Hedging with Humility: Reassessing China’s Power Projection Capabilities Against Taiwan – War on the Rocks

“Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us. If Higgins had not designed and built those [landing craft] we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
-President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a 1964 interview

The Marine Corps tested the first Higgins boat with a bow ramp in June 1941, only 14 months before amphibious landings in Guadalcanal and only 24 months before Sicily. American industry churned out over 20,000 of these boats that Dwight D. Eisenhower singled out as decisive.

Today, China enjoys a similar position of latent industrial strength as it contemplates a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan, but many observers fixate instead on the seeming insufficiency of China’s existing military fleet for an amphibious assault. We offer a broader analysis of how China’s industrial base and civilian fleet might catalyze other operational approaches and timelines for taking Taiwan by rapidly erasing these supposed deficits in lift and firepower. With U.S. intervention, Taiwan can be defended and China can be deterred through this decade and beyond, but China’s capabilities should first be seen holistically for what they are and appreciated for what they can soon become.

The Ways of Conquest

Forecasting China’s power projection capabilities against Taiwan is contentious, to say the least. Michael Pietrucha juxtaposes an amphibious assault on Taiwan with the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, arguing from this historical benchmark that the People’s Liberation Army would fail for lack of experience, competence, amphibious lift, port access, and naval gunfire support. Using the invasion of Sicily as a case study for the invasion of Taiwan ignores valuable lessons from other historical examples, but these lessons are not lost on China. People’s Liberation Army Air Force doctrinal writings cite Operation Starvation, the U.S. military’s strategic mining campaign that anticipated the invasion of Japan, and hint at how a similar strategy could work against Taiwan. The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military power presents many scenarios, including a blockade, and we examine how a strategy with a slightly longer timeline that first incorporates these other options could plausibly lead to Taiwan’s downfall.

Taiwan imports all of its energy and most of its food through vulnerable maritime supply lines, which a Chinese blockade, or “quarantine,” could quickly strangle. This campaign might start with harassment and then build to live-fire military exercises in shipping lanes, like a persistent version of China’s response to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit. China could escalate to interdicting ships with its substantial Coast Guard, mining the approaches to Taiwan’s ports, attacking blockade runners with its large submarine fleet, and conducting an air blockade campaign to completely isolate the island.

After eroding Taiwan’s defenses over the course of a blockade while trying to avoid wider escalation, China could suddenly launch its best imitation of Operation Desert Storm’s air campaign to gain local air superiority. Joint air and amphibious assaults could then gain strategic terrain, along with valuable combat experience, by taking the many operationally significant islands around Taiwan in sequence. The island bases themselves would then help reinforce the blockade, defeat external interventions, and support the subsequent invasion. They would also be extremely difficult to recapture.

Counter-Invasion Intervention

No analysis of China’s invasion threat would be complete without addressing the likelihood and impact of external intervention. The vignette above portrays China as preparing Taiwan for invasion through blockade while also trying to avoid a timely coalition response. Given ambiguous public sentiment, we assume that the United States would first attempt to deescalate such a blockade through diplomacy while solidifying its coalition, rather than firing the first shot. However, China must eventually launch an amphibious assault because blockades are not decisive. We assume that the United States would only go to war with China some days or weeks after direct attacks on Taiwan or immediately after attacks on U.S. forces — though the latter would also pull America’s extensive network of treaty allies towards war. In any case, external military intervention would likely hazard an invasion attempt.

Coalition forces would concentrate their attacks on the invasion fleet and its logistical support. Unclassified wargames conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, games which one of us joined, strongly suggest that both sides would suffer heavy losses over the first four weeks. In the games, China’s surface fleet frequently lost about 150 ships to a combination of Taiwan’s anti-ship missiles, U.S. submarines, and stand-off weapons deployed from U.S. bombers and Japan-based aircraft.

Even with these losses, Chinese forces were always able to establish a lodgment. In one wargame iteration, they were able to land “more than 30 battalions” in less than three weeks. Mark Cancian, a senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that “[t]he attrition of [China’s] amphibious fleet limits the forces they can deploy and sustain. In a few instances, the Chinese were able to hold part of the island but not conquer Taipei or the entire island.” Meanwhile, the United States might lose a carrier, an expeditionary strike group, and half of the U.S. fighter inventory in the span of weeks.

