I think the answer is “Yes, provided China is prepared to pay the price.” Two articles suggest that the price may be very heavy.
Jonathan LaForce is a friend of mine. He’s written a guest post at William Lehman’s blog examining the practical difficulties involved in an invasion. Here’s a brief excerpt.
I will admit upfront, I don’t have certain pieces of knowledge. I am not an expert on amphibious doctrine in all its multifaceted glory. I am not a graduate of any service school which directly addresses such matters, though I do own and have read copies of the course material. What I am is a serious student of history, a veteran of the USMC who put my time in uniform to good use learning, and a man who has paid attention to those more educated than me on these topics over the last 20 years as I have sought to be educated on martial matters. War was my profession, war is my preferred topic of study at all times and in all places, and the lessons from this rich field are highly instructive.
There are three options of invasion available:
Option 1) airborne.
Option 2) amphibious.
Option 3) a combo of the above.
All have serious risks involved.
There exist four international airports on the island of Formosa capable of receiving and launching aircraft. Which is what you’ll need to rapidly deploy enough troops to hold those positions. Each airport is a large, complex structure, with a perimeter measured in the thousands of meters. A battalion is not going to cut it, especially since they’ll quickly be facing stiff resistance. You’ll need an infantry regiment for each, so assume 3,000 men per site.
Either all your infantrymen are jumping out the door of a cargo plane as it flies through the air, or try to come busting out of an Airbus hold as it taxis to a stop near the terminal. We’ll assume you packed the hull to max capacity, that you safely delivered 100 men and their gear on target. Thirty aircraft will be necessary, just to deploy one regiment. Overall, you’re looking at 120 cargo planes, packed tighter than a Japanese subway car, flying in formation to their drop zones. Certainly, nobody will notice that moving eastward through the sky. Not at all.
Congrats, you’ve now got your grunts on the ground. You were limited on the weight you could bring over, which means they’ve got personal weapons and ammo, but limited crew-served weapons on hand. All of which will be necessary to maintain an established position when anything with more steel than Elvis Presley’s Cadillac rolls up and starts shooting at you. Please let me know how well you think grunts on bare tarmac are going to fare when the ROC Army starts serving air bursts in 155mm portions overhead?
Capturing the airports alone is not enough. I know you didn’t want to hear that. You’ve got to reinforce those positions and maintain an air bridge. Your cargo planes, if you’re smart, will have enough fuel for the return trip, and yes, they must leave. If they are sitting on the tarmac, they are targets. Unless you want those grunts to stop defending the perimeter and play firefighter, get the planes gone immediately.
*sound of intercom clearing*
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. If you look out either window, you’ll have a front-row seat to the largest air engagement since the Battle of Britain. And I severely doubt the ROC Air Force is going to let us peacefully fly west, back to Western Taiwan. Please assume the upright seated position, put your head between your legs and prepare to kiss your ass goodbye.”
Realistically, assume you’re going to lose half the aircraft assigned to each airport. Expect those losses, plan as if 1 in 2 of those planes is not coming back. Otherwise, you’re lying to yourself.
Now that we’ve covered the Taipei Turkey Shoot, let’s have a look at the Formosa Strait Shark Festival.
There’s more at the link.
Francis Turner read Jonathan’s article and commented there, then developed his comment into a post on his own blog titled “Taiwan – The Map Is Not The Territory“.
To invade, the PRC has to get an army across the ~200km (100 nautical miles /125 miles) separating Taiwan from the mainland (see map above) and defeat the government and military once it has done so. Mr La Force concentrates on the journey, which is challenging – and seasonally limited (see below) – I’m going to talk more about the destination. I’m also assuming that, at least initially, Taiwan is on its own and the US and Japan do not get overtly involved, his article explains the wet dream that a Taiwanese invasion fleet would be to US Navy surface and submarine assets.
To start with the obvious. Taiwan is a lot smaller than the mainland. It is some 80-90 miles wide at the widest point and 230 miles long. Taiwan’s GDP on a PPP basis is a twentieth of the mainland’s and it’s military budget (US$17 B according to wikipedia) is less than a tenth that of the PRC – US$229.4 B (again according to wikipedia). It has a population of some 23 million and the male population in the key 20-50 age range is under 5 million. This means that there are far more PLA active and reserve force members (2.5M active 5M reserve) than there are Taiwanese who could be sensibly recruited to fight. The Taiwanese military has an active force of some 165,000 and a reserve force of about ten times that so trained personnel numbers are even more in favor of the mainland. The same goes for ships, aircraft and so on. In other words at the top level, the invasion looks like a slam dunk because the difference in sizes of the two nations economically and militarily is so overwhelmingly in favor of the mainland.
