifests itself during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”

US intelligence analysts have warned for more than a decade that China’s military strength was progressing at a dramatic rate and that America’s superiority was evaporating in the Pacific, defense officials told NBC News. Only now has the message finally gotten home, with mock battles driving home the point.

“You bring in lieutenant colonels and commanders, and you put them through this war game for three or four days. They kick their ass and they have a visceral reaction,” Ochmanek said. “You can see how learning happens.”

Twenty years ago, China had no chance of successfully challenging the US military in the Taiwan Strait, and Pentagon planners could count on near-total air superiority and the ability to move aircraft carriers near Taiwan’s east coast.

But a more prosperous China has invested in new naval ships, fighter jets, cyber and space weapons, and a massive arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles designed to undermine the sea and air power of the US military.

“When you look at the number and variety of systems that China deploys, it is quite easy to deduce what their main objective is because practically everything they build can affect Taiwan. And a lot of the things they build can really only affect Taiwan,” he said. David Shlapak, a senior defense researcher at the think tank RAND Corp., who has also worked on models of war games involving China.

Each generation of Chinese missiles has “increasingly longer ranges,” said a senior defense official, and the missiles present a growing dilemma for the United States about how to penetrate the area around Taiwan, the official said.

Sowing doubts

Even if China refrains from direct military action on Taiwan, US officials and analysts worry that Beijing will eventually force Taipei to give in to constant military and economic pressure that creates the perception that the United States cannot guarantee defense. of the island.

“At some point, does China have enough military capability to push the Taiwanese into some kind of deal, where you never get into a fight, but it’s just that threat hanging over Taiwan’s head?” said the Defense official.

If China succeeds in subjugating Democrat-ruled Taiwan, it would send shockwaves through America’s network alliances and cause other democratic governments in Asia to doubt Washington’s reliability and strength, officials and experts said.

China views the autonomous island as part of its own territory and has never renounced the possible use of force to bring it under Beijing’s control. China’s political leadership sees reunification with Taiwan as a central goal, and Beijing’s actions and statements have become more assertive in recent months.

When contacted by NBC News, the Chinese embassy in Washington pointed to recent comments by Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who accused the United States of adopting a Cold War mentality and exaggerating tensions over Taiwan.

“By exploiting the Taiwan issue to exaggerate China’s military threat, some people in the United States are looking for excuses to justify increased US military spending, expansion of its military power” and interference in regional affairs, the spokesman said. .

“The United States should abandon the zero-sum mentality of the Cold War, view the development of China and the development of national defense in an objective and rational way, and do more things that lead to mutual trust between China and the United States and the regional peace and stability, “he said. .

Starting in June, China began regularly flying fighter jets and bombers through the median line in the strait between mainland China and Taiwan, and into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The flights have forced Taipei to scramble its fighter jets to intercept Chinese planes.

The Chinese military flights are part of a campaign of pressure tactics designed to wear down Taiwan’s small air force, the defense official said, adding: “From Taiwan’s perspective, there is a level of fatigue associated with this.”

Taiwan has reported a number of aviation mishaps in recent months, raising questions about whether the invasion from China was having an impact on Taiwan’s aircrews. Two Taiwanese fighter jets crashed on March 22 in the third such incident in six months.

Meanwhile, the US Navy has sent guided missile destroyers across the Taiwan Strait three times since Biden took office, and the US Air Force sent B-52 bombers to a base in Guam last month to “strengthen the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region.”

The United States is committed by law to providing Taiwan with the means to maintain its self-defense, and successive presidents have approved the sale of weapons to the island, including F-16 fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries.

But Ochmanek and other analysts argue that Taiwan, and the United States, need low-tech weapons to defend against a possible Chinese invasion, and that expensive items like fighter jets and Patriot missiles will prove useless in the event of a Chinese assault.

“They have invested a lot of money in Patriot missiles. Those Patriot missiles are going to die in the first hours of the war,” Ochmanek said. The same goes for fighter jets on the runway that are targeted by potential Chinese missile salvoes, he and other experts said.

Ochmanek argues that Taiwan should invest in mines, drones, and mobile anti-aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles that could slow down a Chinese air and amphibious invasion, providing precious time for US aid to arrive.

Although senior military officials agree that Taiwan and the US must adapt to the risks posed by China, it is unclear whether Congress or the Pentagon would be willing to stop buying more fighter jets or other expensive hardware to release. money for alternative weapons. .

“We are well aware of the threat posed by China’s military build-up, as well as its aggressive behavior around Taiwan,” said a spokesman for the Taiwan mission in Washington, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States. .

“These actions threaten peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and are part of a broader pattern of Chinese attempts to intimidate countries in the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.

“Taiwan has increased our defense spending in line with these challenges,” the spokesperson said, and the island has plans to boost investments in “asymmetric capabilities.”

Dongfeng-17 missiles on display at a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, on October 1, 2019.Pan Yulong / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images Archive

US military officials in the Pacific say the Pentagon needs to move more weapons and resources to Asia and transform its mindset to take on China. Without a change in US weapons and tactics, the US military could find itself at a disadvantage in Taiwan and throughout the Pacific, potentially undermining the confidence of allies and partners who see Washington as a counterweight to China, Defense officials said. .

“If we don’t make changes in posture, then absolutely, you will find a future where we will simply be outmatched,” said a second defense official.

“You can’t just maintain the same static line of forces that we have currently assigned, particularly west of the International Date Line. That won’t work.”

The Pentagon declined to comment.

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