It should be noted that these results come from defense scenarios that range from neutral to favoring Taiwan. The wargame’s remaining rounds have proposed even more challenging but still plausible scenarios, including delayed U.S. support, Japanese neutrality, and Chinese forces that enjoy a variety of advantages. Any of these changes might prove decisive during the game’s limited duration, but a longer war might defy all reasonable prediction, as Russia’s war against Ukraine has shown.

Pietrucha conjures China’s rapid failure with almost deterministic certainty while only implicitly hinting at an intervention. In contrast, the games suggest that the United States could deny China’s objectives over the war’s opening four weeks at an extreme cost, but also that China’s growing capabilities are on the cusp of establishing and even sustaining a lodgment on Taiwan. It might be a near-run thing. In correspondence with the authors, Matt Cancian, one of the game’s designers, agreed that “the PLA would probably be able to take Taiwan in the absence of U.S. intervention.” Consequently, analysts should reexamine underlying assumptions about China’s capabilities for industrial base, lift, and fires — and how they could be checked.

Time as Industrial Maneuver Space

Recognizing the importance of amphibious lift and foreseeable attrition, China would likely accelerate its build-up prior to the blockade or surge during the war. The American maritime industrial experience in World War II is instructive.

The U.S. Navy did not have any amphibious ships in commission on Dec. 7, 1941. Only 19 months later, it had enough amphibious shipping to invade Sicily after having already conducted major amphibious assaults against Guadalcanal and North Africa. The U.S. Navy had over 2,500 amphibious ships by the end of the war, only 45 months after Pearl Harbor.

Even though the United States lacked amphibious forces in 1941, contemporary German and Japanese analysts would have been mistaken to discount the future threat of invasion. Pietrucha’s fixation on China’s unlikely invasion of Taiwan today is similarly flawed because it fixates on the military fleet but ignores industrial capacity. The armada for a major amphibious assault, like that against Sicily or Taiwan, is built for the occasion and scrapped shortly thereafter, not maintained in readiness for decades. China is the world’s largest builder of seagoing vessels, having produced over 26 million tons of civilian shipping in 2021. By comparison, the American assault force directed against Sicily, which Pietrucha uses as a benchmark, only had a “combined tonnage of around 780,000 tons.” China is also the world’s second largest arms producer. Like the United States before World War II, China has a large but latent industrial base that could quickly produce what its military needs at scale and speed. Moreover, America’s amphibious challenge in World War II was global, whereas China’s is relatively local. China already has 57 major military amphibious ships and a significant civilian fleet, which we discuss below. The additional production from Chinese shipyards in 19 months, or in more than 50 months, would likely be more than enough to invade an island only 100 nautical miles away despite the attrition anticipated by wargames.

Just like so many amphibious ships in World War II, many of China’s new ships would burn and sink, going from raw steel to charred hulks in under a year, but ships are only a means to an end.

Defining Lift

Inadvisable never meant impossible: China’s political leadership could demand an amphibious assault against Taiwan for any number of reasons, forcing the Chinese military to attack with the forces of today and without the operational benefits of a blockade or island bases. In this challenging but less likely scenario, China’s combined lift capacity, including civilian vessels, could plausibly land enough forces to seize a lodgment, as anticipated by recent wargames, but could easily fail against stiff resistance and its own internal friction.

Taiwan’s geography, meteorology, and hydrography significantly impact the lift required for an amphibious assault. The island is naturally well-suited for defense, having only 14 suitable landing sites, each one defended in depth. After the beach, Taiwan’s mix of urban terrain, marshy rice paddies, and mountains would inhibit rapid mechanized mobility, albeit for all sides, while favoring both regular and irregular defenders. Assuming that Taiwan’s defenses could be sufficiently suppressed to execute an amphibious assault, does China have enough lift to even establish a lodgment?

