“The Games the Marine Corps Plays”

An associate strongly recommended I look at this article. I would recommend the same to our readership: The Games the Marine Corps Plays | Military.com

It is written by Gary Anderson of GWU, who I do not know. But, to quote a few lines from the article:

  1. “You do not want prying eyes on your work that might question its rigor or validity.”
  2. “Since the Marines would be hundreds of miles away and irrelevant, they could be safely ignored.”
  3. “First, the Corps hired the most incompetent red team in the history of war-gaming, or their analysts cooked the books” (this sounds like a familiar problem, see:  Wargaming 101 – Sayers vs. The U.S. Navy | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)).

Anyhow, it is not a long article. Recommend reading it.

A story about planning for Desert Storm (1991)

In an email exchange with retired DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) analyst, William (Chip) Sayers, he sent me this account. I asked him if we could publish it, as I think it is a wonderfully unfiltered account. He agreed, although pointed out that he would also be covering some of this in his presentation this fall. It is on Day 2 of HAAC and is on “The Combat Assessment Technique.” See: Schedule for the Historical Analysis Annual Conference (HAAC), 27-29 September 2022 – update 4 | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org).

In early 1989, I went to work at an office at DIA that specialized at looking at the world through the eyes of the Soviet General Staff. In particular, we used the Soviet’s Correlation of Forces Methodology. However, we only partially understood it and needed some data to close gaps for us. I cast around for something that would plug these holes and settled on the QJM as the best candidate. It was my belief that both models had approached the subject from the same standpoint and therefore the one could help inform the other.

This paid off — to an extent — in the run up to the ground campaign of Operation DESERT STORM. Gen. Schwarzkopf desperately wanted to know at what point he should let loose his ground forces and so had his staff casting about for a methodology that would give him a way to measure the success of the air campaign in softening up the Iraqis. You would think that after the years we put into WEI/WUVs and all the various models that J-8 and others used, we would have had a good basis for solving his problem. Well, you’d be wrong. Very wrong. As an illustration, Schwarzkopf claimed after the war that, in the summer of 1990, CENTCOM had gamed out the exact scenario that actually occurred and got the exact same results. Schwarzkopf was channeling his inner Nimitz, but I guarantee you that was impossible. I spent several years in the bowels of the Pentagon gaming the Soviet problem with J-8 using the same model and I can truly say that the model itself was geared toward making it absolutely impossible for the attacker to win. I promise you, there was no possible way that Schwarzkopf’s troops got the results he claimed unless he disregarded the output and simply directed the outcomes, himself.

In any event, in the weeks running up to the ground campaign, he didn’t have anything — much less a full-scale model — that could answer his question. I saw a bunch of Majors and LTCOLs running around like chickens with their heads cut off, without coming to any useful conclusions. We ran through exceptionally complex pseudo-science formulae and we saw some so simplistic, my third-grader grandson could have done better. None of it, however, satisfied Schwarzkopf because no one could agree on an approach. In the end, Schwarzkopf threw up his hands and directed that we simply let him know when the air forces had attritted the Iraqis by 50%, and then he’d send in the ground troops. My job at that moment, was to pretty much figure this out for DIA, and given my possession of the QJM and my hybrid methodology, I felt I could be very confident in making the call that CINCCENT needed. Unfortunately, we were on opposite sides of the impenetrable G2/G3 no-go zone, so they weren’t interested in listening to my opinions.

I knew from my historical studies that 50% attrition was massive overkill and that we could go long before we reached that lofty — and probably unobtainable — goal. What Schwarzkopf didn’t know, and I did, was that the agreements set out to decide who did what to whom did not allow DIA access to the data collected by our tactical recce jets. In other words, DIA was going to have to do all its BDA analysis using less useful means. There was simply no way our guys could see a small hole punched through the top armor of a tank from the means we had at hand. Thus began the great BDA war between CENTCOM and Washington. We knew that we didn’t have the proper resources to do the job right, but were told to get on with it, anyway. On the other hand, CENTCOM had a formula of how many “kills” to award according to the in-flight pilot reports given the type of airframe flown. F-16s were heavily discounted, while A-10s were believed as though their claims were coming down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. I’m a former USAF pilot and I know that the last guy to ask is the one who just came through the gauntlet.

I vividly remember running my final calculations on Friday night before the attack kicked off the next day (Washington time) and being very satisfied that Schwarzkopf could go at any time he wanted. Interestingly enough, none of this had any input into his decision to go. Few people remember it, but Gorbachev was negotiating with Saddam and had successfully convinced him to pull out of Kuwait. The agreement they came up with would give the Iraqis three weeks to pull out. At this point, it had become a major goal to eliminate the Republican Guard and we didn’t want them to pull their head out of the noose, so President Bush turned down the compromise and ordered the ground forces in.

Ok, so here’s the point: Despite all the big talk and incredible claims, when push came to shove, the Army had nothing/NOTHING to use as a basis for planning. Lord knows we threw enough time and money at the problem, but in the end, Schwarzkopf just had to pray that we had enough combat power when our troops rolled across the line. He would have given anything up to half his kingdom for the QJM at that moment. He had a lot of opinions to choose from, but nothing solidly based on history. And frankly, I don’t think the situation has changed in the intervening 30 years. Now that the chips are down, people aren’t likely to care WEI/WUVs were developed by the opinions of various branch influence groups. But a model with an historical basis would be worth its weight in gold.


QJM = Quantified Judgment Model, Trevor Dupuy’s earlier combat model. The TNDM (Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model) is Trevor Dupuy’s update of the QJM.

WEI/WUVs = a weapon scoring system developed by CAA and used by RAND.

This email exchange was part of a discussion of what TDI could be doing, if properly budgeted. 

