Invading Taiwan in the next six years – the fight?

So, the question is, what are we really looking at for an invasion of Taiwan?

A few caveats: 1) I am no China expert, 2) I have never been involved in gaming or analyzing the defense of Taiwan, and 3) I have no real “insider” knowledge of the subject at hand.

The armed forces of Taiwan consist of (according to Wikipedia) 163,000 active personnel and 1,657,000 reserve personnel. Their defense budget is $13.1 billion in 2020 and that makes up 2.3% of their GDP. That last figure is very interesting, for the United States spends 3.4% of our GDP on defense (2019). So, if there is a imminent threat of invasion (like in the next six years). then why are they not spending more? Does Taiwan discount this threat or are some people outside of Taiwan overrating the possibility of it occurring? Do some people sitting in the United States understand the threat and possibility of it occurring better than the people sitting in Taiwan?

Now, Taiwan is 81 miles off the coast of China at the narrowest part. There are also a few smaller islands controlled by Taiwan in between them.  So, what we are looking at is:

  1. Operations to seize some of these outlying lslands like Kinmen (Quemoy), Wucious and Matsu. Kinmen (Quemoy) is only 1.5 miles off the coast of Red China. 
  2. Some fifth column or hybrid warfare arrangement to seize the main island. Unless there is some large armed fifth column currently located in Taiwan that is strong enough to seize port facilities, etc., I don’t think this is a practical possibility.
  3. An amphibious invasion of Taiwan across the 80+ miles of the Taiwan Strait.

Needless to say, China is probably not interest is taking the economic hit for taking a couple of small islands and I don’t think any form of warfare less than an actual amphibious invasion will actually take the main island… so, I think the scenario we are looking at is invariably a “hot war” scenario of a conventional amphibious invasion.

So, how big would such an invasion force have to be?

Well, the Taiwanese Army is around 130,000. It is estimated that 80% is located on Taiwan, while the rest are stationed on the various smaller island. The forces consist of 4 armor brigades, 5 mechanized infantry brigades, 3 air cavalry brigades, 9 active infantry Brigades, and 24 reserve brigades (to be activated in time of war), and lots of other odds and ends and support troops. This is a modern, well-developed armed force. It does not have any combat experience, but neither does the Red Chinese Army (unless you count getting your ass handed to you by the Vietnamese Army in 1979). 

Now, the Taiwanese armor and offensive assets are significant. I gather their plan includes counterattacking any establish beachheads with their armor forces. This forces included 460 M60A3s, 450 CM-11s, 100 CM-12s, 50 M48A, and even around a hundred M41s. Some of these are with reserve forces. They also have 414 CM-32 IFVS, 300 V-150s and a spare thousand M-113s. This is a pretty significant force. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_equipment_of_the_Republic_of_China_Army

Their supporting helicopters included 29 AH-64 Apaches, and 62 AH-1 Supercobras. So, mixed in with 9 armored and mechanized brigades and 3 air cavalry brigades, there is some real offensive punch here.

So, how big of a force would Red China have to send across? Well, I think it would have to be a well-sported force of tens of thousands to initially establish a beachhead. On D-day (6 June 1944) the Americans, British and Canadians landed 156,115 men. This is the largest invasion in history. So, we are looking at something here of at least 20,000 to 40,000 on the first day, and having to be reinforced heavily over the next few days. It will have to be a force capable of defeating the fully mobilized 1.8 million man Taiwanese Army. This is a major undertaking. 

Now… invading is one thing, but invasion forces have to be sustained. They will have to build up an army of 100,000 or more across the straits. Each person needs at least 10 to 20 pounds of food, water and fuel a day. If it is a mechanized force, it will be more. So, probably a thousand or more tons of supply that have to be transported across the strait every single day. The ships carrying these are targets. This can be intercepted by air or sea forces.

So, there is the Taiwanese air force. Their main fighter force consists of 113 F-16s, 46 Mirage 2000, 103 AIDC F-CK-1 (their own multirole fighter made in Taiwan). So, 262 fighters, plus trainers (another 62 fighters) and support aircraft.

This air force I assume will be supported by the U.S. Navy and the U. S. Air Force. That is some 40 to 60 fighters per carrier committed (I am guessing at least three) and however many fighters we choose to fly over there (we have around 1,700 fighters). Of course the Chinese have a load of fighters also, around 1,300 but lot of them are J-7, which are Chinese variants of very obsolete Mig-21s. Their more modern fighters include around 700 planes, most of them being J-10s and J-11/16. They are certainly not superior to the planes used by Taiwan or the United States. So we are looking at an air battle of maybe on the Taiwanese side of 262 + 62 + 180 (carriers) + 200 (USAF) = 704 vs 700 Chinese fighters. So this will certainly be a contested air fight and the U.S//Taiwanese aircraft will probably have the advantage. I recall only one amphibious invasion that occurred during an extended contested air fight (Falklands). I can’t recall any successful amphibious invasions that occurred where the defender had air superiority. Will the Chinese be able to establish air superiority? Will Taiwan and the U.S. be able to establish air superiority?

Needless to say, the air situation is not particularly positive for mainland China and argues against them attempting such an invasion…and that is before looking at the naval assets.

Naval assets are pretty one-sided. The Taiwanese fleet consists of 26 frigates and destroyer and 4 subs. I assume it would be supported by the U.S. Navy, which is in whole different league in size and seriousness. I don’t even need to do a “net assessment” comparison here on this one, the data is below, and it is pretty lopsided.

