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Video Above: Could the U.S. Stop China from Invading Taiwan?

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Should China launch an amphibious assault to take over Taiwan, many might wonder about what kinds of military options the US and its allies might have? Is it at all realistic to think a large-scale attack of this kind could be stopped, with Taiwan being only 100 miles or so from the Chinese coastline?

Certainly the question could inspire endless speculation, wargaming and force analysis, and it is likely a topic thoroughly entertained at the Pentagon on a regular basis. 

There are many nuances to this, such as the proximity and response time of US Navy surface and undersea weapons, an ability to discern any kind of advanced warning or observe Chinese preparations from satellites and drones and, perhaps most significantly, the question of whether China could establish air superiority to enough of a degree to succeed? If it captured Taiwan, could it hold the island without air superiority?

US and allied air dominance, should assets be positioned to respond in time to a Chinese attack, might offer the best chance to stop or destroy a Chinese aerial and ship-to-shore assault on Taiwan.

While there is a case to be made for how US Navy undersea assets could, depending upon location, succeed in destroying a Chinese maritime advance given the sophistication and potential superiority of US Navy submarines, what about air power?

South Korean, Japanese and Australian F-35s

South Korean, Japanese and Australian F-35s, supported by US Navy carrier launched F-35Cs and F-35Bs just might offer the margin of difference sufficient to prevail against a Chinese amphibious assault. Why? At least thus far, China does not appear to operate a large number of J-20s, according to multiple news reports. The Chinese carrier-launched J-31 5th generation stealth aircraft has not yet deployed and it is clear that Chinese J-10s, J-15s and other legacy fighters are unlikely to rival or match US and allied F-35s. 

Related Video Above: Comparing U.S. 5th Generation Fighter Jets, F-35 & F-22 to China's Fighter Jets, Including the J-20

This means China would be unlikely to have an ability to conduct an amphibious assault with established air support, a circumstance which would undoubtedly put the entire operation at great risk of being destroyed from the air by US, Japanese and South Korean F-35s.

The success of a US and allied 5th-generation counterattack against an attempted Chinese takeover of Taiwan would it seems primarily rely upon range, proximity and availability. This is likely one reason why the Navy so often “forward operates” in the Pacific theater with Carrier Strike Groups and Amphibious Ready Groups. 

A single America-class amphib, for example, can travel with as many as 15 F-35Bs in support of carriers themselves likely to carry an even greater number of F-35Cs. Should there be any kind of warning or credible intelligence that an attack might be imminent, the US Navy would be certain to preposition assets within several hundred miles of Taiwan and therefore be in position to intervene. The likelihood that China would be in position to truly challenge a networked contingent of US and allied F-35s in the air above its amphibious assault seems extremely slim.

F-35B

An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).

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Proximity and range would also factor greatly with the possibility that Japan or South Korea might be in position to launch their own F-35s. South Korea is roughly 800 miles from Taiwan and Japan can be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 miles depending upon take-off point. Given this, it would not seem surprising if Japan were to base some of its arriving F-35s on or near its Southern Islands. 

Land-launched F-35s from South Korea or Japan might need aerial refueling support in the form of a tanker in order to truly reach and operate near Taiwan, yet such a prospect is entirely feasible. Should proximity, reach, refueling, advanced warning, timing and collective US, Japanese and South Korean forward presence enable rapid response time, Chinese prospects for success with an amphibious takeover of Taiwan would be destined to experience a catastrophic collision with US and allied F-35s. There does not seem to be anway an attack Chinese Naval force could survive F-35 attacks.

South Korea’s choice to acquire the F-35 certainly makes clear sense when it comes to offering a visible deterrent to any kind of Chinese aggression in the Pacific theater to include not only an incursion into South Korea itself but a potential Taiwan takeover. 

F-35 Japan

F-35 Japan

The US alliance with South Korea is both long-established and very strong, so it seems likely South Korea would be inclined to respond quickly in the event of large-scale conflict with China. This would be crucial when it comes to the prospect of intercepting and destroying any kind of Chinese amphibious or air attack against Taiwan or even Japan. Another key dimension to this is that, according to Global Firepower 2021 military rankings, South Korea operates as many as several million reserve troops, meaning should its F-35s be able to slow down, weaken or stop an attack on Taiwan or Japan, it would be positioned to reinforce its presence with a sizeable ground Army.

The merits and potential impact of South Korean F-35s seem as impactful as they are self-evident. In recent years, South Korean F-35s have conducted theater sustainment package deterrence patrols with US F-35 and offer a land-base from which F-35As could take off in the event that there were not enough US Navy F-35-armed ships within striking distance of an attack.

An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).

An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).

Alongside the many clear reasons why South Korean F-35s could be extremely vital when it comes to a China-deterrence posture, there is yet another pressing reason why South Korea greatly benefits from the F-35. ….North Korea.

Of course South Korea has US Army support and a large standing Army itself, yet North Korea is known to have a very large Army as well. Therefore, while the presence of a countervailing ground force certainly contributes to a South Korean deterrence posture, air supremacy enabled by F-35s could prove decisive. Simply, should North Korea think it might be likely to prevail in any kind of ground invasion across the DMZ into South Korea, a clear presence of armed and capable South Korean F-35s could succeed in preventing an invasion. 

An invading North Korean force, perhaps even a larger or superior one, could quickly and easily be destroyed by F-35s, and the North Koreans are not in any way known to possess a 5th-generation aircraft or anything equivalent. 

Targeting North Korean launchers is yet another impactful way South Korean F-35s could have a decisive impact. With an ability to establish air supremacy over North Korea, South Korean F-35s could draw upon the aircraft sensors, data processing and ISR technology to locate and destroy North Korean ballistic missile launchers. This kind of possibility is extremely significant as North Korea is known to operate a very high number of ballistic missiles and likely uses mobile launchers.

A photograph released by the North Korean state media on Saturday shows a missile test in North Pyongan Province.Credit...Korean Central News Agency via KNS, via Associated Press

A photograph released by the North Korean state media on Saturday shows a missile test in North Pyongan Province.Credit...Korean Central News Agency via KNS, via Associated Press

The advantages associated with South Korean F-35s are compounded or increased by Japan’s multibillion dollar F-35 buy as it enables networking, allied connectivity and the possibility of joint warfare operations. Also, being a peninsula, South Korea could use land-launched F-35s to support maritime operations in the Pacific region in and around Japan.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization