Editor’s Note: The Mad Scientist Laboratory is excited to feature today’s post by returning guest blogger Mr. Ian Sullivan, who converges the power of wargaming with narrative to compellingly imagine the unthinkable — China defeating the US in large scale combat operations! Over the past 30+ years, U.S. battlefield dominance has been sustained by three heretofore unchallenged pillars: 1) We have the best equipped Army in the world; 2) We have the best trained Soldiers and the most dynamic leaders; and 3) Our ability to conduct maneuver warfare is unmatched. But will our battlefield acumen even matter when engaging an adversary who enjoys the advantage of time and space, possesses significant A2/AD and cyber capabilities that can disrupt our homeland and the timely flow of Soldiers and materiel to the fight, and whom has “stolen a leaf from our playbook” and comprehensively modernized their military forces across the DOTMLPF-P capabilities spectrum? — Read on!]
A Taiwan contingency presents an array of challenges to the US Joint Force. The most obvious deals with time and distance. The Taiwan Strait is about 80 miles wide. Although a formidable obstacle to cross, time and distance factors clearly favor China, as the distance between California and Taiwan is over 6,000 miles. Furthermore, although the United States maintains a strong presence in the Indo-Pacific Theater, they clearly would be at a numerical disadvantage if the PLA decided to initiate an invasion. Finally, the PLA’s significant Area Denial/Anti-Access (A2/AD) capabilities mean that any effort to move a US force across the Pacific will be contested, possibly from CONUS itself all the way across the Pacific. To understand the challenge we face, it is imperative that we imagine what such a fight would entail.
In November 2020, I wrote a previous post arguing that wargaming can help us visualize what the threat can be. It can help us imagine it and provide context to our thinking about it. It can help us check our assumptions, and perhaps even offer thoughts and ideas that we would never have considered. It will not tell us the future, or lay out with certainty what will happen. But it can offer us an opportunity to prevent a failure of imagination of the kind warned against in the 9/11 Commission Report. By imagining the threat, we may be in a position to make better decisions during moments of crisis. This time, I’m using a copy of GMT Games “Next War: Taiwan” to help visualize what such a fight could entail.
In an effort to guard against the failure of imagination, I will add a narrative to help explain what happened in the game. Rudyard Kipling once said that if “history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Narrative writing is a powerful, and by spinning it around the bones of a game, I hope to help imagine what a fight could be. Tom Clancy and Larry Bond used this method in their novel Red Storm Rising, where they crafted a narrative around the results of a series of scenarios they played of the wargame Harpoon. My effort here, however, is intended to be more in the spirit of Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985, originally published in 1978, and intended to help NATO leaders imagine what a fight with the Warsaw Pact could look like.
Report to the Senate Armed Services Committee from the Office of the Secretary of Defense on China’s Successful Campaign to Capture Taiwan, 15 December 2023
The Department of Defense has been tasked by the Senate Armed Services Committee to deliver a report on China’s recently concluded campaign that compelled the surrender of Taiwan, and to outline the failure of Operation OCEAN TYPHOON to defend the island against Chinese aggression. This report, drafted only 90 days after the surrender of Taiwan, will seek to lay out the timeline of events and immediate lessons learned from military operations in the 24-day conflict with China. The immediate lesson learned was that the US Military performed resolutely in the defense of Taiwan. However, it is clear in retrospect that China’s broad efforts to sow confusion within the Homeland, targeting the Joint Force’s ability to mobilize and transport forces to the decisive theater, coupled with surprise strikes involving highly capable precision strike weapons against US forces deployed in the region at the outset of the conflict, proved decisive, and placed the forces in the theater at a significant disadvantage at H-hour and beyond.
Prior to the onset of hostilities, it was clear that China was preparing for operations against Taiwan. There were some indications that such a move was possible; indeed, during the run-up to the invasion, the Intelligence Community provided enough of a strategic warning picture that allowed for the initial reinforcement of US forces in the theater. This included the deployment of the 1-82 Brigade Combat Team (BCT) and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battalion to Japan, the deployment of B-2 bombers to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, the deployment of USMC strike aircraft at Clark Airbase in the Philippines, and the forward deployment of the RONALD REAGAN Carrier Battlegroup and an Amphibious Ready Group embarking elements of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Prior to the actual invasion of Taiwan, the PLA conducted a series of rapid, near simultaneous amphibious operations across the theater. The first occurred on D-6 and D-5, respectively, involving the occupation of contested islands in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. These were followed on D-2 with an occupation of the Ryukyu Islands. Finally, on D-1, the PLA struck against Taiwanese occupied Penghu Island, defeating the Republic of China (ROC) Brigade defending it in a lightning amphibious assault.