See: The Size of Fleets in the South China Sea, Part 1 | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

And: Size of Fleets around the South China Sea, Part 2 | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

The U.S. Navy is here: U.S. Navy Compared to Russian Navy | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

This does not address any support provided by the U.S. allies in the region, Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc. They may well provide additional air and naval assets.

Finally, if this did grow into a “hot war” scenario then the United States would certainly maintain control of the seas away from the Chinese coast. So in addition to being able to intercept almost all seaborne trade and oil going to and from China, they could easily take control of Chinese facilities and bases at the Spratley islands. Nothing China could do about that. So, any “hot war” scenario would include a loss of 60-80% of their trade, a loss of 60% of their oil, the loss of the Spratly Islands (perhaps handed back to the Philippines and Vietnam) and the other resulting long term economic impact. This is not a cheap or convenient effort. It is not the same as Russia taking Crimea.

Now, there are some relevant links I can point you too. They are below. Some of these I question. Mainland China can certainly get a significant force across the straits, but may not be able to maintain air superiority and may not be able to maintain control of the Taiwan Straights. Nothing like sending a 100,000 people across the straights and not being able to feed them. I do find the idea that mainland China will invade Taiwan in the next 6 years to be somewhat loopy.

For mainland China to seriously consider invading Taiwan, it is going to take another decade of two of serious development of their air force and particular their fighter arm. They only have about 50 modern “stealth fighters.” It will also need to have a naval force at least capable of securing the Taiwan Straights. Can’t envision they will have a naval force in the next 20 years large enough to protect the Spratley Islands from the U.S. or secure their overseas trade and oil.

 

——-Other Articles and blog posts———–

https://www.realclearinvestigations.com/articles/2020/08/17/the_scary_war_game_over_taiwan_that_the_us_loses_again_and_again_124836.html

http://theglitteringeye.com/wargaming-a-china-u-s-war/

https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-army/2020/09/01/what-war-with-china-could-look-like/

https://nationalinterest.org/blog/skeptics/can-america-successfully-repel-chinese-invasion-taiwan-166350

https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidaxe/2020/12/09/if-china-invades-taiwan-taipei-plans-to-throw-a-thousand-tanks-at-the-beachhead/?sh=be8a96a6f93b

https://nypost.com/2021/03/11/us-war-games-over-china-threat-warn-of-likely-defeat-report/

https://topics.amcham.com.tw/2021/04/taiwan-defense-asymmetric-indigenous-capabilities/

https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1217.html

This entry was posted in China, Net Assessment, Sea Warfare by Christopher A. Lawrence. Bookmark the permalink.

About Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience. ... Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation. ... His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024). ... Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

9 thoughts on “Invading Taiwan in the next six years – the fight?

  1. “Their defense budget is 13.1 billion in 2020 and that makes up 2.3% of their GDP. That last figure is very interesting, for the United States spends 3.4% of our GDP on defense (2019).”

    I’m guessing that Taiwan’s smaller defense percent of GDP is to be expected given that Taiwan is only defending its own islands rather than the world (well, whatever part of the world is deemed important at a given time by the USA). Also, I wonder whether Taiwanese have lower wages and benefits per soldier/sailor/airman than do Americans. So, the difference of 1.1 percentage points might not be unexpected.

      • . . . or the GDP pie got bigger (w/o significant inflation of prices faced by the military) and there was no need to keep the same proportion for the military slice of the pie (because the risk of invasion wasn’t perceived to be increasing, as you suspect, and the previous force level was perceived to be sufficient for defense against the PRC).

        Still, it’s a matter of will the PRC expect the USA to respond (militarily and/or economically) to an invasion of Taiwan. Best to help the PRC to make the correct guess!

        • Well, yes the budget has gotten bigger. In 1996 is was $9.57 billion making up 3.6% of the GDP. In 2020 it was $13.1 billion, making up only 2.3% of the GDP. By the same token, mainland China’s budget has continued to expand, and quite rapidly, even though it is still only 1.3% of the GDP, depending on exactly what budget figures you use.

          Best to help the PRC to make the correct guess!

          Exactly.

    • Those are good points.

      In addition, they lack access to some of the more expensive gear on offer. Only being able to obtain it in limited amounts or not at all.

      There is also a scaling issues. Having read on the various Southeast Asian navies. Most of them have a hard time finding people to man their ships. Taiwan only has 23.3 million people.

      Taiwan has conscription, but that is not particularly effective at getting skilled people to man the various electronics, etc. that a modern military needs. So they would have to be careful loading up on a lot of big fancy gear they cannot man.

      So combined with the more limited (coastal defense) requirements you note, and natural scaling issues, you would expect them to not be spending as much as the United States.

  2. Are the estimates of PRC expenditure and resources reliable? Is there no hidden financing or resourcing disguised as something else such as infrastructure development?

  3. So what if the PRC President for Life takes a gamble? In reply to the last blog post on this I raised the issue of whether anyone would take up arms (and risk significant damage) or impose heavy sanctions (that would also impact them). I still can’t see any strong statement that any country would take the level of action required to halt a Chinese invasion. Very little happened over Hong Kong or the fortification of the South China Sea. What does Taiwan mean to anyone else?

  4. For example, I am sitting here in Australia and we theoretically could get involved in opposing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and recently have had a number of disputes with China. However, the annual Federal Budget was announced last night and it has a significant dependence on Chinese purchases of Australian iron ore. So I really can’t see the Australian government dispatching a force to oppose the invasion. Of course I don’t really know but if I asked people here they would think I was crazy. I doubt Australia alone has this indifference.

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