Yes and no. It all depends on the definition of “lift.”

Several reports from the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute focus on this question. Its report on the People’s Liberation Army amphibious forces notes that “despite efforts to bolster [its] amphibious capabilities, the force currently lacks the capacity to execute a large-scale assault on Taiwan,” appearing to settle the question. Pietrucha highlights this limitation in military amphibious forces and describes that the People’s Liberation Army as an unprofessional and inexperienced force that “still struggles with joint operations.” On this basis, he discounts the rest of China’s civil-military maritime forces as disjointed and therefore irrelevant. The fragile linchpin of this argument is that China cannot integrate joint and civilian forces into a landing operation.

However, the same report on amphibious forces goes on to describe the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army as seeking:

[t]o shift the decisive phase of a joint island landing campaign from a traditional over-the-beach amphibious assault followed by a mechanized ground movement inland to a series of airborne (parachute) or airmobile (helicopter) assault operations to seize ports of entry on the coast, airfields, and other key terrain/objectives closer to the center of gravity of Taiwan’s defenses to allow for the rapid insertion of second-echelon follow-on forces by sea and air.

Other reports in the series describe additional forces, including special operations forces, airborne forces, and airmobile forces, that are likely to be employed in seizing critical ports.

Pietrucha cites the entire series to claim that “China lacks the capability and the capacity to handle a full-scale invasion against a defended island country.” A report in this series released on the same day of Pietrucha’s article describes “civilian shipping and maritime militia” as the “The Logistics Backbone of a Taiwan Invasion.” This newer report uses extensive Chinese sources to show that these civilian ships and maritime are “a central feature” of the Chinese military’s plan rather than a “stopgap measure.”

Chinese military writings describe their large and multifaceted militia force as playing many roles in an invasion: at-sea support, medical support, engineering support (e.g., port repair), reconnaissance, deception, helicopter relay platforms, assault landing phase participants, and over-the-shore logistical support. These last three roles are most salient for initial amphibious lift.

Large merchant ships could serve as “lily pads,” allowing helicopters to refuel and rearm as they shuttle airmobile troops ashore and provide close air support. Although civilian semi-submersible ships have typically served this role during exercises, many other large vessels could be retrofitted with aviation facilities, following the model of the Atlantic Causeway and M/V Astronomer during the Falklands War. China’s fleet of civilian semi-submersible heavy lift ships also might supplement their military counterparts in deploying amphibious vehicles and hovercraft during the assault phase.

Pietrucha calls China’s civilian fleet “next to useless in an assault phase” even though China’s civilian ferries frequently deployed assault boats and amphibious fighting vehicles at sea during military exercises. This capability is no accident: China built its “first civilian [roll-on/roll-off] ship … to military specifications in 1997” and has since promulgated guidance for vessel conversion to military specification, such as retrofitting strengthened ramps to allow the deployment and recovery of amphibious armored vehicles at sea. Even so, only a fraction of invasion forces could be flown, be carried, or swim ashore. Many more would drive over deployable floating causeways. China’s shipyards could replicate these sectional barges at scale and speed, which would allow China’s substantial civilian ferry fleet to offload forces to the beach. These forces would then try to secure more port facilities for sustainment. The report on civilian shipping and maritime militia concludes that “if first echelon forces succeed at [capturing enough ports and keeping them open], the rest of the operation has a reasonable chance of success.” In the recent wargames cited above, game developers Matt Cancian and Eric Heginbotham specifically incorporated civilian maritime lift units into each Chinese amphibious task group unit for the hypothetical invasion, including in the assault phase.

The latest report in the series, on invasion logistics, is more circumspect for China’s near-term prospects and echoes the preliminary results of the abovementioned wargames: “[I]t is likely the PLA does not currently possess the requisite logistics capabilities to successfully support a large-scale amphibious landing on Taiwan and a possible protracted conflict involving the United States and allies.” That said, the report draws heavily from a 2017 PLA book on invasion logistics, meaning the PLA has identified and at least started to remedy these deficiencies. It also notes that “problem areas might be resolved with several years of sustained effort and complex training.” Failure is not fated.

