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Video Above: Does the U.S. Have an Appetite for a Military Conflict with China?

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

Dual-carrier operations, dispersed groups of heavily armed, semi-stealthy attack submarines, F-35B-armed amphibs, surveillance drones, Tomahawk equipped destroyers and a massive, lethal Carrier Air Wing … are US Navy capabilities potentially capable of stopping a Chinese attack on Taiwan, or preventing one from every happening through a visible, robust deterrence posture

A quick look at force structures, basing and geography in the Pacific certainly seem to suggest that U.S. and allied Naval power would of course be crucial to stopping any kind of Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Although much is made of the fact that China now operates a larger Navy than the U.S., there are several key factors to consider.

The first and most obvious is certainly a question of timing and location. U.S. INDOPACIFIC Command operates as many as five aircraft carriers and more than 1,100 sea-launched aircraft. How fast could they respond? Will they be in position in time? This would hinge upon forward operations, overhead surveillance from drones and satellites and things like the U.S. Navy’s operating presence in the region.

The Ronald Reagan Strike Group ship's the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54) and the guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69) conduct a photo exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship's the helicopter destroyer JS Kaga (DDH 184), the destroyer JS Inazuma (DD 105) and the destroyer JS Suzutsuki (DD 117) in the South China Sea August 31, 2018. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erwin Jacob V. Miciano/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

The Ronald Reagan Strike Group ship's the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54) and the guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69) conduct a photo exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship's the helicopter destroyer JS Kaga (DDH 184), the destroyer JS Inazuma (DD 105) and the destroyer JS Suzutsuki (DD 117) in the South China Sea August 31, 2018. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erwin Jacob V. Miciano/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

There is likely a reason why the U.S. Navy and U.S. Pacific Fleet have on several occasions conducted dual-carrier operations in the Pacific theater, as an ability to potentially project dominant air power from closer-in ranges at sea could be decisive. Should an initial incoming salvo of ballistic missiles be blunted or stopped by Taiwanese air defenses, radar systems and interceptors such as Patriot missile batteries, then air and sea-launched Air Forces might have time to stop a Chinese amphibious assault, provided carriers were close enough. Speed would be the deciding factor, it seems clear, given that Taiwan is only 100 miles from the Chinese coast. Chinese Naval forces, however, would need to be staged, prepared and assembled prior to any attack, something easily noticeable by U.S. and allied sensors, satellites, surveillance drones and other sources. This might give U.S. and allied forces an opportunity to “race” counterattack forces into position.

Achieving sea-launched air superiority in the air above a Chinese amphibious approach, does seem realistic for the U.S. for a number of reasons, provided of course U.S. and allied carriers, ships and aircraft were close enough to respond in time. China is now known to operate a number of 5th generation J-20 stealth fighters, yet they must launch from land and might be seen in time. 

Amphibious assault ship USS America 

Amphibious assault ship USS America 

China is also developing a 5th-generation J-31 carrier-launched 5th-generation aircraft variant, yet it may be a long way from being operational in impactful numbers. The U,S. and its allies are likely to have access to a much larger force of 5th-generation fighters, given that U,S. carriers and amphibious assault ships can load up and operate with large numbers of F35s. The USS America, for example, is an amphibious assault ship known for sailing missions with as many as 13 F-35Bs on board. This U.S. advantage is compounded by the fact that China does not appear to have a vertical take-off 5th-generation option, if even a ready ocean-launched 5th-gen fighter.

Therefore, the best hope for a timely response to a Chinese assault would likely come from the ocean, an apparent circumstance likely well known by the Pentagon which has been evolving its Pacific Pivot for many years now and does forward position a large number of assets in the region. However, that still does not mean they are in any way close enough to get to Taiwan in time, unless of course surveillance technology or intelligence was such that the U.S. could pre-position or place Naval assets in proper proximity.

Attack Submarines Could Save Taiwan

Surface ships are of course visible to an enemy from miles away, most drones and aircraft are also easily detectable and certainly ground-based weapons such as missile launchers and interceptors can largely be seen by satellite. This means any prepositioned assets put in place to deter or stop a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan are likely to be seen or known by attacking People's Liberation Army forces. But what about submarines? When considering these variables, it seems reasonable to entertain the thought that submarines and the realm of the undersea might be the best way for the U.S. and its allies to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Ship and land-based sensors are now advanced to the point that it will be very difficult to position warships or even operate certain aircraft within striking distance of Taiwan which are not pretty easily seen by Chinese forces. Therefore, China might be inclined to attempt a surprise attack when U.S. carriers and other visible assets are not within range. This, however, is where submarines and undersea drones come in.

Newer quieting technologies, coupled with the rapid acquisition of undersea drones and improved torpedoes make attacks from the sea more likely to favor success. Should enough attack submarines and sub-launched undersea drones be operating in the vicinity, they would quite possibly be much less detectable and in position to attack and destroy advancing Chinese amphibious forces. Part of this equation is fortified by recent U.S. Navy advances in attack submarine technology are able to not only make them less detectable to sonar and other methods of detection, but also armed with longer-range, more precise weapons systems. 