China initiated broader hostilities 24 hours after the assault on Penghu. Its initial operations at H-Hour were aimed at setting the conditions for a successful invasion. These attacks involved kinetic and non-kinetic attacks against US forces in Japan, the Philippines, Guam, and at sea, as well as a series of strikes against targets across the ROC with ballistic and cruise missiles. The attacks on Taiwan largely were accomplished with cruise missiles, and they targeted airbases at Zuoying and Hualien, as well as the port of Keelung. These attacks inflicted only moderate damage to the bases and the aircraft they housed. Much more successfully for the PLA were their strikes on Japan and Guam.
The attacks on Japan were conducted with DF-17 ballistic missiles carrying hypersonic glide vehicle warheads. They were very effective in damaging several bases housing US and Japanese aircraft, which prevented the use of the runways for several days.
Guam was struck with DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missiles. Efforts by the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) to mitigate early warning of the attack proved successful, and the missile attack destroyed the U.S. forward deployed B-2s on the ground at Andersen Air Force Base. These initial attacks were followed by a second wave of missile strikes which continued through D+2, targeting airbases across Taiwan and Japan. Additionally, the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) launched a barrage of DF-21C ballistic missiles against the REAGAN Carrier Battle Group operating off the Philippines, although it was able to successfully defend itself against the strike.
These attacks created confusion and significant damage to the US and Allies’ ability to employ air power to stop the initial invasion. Reeling from the strikes on Japan, the US and ROC were able to rely only on limited numbers of US Navy Super Hornets, USMC F-35Bs, and a handful of ROCAF Ching Kuo aircraft to contest the air. Massively outnumbered by a fairly capable PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and a sophisticated ground-based integrated air defense system, the PLA maintained air supremacy over the Taiwan Straits for the first three days of the conflict.
With control of the air, the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLAAF Airborne Corps initiated an invasion of Taiwan in the early hours of D+2. Elements of the ROC Navy and ground-based coastal defense cruise missile attempted to contest the PLAN move, but the PLAN, which included support from the LIAONING Carrier Battle Group, successfully pushed aside the ROC defenses. The invasion was spearheaded by the PLAN 1st Marine Brigade, which landed by sea just southwest of the city of Hsinchu, and the PLAAF 130th Airborne Brigade east of the city. This was followed by the dropping of two more Airborne Brigades—the 127th and 131st—north of city, across the Touquian River. Backed by naval gunfire and FB-7 Flounder strike fighters, these units converged on Hsinchu, defeated the ROC brigade defending it, and occupied the city and its critical airbase. By D+2, the PLAN delivered the 5th Marine Brigade and the 14th Amphibious Combined Arms Brigade (CAB) to the Beachhead, and helped expand the lodgment to include the city of Sanwan.
Beginning on D+2, the PLA SSF conducted arguably the most effective part of China’s battle plan, which was a well-planned, sophisticated, and devastating campaign of cyber and information attacks against the US Homeland. These attacks targeted both military and civilian targets, including power generation, fuel supplies, financial networks, air traffic control networks, as well as military command and control systems and networks needed to generate combat power. These attacks continued throughout the conflict, but were heaviest and most damaging during the first 12 days. In addition to sowing fear, confusion, and anger among the US population, it created chaos in the Time Phased Force Deployment Data, utterly snarling the Joint Force’s ability to effectively generate forces to move to the theater. This, coupled with the constant rain of missile attacks on staging bases in Japan prevented all but a trickle of reinforcements from reaching the theater in time to make a difference.
Once the PLA established and secured a beachhead on Taiwan, the campaign became a race for the PLA to occupy critical territory in Taiwan and convince the Taiwanese political leaders to desist military resistance before the US Joint Force could unsnarl the chaos caused by the widespread cyber and information attacks against the Homeland, mobilize and deploy reinforcements, and push them through China’s A2/AD bubble to stop the Chinese attack. The Joint Force was pushed badly out of balance and out of position, and started at a severe handicap that it never quite overcame. With time and distance on its side, the PLA focused its offensive northward, toward the capital of Taipei.
The PLA picked an unexpected target for their invasion, namely because it was not immediately near a port. They were quickly able to secure an airbase, but it took them until D+8 to secure and open a port—Wuku, to the east of Taipei. This was not as crippling a disadvantage as it could have been, namely because the PLA’s modernization efforts increased the capability of its Marine and Airborne forces, and also maintained several very capable amphibious CABs within several Group Armies. The result was that the PLA had enough combat power that it could move across the beachhead to sustain its initial drive toward Taipei. Once Wuku was captured, the PLA was able to bring ashore heavier formations—approximately two new CABs every few days. The PLA was able to seize a second port—Keelung—on D+18, which provided additional flexibility as to where fresh CABs could land.