But let’s not forget that not all islands are the same and it gets better (or worse if you are the PRC) when you get into the details of geography and meteorology.
Taking the latter first, there are certain times of the year when you don’t want to invade lest your fleet imitate that of the Mongols almost 800 years ago when they tried to invade Japan. Typhoons are not as dangerous to modern shipping as they were to the wooden ships of the 13th century, but they can still ruin the loading and unloading of military equipment and seasick troops are unlikely to be at their prime either. Plus even if you land before a hypothetical typhoon, if one shows up while you are invading it’s going to put a major crimp in your logistics. So you’ll want to avoid invading during typhoon season – late June to early October – and probably it makes sense to skip the immediately prior “rainy season” because large chunks of military logistics are far better done in the dry. Since you probably also want to avoid winter storms that means you only have late October, November and mid-March to mid May as suitable times to invade. The preferred time of the year is almost certainly late October to November because you can prepare around the typhoons and launch as soon as you are sure you have no typhoons for the rest of the year. Now this sort of limitation doesn’t necessarily impact the overall success of the invasion, but it does mean that the defenders have periods when they can safely take equipment off line for maintenance and replacement and so on.
That leads to a related point, there is no way that in these days of ubiquitous satellite observation a maritime invasion is going to be a surprise. The build up of ships in the ports of Fujian is going to be completely unmistakable, but you can’t avoid doing it by splitting up the starting locations. A 200km crossing is 5 hours at 20 knots and 10 hours at 10 knots. That’s a long time for soldiers to be in the ships but trying to disguise the invasion by staging some of it from further away is to run the risk that your troops will be unable to go into action when they arrive (or even disembark successfully). The only way to compensate for this is air assault in the first waves but that too has issues. In order for the majority of your air assault troops to survive to start their assault you have to have achieved air superiority over the entire flight path and, while the required preparations to achieve that are not quite as obvious as gathering hundreds of ships, it is also highly likely to be spotted by satellites. The lack of surprise means that the defenders will be able to mobilize fully and to prepare surprises for your invasion force. That mobilization and those surprises are going to be assisted by the geography of the island which limits avenues of attack.
Again, more at the link.
I recommend both articles to your attention. However, I suggest they don’t necessarily take into account all the factors involved.
To start with, there’s the question of whether an invasion force will be necessary at all. China is a master of the indirect approach. Just look at how it’s spread its influence in the USA – bribing and suborning our legislators, installing “Confucius Institutes” at most of our major universities, using its economic muscle to buy many US companies and a great deal of property, and so on. In a very real sense, China doesn’t have to fear the USA because it already owns much of the USA. That’s a nasty thought, but it happens to be true. Do the research for yourself, and tell me I’m wrong. The same can be said of Taiwan. A vast proportion of that nation’s earnings come from its trade with China, and many of its top businessmen know that their own economic future is utterly dependent on their more powerful neighbor across the Taiwan Strait. Their destinies are so intertwined as to be effectively inseparable. Given that, would China use those business ties to undermine and eventually nullify opposition to its taking possession of Taiwan once more – without the need for a military invasion?
Then there’s the question of technology. Many leading military nations are working hard on developing unmanned systems that will not put lives at risk (their people’s lives, at any rate) during an assault. If I were China, I’d be doing precisely that when it came to a potential assault on Taiwan. I’d precede any actual invasion with a fleet of lower-cost unmanned systems that I could use to draw the enemy’s fire, exhaust its supply of missiles and “smart” munitions, and prepare the way for a manned assault once the enemy could no longer defend itself adequately. That may not be technologically feasible today, but such capabilities are being developed. Why not wait until they’re deployable? It won’t be long.
There’s also the aspect of demographics. China’s population growth has peaked, and now appears to be in decline. There may not be enough warm bodies in uniform, in a future army, to be able to take such losses and fight on. The calculus may be that China could afford such losses now, in order to boost its standing in the rest of the world as a conqueror and military power. Is that right? I don’t know, and neither does anyone not party to what’s going on in the CCP’s collective and individual thinking.
The final question is geopolitics. China might calculate that it can prevent, or block, or nullify intervention by other powers on the side of Taiwan. (Given its long-standing financial relationship with President Biden, who’s to say China is wrong?) That factor, coupled with China’s notorious disregard for the value of human lives as such (the individual doesn’t count – only the Party is important), might be enough to overcome any reluctance to face the obstacles pointed out by both authors above. If one side is ruthless enough, and willing to pay the price – no matter how high – to achieve its ends, that changes the probability equation.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.