The Pentagon’s annual China report echoes these reports’ sober capability assessments but with a broader perspective, underscoring that “an attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain [the] PRC’s armed forces” and calling “an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party.” An invasion attempt in the next few years would be incredibly risky and difficult for China, likely ending in failure, but it would not be impossible — especially in the absence of a timely intervention. However, China’s rapid gains in recent years suggest that the odds are tilting towards them.

More Than Gunfire

Just as amphibious shipping is not the only way to land forces, naval artillery is not the only way to provide fire support. Advances in weapons technology in the 79 years since the invasion of Sicily have simultaneously increased the vulnerability of ships providing naval gunfire support and created potent alternatives.

Shortly after supporting the invasion of Sicily, the USS Savannah became one of the first combat casualties of a precision-guided weapon while supporting forces near Salerno. Naval gunfire support tethers a ship to a hostile shore — often within visual range — and increases its vulnerability to enemy fires. The high volume of fires provided by tube artillery is offset by its shorter range, especially when compared to rocket and missile systems.

Large, fast, and expensive cruisers like the Savannah were primarily designed to fight other warships, not support landings. So when the war’s accelerating tempo of amphibious operations demanded more fire support, the cruiser fleet stagnated relative to the amphibious fleet’s explosive growth. Instead, the Navy created several classes of more affordable rocket shore bombardment ships, along with escort carriers that deployed strike aircraft for close air support. Naval gunfire seemed critical in Sicily because the only “aircraft carrier” was a converted tank landing ship that only launched spotting planes, leading “ground commanders [to complain] about the lack of close air support.”

In contrast, the Battle of Okinawa saw naval guns, naval rockets, and close air support combined to terrifying effect. Rocket bombardment ships fired 33,000 rockets in just three hours of pre-landing fires. Throughout the three-month battle, surface ships fired almost 300,000 shells of 5-inch or larger, and aircraft delivered 8,500 tons of bombs and 50,000 rockets. Japan replied with 1,900 kamikaze attacks. The U.S. Navy suffered 36 ships sunk, hundreds more damaged, and 4,900 sailors killed in the war’s final battle, underscoring the vulnerability of ships in the littorals to precision guided munitions.

These searing combat experiences and the recent proliferation of anti-ship missiles informed the Marine Corps’ 2002 requirement for naval fire support from 97 nautical miles, but tube artillery fell short of this ambitious target. This trend points to a global future for naval fire support in which tube artillery plays a limited role and aircraft, missiles, rockets, and loitering munitions take up the slack.

China’s Approaches to Fire Support

Today, militaries provide fire support in dramatically different ways than they did in the early 1940s.  Nevertheless, Pietrucha only focuses on China’s dearth of naval guns, perhaps under the rationale that China’s incompetence in joint operations would negate the rest of its extensive strike arsenal. Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies reached a less dismissive conclusion in its 2022 report, assessing that the People’s Liberation Army’s reforms over the past decade “succeeded in deepening its joint operations.” Consequently, the supporting role of China’s other fires within a joint landing campaign deserves consideration.

With the present caveat that the People’s Liberation Army’s aerospace forces have become notably more capable in the past decade, a 2011 RAND monograph describes the opening role for China’s air and rocket forces in a joint landing campaign:

Airfields, ground-based air defense sites, radar installations, and command-and-control facilities would be high on the list of targets attacked by the initial ballistic missile barrage. As the missile attacks drew down Taiwan’s air defenses, it is likely that PLA fighters would move forward into offensive counter-air (OCA) [combat air patrols] over the Taiwan Strait. Once these were established, they would likely be followed by integrated strike packages operating at low altitude against surviving Taiwanese air bases, air defense sites, and other high-value targets.