Although much of the focus of the fight was in the air and maritime domain, the campaign truly was decided on the ground. As noted earlier, the initial invasion was launched with specialized amphibious and airborne forces. However, by D+8, the PLA’s ability to seize a port proved decisive. By the end of the campaign, the PLA Army (PLAA) was able to land elements of three Group Armies—the 72nd, 73rd, and 74th—which provided the combat power necessary to separate the three geographic Corps of the ROC Army and to initiate a drive toward Taipei. Most of the 73rd Group Army served as a blocking force, which advanced to the Da’an River, north of the Taichung metroplex to block any rapid movement by the ROC 10th Corps from intervening in the fight for Taipei. The PLA even moved around the Da’an River to threaten Taichung, but this thrust was blunted.
The other two Group Armies, along with the surviving Marine and Airborne formations, concentrated on Taipei. Taiwan is a constricted environment, mountainous at its center and flat along the coastline. This made it very difficult to maneuver, and compelled the PLA to fight a war of attrition against the ROC 6th Corps, which held the northern part of the Island. There was nothing elegant about the PLA drive toward Taipei; they converged forces, cleared many of the surrounding suburbs, and launched their first attacks on the capital on D+9. They slowly, and methodically fought their way around the northern part of the city, eliminating strongpoints, and slowly encircling the capital. The first part of the capital—the Sanchong District—fell to the 74th Group Army on D+15. The most spirited defense occurred in the Banciao District of the capital, where the Taipei Defense Brigade and multiple 6th Corps Brigades fought off repeated attacks starting on D+9. Banciao held until D+23, mere hours before Taiwan’s capitulation.
As the campaign progressed, the Joint Force was able to belatedly begin a flow of reinforcements to the theater. These forces were able to perform very well in combat with the PLA.
The most successful element of the Joint Force throughout the campaign was the deployment of a US Army THAAD battalion to Japan. This unit severely limited the overall effectiveness of the PLARF’s missile strikes on Taiwan and Japan. While it could do little against the DF-17 hypersonic missile, it prevented the PLARF from dominating the battlespace with its SRBMs and MRBMs, and kept the overall damage to a minimum. The PLA was able to largely prevent the Joint Force from staging out of Japan with its DF-17s, but it expended its arsenal of these weapons by D+12. US, ROC, and Japanese SOF also had a limited success in targeting these systems in China, which eventually allowed for the Joint Force to converge on Taiwan.
The first US Army ground formations arrived on Taiwan on D+14 (1-82 and 1-101). By D+18, the entire 82nd Airborne and 101st Air Assault Divisions were active on the island, with the 82nd in the north and the 101st on the west coast. They immediately moved to the front and engaged PLA forces. 1-82 and 3-82 BCTs moved into Taipei, and held the northernmost suburb for several days against concerted PLA pressure. As the PLA moved to encircle the city, these brigades launched an attack westward against the PLA encircling force, keeping the LOCs to the capital open. When the PLA sent two fresh CABs to chock off a key tunnel complex west of the capital, the two BCTs in Taipei linked up with the 2-82 BCT to push them back.
The 101st Air Assault Division took advantage of a window of opportunity created by Allied strike forces on D+19 to launch an attack northward to open the Da’an River line. 1-101 BCT conducted an air assault that destroyed the headquarters of the PLAAF Airborne Corps, and then, in concert with the ROC 10th Corps, trapped a PLAN Marine and Airborne Brigade against the River. A further air assault by 2-101 and 3-101 BCTs completed their encirclement, and enabled their destruction. The 101st and ROC 10th Corps then forced crossed the Da’an River and began advancing on the PLA beachhead at Hsinchu by D+24.
By D+24, the arrival of additional US forces, particularly USAF strike aircraft and Army ground formations were turning the tide on the ground. The 101st Air Assault Division’s breakthrough on the Da’an line and the attack by the 82nd Airborne Division to keep Taipei appeared as if they were going to help turn the tide. However, the significant damage inflicted by the PLA on Taiwan, the utter destruction of Taipei in the fighting around the capital, and the capture of several leading ROC political leaders compelled the Taipei government to capitulate.
The campaign lasted less than a month. The Joint Force and its Allies performed well in all their engagements with the PLA. The PLA was a capable adversary, whose modernization created a peer competitor whose capabilities were in general, on par with US capabilities. In cases where US and PLA forces entered into direct combat with each other, US forces generally prevailed tactically. However, the PLA was able to achieve three key effects which tipped the operational and strategic fight their way:
- They relied on a time and distance equation that was in China’s favor, and then further expanded it through the a surprise ballistic missile strike which mitigated forward deployed Allied airpower and then a sophisticated cyber/information attack against the US Homeland, which caused mass confusion among the civilian population and interdicted the Joint Force’s ability to flow reinforcements to the theater.