A synthetically guided Tomahawk cruise missile successfully hits a moving maritime target

A synthetically guided Tomahawk cruise missile successfully hits a moving maritime target

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Maritime variant tactical Tomahawks, for example, are able to change course in flight and destroy moving targets, placing them in a position to attack surface ships on the move. The Navy is also developing its Very Lightweight Torpedo weapon which expands attack envelope possibilities. Block II Virginia-class and subsequent model attack submarines are now equipped with newer kinds of underwater antennas or communications devices, engine quieting enhancements and special kinds of coating materials intended to make them less detectable. While details regarding what these look like are unavailable for security reasons, Navy leaders talked about these advances years ago when the USS South Dakota Virginia-class Block III submarine emerged as a prototype. The South Dakota, and other submarines with similar innovations, are now operational. This might be one reason why the concepts for operation for attack submarines have evolved a little to include more undersea surveillance.

Block III Virginias also use “fly-by-wire” automated navigational controls, fiber optic cables and more advanced Large Aperture Bow sonar systems. Attack submarines, and drones they can launch from the torpedo tubes, could likely operate along high-risk island and coastal areas conducting clandestine surveillance missions while being much less detectable than a surface ship or some aerial drones. Furthermore, the U.S. Navy is making rapid progress with a growing fleet of small, mid-sized and very large, submarine sized unmanned undersea drones. These platforms have very long endurance and can dwell, or lurk beneath the sea for weeks tracking enemy surface ships, submarines and mines. In the future, it seems possible some of them could be armed with weapons, providing undersea command and control technology evolves to the point wherein humans can remain fully “in the loop” regarding the use of lethal force. While undersea drones can already find and explode mines “autonomously” while undersea, any actual lethal firing of a torpedo would naturally need to be managed by a human, per Pentagon doctrine.

As for the force itself, this may be one reason why the U.S. and Navy continue to greatly uptick, accelerate and fast-track larger amounts of new submarines. An attack submarine “deficit” concern has been on the radar for many years now, and Congress and the Navy now plan to build as many as 3 Virginia-class attack submarines per year as opposed to two. Are there enough submarines to potential rise to this challenge? Global Firepower says China operates as many as 79 submarines, compared to the U.S.’ 69. This is yet another reason why many in the U.S. continue to call for an even more accelerated pace of submarine acquisition. However, U.S. allies have submarines as well, and should attack submarines be so difficult to find, then having slightly fewer numbers would not impair mission effectiveness to a large degree. Global Firepower lists South Korea as operating 22 submarines and Japan is cited as having 20. These boats, in conjunction with U.S. Navy attack submarines, might indeed be well-positioned to stop the Chinese Navy, given their weapons ability and stealthy characteristics.

What if China Actually Occupied Taiwan?

Should large portions of China’s 2-million strong land Army and 35,000 armored vehicles succeed in landing on and “occupying” Taiwan, what options might there be for the U.S. and its Pacific allies?

The principle impediment to a successful rapid counterattack may simply be a sheer question of geography. South Korea operates roughly 2.6 thousand tanks, Japan maintains a fleet of roughly 1,000 tanks and Taiwan itself is listed by Global Firepower as having 1,160 tanks.

However, should China land large numbers of its three-thousand-strong tank force and 1,970 self-propelled Howitzers, could any kind of countervailing ground response force get there in time? A quick look might suggest no.

Southern Japan and South Korea are, depending upon where ships depart, somewhere between 500 and 1,000-miles away. While this would possibly put Taiwan in range of tanker-refueled or sea-launched fighter jets and some long-range missiles, a heavily armored force is extremely difficult to deploy and would need to be pre-positioned.

This simple, yet clear circumstance may explain why there have been so many reports about Taiwan’s acquisition of Abrams tanks.

Could there be enough mechanized, armored resistance sufficient enough to slow-down a Chinese incursion long enough to enable allied forces such as Japan, South Korea and forward-placed U.S. forces to respond? Does not appear too likely, unless the U.S. and its allies took a measured and potentially highly controversial step to “pre-position” a large-scale armored force prior to any invasion. As contentious as that would be, could it work as a deterrent?

Training and readiness may also be a huge factor for Taiwan, as Global Firepower states the island nation has as many as 1.6 million reserves. Korea is listed as operating an extremely large reserve force of 3.1 million reserve forces. While likely prepared for a North Korean contingency across the DMZ, these forces could certainly have an impact should Taiwan need to be liberated. How trained, equipped and ready would these forces be?

Do they have weapons, equipment and training? Most of all, how fast can they get there? Australian land forces would not only be extremely far away but also quite small in numbers, as Global Firepower cites the country as operating only 60,000 active duty soldiers

How do U.S. numbers stack up? The United States INDO-PACIFC Command website says U.S. Army Pacific has approximately 106,000 personnel in theater, from one Corps and two divisions. The U.S. does operate a large number of bases in Japan and of course has troops in South Korea, but would that be even close to enough if facing a Chinese land-army cited as operating 2.1 -million soldiers?

U.S. Army Pacific also has over 300 aircraft and five watercraft assigned throughout the AOR from Japan and Korea to Alaska and Hawaii, the command said in a statement.

Extracting an entrenched Chinese Army from Taiwan would not be a small task. A look at a combined U.S., Japanese and South Korean land forces seem to suggest that, at very least, defeating China on the ground in Taiwan is “realistic,” if not even likely. A combined U.S., Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean land force, however, should it operate with air superiority, might be well-positioned to ultimately prevail. The question for many, it seems clear, would be ..”at what cost.”

Victory, and air superiority, would almost certainly rely upon the U.S. Pacific Fleet from the ocean, as INDOPACOM says the command operates 200 ships to include five aircraft carrier strike groups and as many as 1,100 aircraft. These maritime operated aircraft could ultimately be a deciding factor in stopping a Chinese amphibious assault and establishing air superiority to support a ground counterattack.

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. 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