After the first strikes, China could grind down Taiwan’s air defenses through sheer attrition. China could exhaust Taiwan’s finite missile stockpiles with swarming attacks while striking arms factories in Taiwan and interdicting reloads by sea and air. Absent such deliberate tactics, high-intensity warfare has a perennially voracious appetite for munitions. China could surge production of weapons systems and munitions before and during the operation. Yet even today, the People’s Liberation Army has the means to attack nearly anywhere in Taiwan at scale, using hundreds to thousands of bombers, attack aircraft, missiles, rockets, and loitering munitions. The limited capacity of short-range naval gunfire support should not be confused with a joint incapacity to provide comprehensive fire support.

China would not need complete air supremacy before conducting a joint landing operation and gaining a lodgment. As in the Falklands, local air superiority would be sufficient, allowing China’s recently improved close air support capabilities to help suppress local defenses during a joint landing campaign. Many of Taiwan’s mobile air defense systems, especially man-portable air defense systems, would continue to destroy aircraft and especially helicopters throughout the operation, mirroring American experiences in Iraq. This “good enough” level of air superiority would allow manned and unmanned aircraft to employ numerous munitions against Taiwan’s anti-invasion defenses while sustaining an acceptable but significant level of attrition.

Recent combat experiences and Marine experimentation underscore the value of loitering munitions in both attack and defense. When defending against a hypothetical adversary that possessed loitering munitions, entire Marine platoons were eliminated. China’s growing arsenal of loitering munitions could supplant naval artillery against armor, vehicles, artillery, bunkers, missile systems, and other point targets from a distance.

Precision munitions work best against discrete and localized targets. They are not a panacea. Massed fires dominate precision fires for effects such as reconnaissance by fire, suppression of area targets, illumination, and smoke/concealment. Naval rocket artillery, similar to China’s experimental shore bombardment frigate, can supplant naval tube artillery for these missions. A vessel combining the deliberate precision of a sea-launched loitering munition system with the deep magazines of rocket bombardment ships would allow China to support an invasion despite its dearth of naval guns. China has many vessels it can retrofit for launching swarms of loitering munitions or rocket barrages, though it can also construct bespoke drone carriers.

Defusing Explosive Conclusions

Given the stakes and growing tensions, every aspect of a Taiwan contingency deserves close examination. Pietrucha gives a clear thesis, ripe for debate: “[T]he People’s Liberation Army lacks the necessary power projection and sustainment capability and capacity to execute an opposed occupation of a densely urbanized island packed with citizens who have no interest in living under Communist rule.” However, it cannot be proven one way or the other by comparing military amphibious shipping and naval gunfire with the invasion of Sicily.

The thesis could nevertheless encourage dangerous over-confidence: If the People’s Liberation Army has no chance of taking Taiwan, then why double down on its defense? An equal error in the opposite direction, however, is only as expensive as unused insurance. Concerned allies and partners should therefore hedge towards deterrence by denial. Initial operational failure would likely compel President Xi to go all in, not quit. Good execution at the start of a war is nice, but the capacity to simply keep going and learn from failure is necessary for eventual victory. China has the manpower and industrial capacity to start with an imperfect operation, amphibious or otherwise, and possibly muddle through to victory.

In closing, Pietrucha finally hedges on the inevitability of China’s failure: “The defense of Taiwan is not a burden the Republic of China need shoulder alone, and an expanded, overt, American advisory effort might well provide both an improved deterrent and a much more lethal defense, should deterrence fail.” To end a rebuttal with concord, this is a position with which we heartily agree.

Collin Fox is a U.S. Navy foreign area officer. He has participated in BALTOPS and BOLD ALLIGATOR live amphibious exercises as a staff operations and plans officer and is a graduate of the Chilean Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School. He has written for War on the Rocks, Proceedings, the War Room, and CIMSEC, where he is a senior editor.

Trevor Phillips-Levine is a U.S. naval aviator and most recently completed a deployment in Indo-Pacific Command. As a merchant marine cadet, he visited numerous ports in Taiwan and China. He is currently assigned to the Naval Aviation Warfare Development Center, where he is part of the integrated air wing training team.

Kyle Cregge is a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer who has served as a naval surface fire support gunnery liaison officer and strike group air defense planner and has conducted numerous expeditionary strike force exercises in the U.S. Seventh Fleet. He recently completed a Master of Public Policy degree at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Tarleton

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