- The PLA’s sophisticated and capable A2/AD capabilities were an obstacle that could not quickly be overcome. These capabilities also were extended by the coup de main operations to seize the outlying island territories in the Spratlys, Paracels, Penghu, and the Ryukyus. The Allies were forced to fight to clear the outlying islands, while the A2/AD capability allowed China to retain all-domain superiority at critical moments in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits areas.
- The PLA’s modernization efforts created a flexible force capable of carrying out its preferred way of war. This force was superior in terms of personnel and capabilities over its ROC adversary, and was on almost-even terms with the US Joint Force. With time and distance in its favor, and while holding all-domain advantages (or at least parity) at critical moments and areas of the battlespace, the PLA was able to wage a successful campaign.
From a tactical perspective, the Joint Force performed admirably. However, at the operational level, the Joint Force could not overcome the time/space problem posed by geography and the adversary’s decision of when and how to transition to conflict with the limited forces on hand at the start of the campaign. At the strategic, whole-of-nation level, the US whole-of-government was not successful at defending against the PLA’s crippling cyber/information attacks.
End of Report to the Senate Armed Services Committee from the Office of the Secretary of Defense on China’s Successful Campaign to Capture Taiwan, 15 December 2023
The events portrayed in this article are clearly fictitious. War games are not intended to predict the future, and any simulation, from the most advanced algorithm-driven game to the commercially available board game I used are flawed instruments. Indeed, although “Next War Taiwan” is judged to be a complex wargame, it by no means comes close to accurately portraying what would happen in a fight between the United States and China over Taiwan. However, as a thought exercise, wargaming can be incredibly valuable.
In this game, the cyber attack, which admittedly relied on simple rules, likely decided the fight by preventing the early flow of reinforcements to the theater. Overcoming time and space when the enemy has serious A2/AD capabilities is a significant problem that the Joint Force continues to work through. The recent signing of Joint All-Domain Command and Control is a giant step by the Joint Force at dealing with this problem.
But it is the third conclusion, that the enemy is doing more than just creating new materiel capabilities — forging an armed force with a sound approach to warfare and the people capable of carrying it out that is most telling. This requires the Joint Force to do more than think about new technologies and materiel capabilities. People and doctrine clearly matter.
This game shows that the Joint Force must focus on approaches to warfare that overcome key advantages (time and space) held by our potential adversaries. We must get the operational and strategic level fights right. In such a conflict, the operational art could be the difference between victory and defeat. And at the strategic level, whole-of-nation resilience will take on increasing importance.
Finally, we must do more as an Army and a Joint Force to visualize the whole fight. We tend to focus on the tactical, on brigades and small units. A fight against a peer creates operational and strategic problems that must be solved before our tactical acumen even comes into play. In this game, the US Joint Force won most of the battles in which it engaged. The Army, in particular, did well in action against the PLA. None of it, however, mattered, as the campaign was decided because the operational and strategic problems were never solved. This is why wargaming is so important. It allows us to consider the possibilities to imagine the fight, and perhaps most sobering, to consider how an adversary could prevail. In a recent article in War on the Rocks, Edward Geist writes, “…if the United States is to have a reasonable hope of winning a war, it needs to think very seriously about what it would be like to lose.”* This game brought some of those issues to life, as I hope the narrative did.
If you enjoyed this, please read Mr. Sullivan’s comprehensive paper from which today’s post was excerpted to see the associated analytical points expounding on each phase of the wargame and his comprehensive list of associated sources.
Also see Mr. Sullivan’s post Would You Like to Play a Game? Wargaming as a Learning Experience and Key Assumptions Check, exploring the relevant lessons wargaming can teach us about Large Scale Combat Operations in Europe against Russia.
Check out the following related posts China content:
China’s PLA Modernization through the DOTMLPF-P Lens, by Dr. Jacob Barton
The U.S. Joint Force’s Defeat before Conflict, by CPT Anjanay Kumar
China: Our Emergent Pacing Threat
Competition and Conflict in the Next Decade
Disrupting the “Chinese Dream” – Eight Insights on how to win the Competition with China
China: “New Concepts” in Unmanned Combat and Cyber and Electronic Warfare
The PLA: Close Combat in the Information Age and the “Blade of Victory”
“Intelligentization” and a Chinese Vision of Future War
Competition in 2035: Anticipating Chinese Exploitation of Operational Environments
TRADOC G-2’s China Tri-fold; the China products page; and information on PLA weapon systems accessed via the Worldwide Equipment Guide (WEG) on the OE Data Integration Network (ODIN).
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Ian Sullivan is the Assistant G-2, ISR and Futures, at Headquarters, TRADOC.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Army Futures Command (AFC), or Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).
* Edward Geist, “Defeat is Possible,” War on the Rocks, 17 June 2021.