China's growing firepower casts doubt on whether U.S. could defend Taiwan

WASHINGTON – China’s massive arms build-up has cast doubt on America’s ability to defend Taiwan if war broke out. This reflects a changing balance of power in the Pacific, where American forces once dominated, say US officials and experts.

In simulated battles where China tries to invade Taiwan, the results are sobering and the United States often loses, said David Ochmanek, a former senior Defense Department official who helped conduct war games for the Pentagon at the RAND Corp think tank . helps.

In table exercises with America as a “blue team” against a “red team” similar to China, Taiwan’s air force is wiped out in minutes, US air bases over the Pacific are attacked, and American warships and planes are kept in check by the long range of China’s huge missile arsenal, he said.

“Even when the blue teams intervene decisively in our simulations and war games, they don’t always succeed in defeating the invasion,” said Ochmanek.

A war over Taiwan remains a worst-case scenario that, according to official figures, is not imminent. But China’s growing military strength, coupled with its aggressive rhetoric, makes Taiwan a potential focal point between Beijing and Washington – and a test case for how the US will counter China’s ambitions as a superpower.

The outgoing Chief of the US Military’s Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, warned senators this month that the US may lose its military advantage over China and Beijing may decide to attempt to take control of Taiwan by force by 2027.

“We are accumulating risk that could encourage China to unilaterally change the status quo before our armed forces can possibly provide an effective response,” said the admiral said the Senate Armed Forces Committee.

“Taiwan is clearly one of their targets … and I think the threat will indeed show up in this decade for the next six years.”

US intelligence analysts have been warning for more than a decade that China’s military strength is increasing dramatically and that America’s superiority in the Pacific is waning, defense officials told NBC News. Only now has the message finally arrived, and simulated battles bring the point home.

“They bring in lieutenant colonels and commanders and submit them to this war game for three or four days. They get a kick in the ass and react viscerally,” Ochmanek said. “You can see the learning happening.”

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

A wealthier China, however, has invested in new naval ships, fighter jets, cyber and space weapons, and a huge arsenal of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to undercut the sea and air power of the US military.

“When you look at the number and range of systems China has in place, it’s pretty easy to see what its main goal is, since pretty much anything they build can hit Taiwan. And a lot of the things they build really can only hit Taiwan, “he said to David Shlapak, a senior defense researcher at RAND Corp. think tank who has also worked on war game models involving China.

Each generation of Chinese missiles has “increasing ranges,” a senior defense official said, and the missiles pose a growing dilemma for the US on how to penetrate the Taiwan area, the official said.

Sow doubt

Even if China refrains from direct military action against Taiwan, US officials and analysts fear that Beijing may eventually force Taipei to bow to constant military and economic pressure that creates a perception that the US cannot guarantee the island’s defense can.

“At some point, China will have enough military capabilities to force the Taiwanese into a settlement where you never get into a fight, but is it just this threat that hangs over Taiwan’s head?” said the defense officer.

If China succeeded in subjugating democratically ruled Taiwan, it would send shock waves through America’s network alliances and make other democratic governments in Asia question Washington’s reliability and strength, officials and experts said.

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China regards the self-governing island as part of its own territory and has never abandoned the possible use of force to bring it under Beijing’s control. China’s political leadership sees reunification with Taiwan as a key objective, and Beijing’s actions and statements have become more assertive in recent months.

When NBC News contacted the Chinese Embassy in Washington, it referred to recent comments by State Department spokesman Zhao Lijian, who accused the United States of adopting a Cold War mentality and overstating tensions over Taiwan.

“By exploiting the Taiwan issue to exaggerate China’s military threat, some people in the US are actually looking for excuses to justify increasing US military spending, expanding their military power and meddling in regional affairs,” said spokesman.

“The United States should abandon the Cold War zero-sum mentality, view China’s development and the development of national defense objectively and rationally, and do more things that promote mutual trust between China and the United States and regional peace and stability,” he said .

From June onwards, China regularly flew fighter jets and bombers over the center line in the strait between mainland China and Taiwan and in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The flights have forced Taipei to crawl its fighter planes to intercept the 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 point of view, there is some level of fatigue associated with it.”

Taiwan has reported a number of aviation accidents in the past few months, raising questions about whether China’s interventions had any impact on Taiwan’s flight crews. Two Taiwanese fighter jets crashed on March 22 in the third such incident in six months.

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

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The United States has a legal obligation to provide Taiwan with the means to maintain its self-defense, and successive presidents have approved arms sales to the island, including F-16 fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries.

But Ochmanek and other analysts argue that Taiwan – and the United States – will need lower-tech weapons to hold off a possible Chinese invasion, and that items with large entry tickets like fighter jets and Patriot missiles will prove useless in the event of a Chinese attack .

“You have invested a lot of money in Patriot missiles. These Patriot missiles will die in the first hours of the war,” Ochmanek said. The same goes for fighter jets on the runway targeted by potential Chinese rocket volleys, he and other experts said.

Ochmanek argues Taiwan should invest in mines, drones, and mobile anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles that could slow down a Chinese invasion of amphibians and in the air and provide valuable time for US aid to arrive.

While senior military officials largely believe that Taiwan and the US must adapt to the risks posed by China, it is not clear whether Congress or the Pentagon would be willing to give up buying more fighter jets or other expensive hardware in order to buy money for alternatives Unleash weapons.

“We are very aware of the threat posed by China’s military build-up and its aggressive behavior in the Taiwanese environment,” said a spokesman for the Taiwanese Mission in Washington, the economic and cultural agency of Taipei in the United States.

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

“Taiwan has increased our defense spending in response to these challenges,” the spokesman said, and the island plans to increase investment in “asymmetric capabilities”.

Dongfeng-17 missiles will be on display in 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 File

US military officers in the Pacific say the Pentagon needs to move more weapons and resources to Asia and change its mindset to take on China. Without a change in U.S. weapons and tactics, the U.S. military in Taiwan and across the Pacific could be at a disadvantage, potentially undermining the trust of allies and partners who Washington see as a counterbalance to China, defense officials said.

“If we don’t make changes in attitude, you will definitely find a future where we will simply be outdone,” said a second defense official.

“You can’t just keep the same static line of force that we’ve currently assigned, especially west of the international date line. That won’t do the job.”

The Pentagon declined to comment.

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