U.S. Defense Budget for 2022

The U.S. Defense budget was signed into law on Monday. A few things that caught my attention:

  1. Increase of 5% (I guess we have to replace all that equipment left behind in Afghanistan).
  2. 2.7% pay raise (which I gather makes up around 2% or so of that 5% increase).
  3. Seems to be focused on keeping “pace militarily with China and Russia.”
  4. “The bill includes $7.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and a statement of congressional support for the defense of Taiwan, measures intended to counteract China’s influence in the region.”
  5. “It also includes $300 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a show of support in the face of Russian aggression, as well as $4 billion for the European Defense Initiative.”

Let’s look at what keeping “pace militarily with China and Russia” looks like in dollars and sense:

U.S. Budget: $768.2 billion (2022) or 3.42% of GDP in 2019.

Chinese (PRC) Defense Budget: $209.4 billion (2021) or 1.3% of GDP (2021)

Russian Defense Budget: 61.7 billion (2020-21) or 4.3% of GDP (2019).


See: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/biden-signs-bill-authorizing-768-2-billion-in-2022-defense-spending-including-a-2-7-pay-raise-for-service-members-into-law-01640648957?siteid=yhoof2&yptr=yahoo

Things related to our discussion on invading Taiwan

Over the last month, we did something like eleven posts analyzing the possibilities and the ability of China to invade and occupy Taiwan. The summery post is here:
Will China invade Taiwan in the next 20 years? Summation: | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Just spotted a CNN article that is related: US Air Force to send dozens of F-22 fighter jets to the Pacific amid tensions with China

A few highlights:

  1. We are sending 25 F-22s to Guam and Tinian Islands (Northern Marianas).
  2. F-22’s are fifth-generation combat jets. China has 20-24. We have 180 F-22s (and then there are F-35s).
  3. Only about half of the F-22s “…are mission capable at any one time due to maintenance requirements.”
  4. 10 F-15s and 2 C-130Js are also deploying.

I copied the cover picture from the article. 

Will China invade Taiwan in the next 20 years? Summation:

This post is a summation of my previous ten posts on the subject. We first looked in two posts whether there was a reasonable threat of Taiwan being invaded in the next six years. Our conclusion was that the idea was “somewhat loopy.” I was surprised that I received no push-back from any readers on this. The two posts are:

Invading Taiwan in the next six years – wherefore and why? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Invading Taiwan in the next six years – the fight? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

My nagging suspicion was that the claims made by retiring Admiral Phillip Davidson of the Indo-Pacific Command was a whole lot more related to preserving or generating budget than it was a realistic assessment.

I then looked at what is the costs and risks for China if they choose to invade Taiwan. They are significant and it is not just economic. I also looked at the leadership of China, which is more than one man. This is in this post: Will China take the risk and actually invade Taiwan? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

I then took a more long-term look (20 years) at the subject with an introductory post and six follow-up post discussing each of the six variables in depth. They are:

Will China invade Taiwan in the next 20 years? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Variable 1: Who is the leader of China? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Variable 2: What is the changing composition of the politburo? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Variable 3: How is the economy of China doing? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Variable 4: Is there a problem with internal turmoil and unrest in China? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Variable 5: What is the degree of U.S. commitment to Taiwan? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Variable 6: What is the size and capabilities of the Chinese Armed Forces? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

To try to summarize, the leadership of China is in their sixties. They tend to be careful, deliberate and somewhat risk adverse. They are not very likely do a high-risk operation that could undermine the Chinese economy and potentially Communist Chinese rule. Therefore, the Taiwan is really not at risk of invasion unless there is a leadership change and this is probably not going to happen in the next 10-15 years. That new leadership may also be risk adverse. So, kind of looking at less than a 25% chance of getting risk taking leadership who would be tempted to do this, and that window for that happening is probably 15-20 years out.

But, in addition to getting the leaders who would take the risk, the Chinese also needs to build up a navy and air force to do so. They really don’t have the air force. For example, they only have 400 modern aircraft. Taiwan alone has 159. Add a few hundred aircraft from the U.S. inventory of 2,700 and any invasion is in trouble. Good luck conducting and sustaining a large amphibious operation when the defenders have air superiority. I don’t recall this ever being attempted before. Basically, for China to do anything militarily, it has to build another 1,000 or more modern aircraft. This is expensive. Certainly can’t be done with present defense budget. So, what we will see, and it we will have years of warning, is a significant increase in Chinese defense budget (above 2% of GDP), building of hundred of aircraft, building more naval assets and so forth. So we will know if they are really serious by the budget expenditures. Right now, their defense budget does not really give them the ability to invade Taiwan.

Now, of course, such a scenario does require U.S. assistance to defend Taiwan. This is discussed in “variable 4.” The real key is that to defend Taiwan can be done primarily with air assets. This is a much less lower threshold for engagement then sending troops, and we have not been that adverse to sending troops around the world (Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria for example). Do we have enough commitment to send just air forces? 

The real key is whether U.S. commitment declines over time and whether China does indeed build up. This does create a window say 15-20 years out where China may have the capability in place and U.S. commitment is wavering and the Chinese leadership is willing to take a risk. The problem is that China has a demographic problem. According to some reports, their population is already declining. This is going to create a drag on their economy. 

We have been talking about this for a while: Demographics of China | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Witness Japan: Where Did Japan Go? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

So, the drag on the Chinese economy from their demographics, along with possibly other economic or political problems may well become a major factor in the next ten years. How does this play out if their window of opportunity for doing this military and politically is 15-20 years out? Does this mean that they really will never be in position to invade Taiwan? This does look to be the case. 

Now, this does not rule out a mis-calculation or a major mistake by the Chinese leadership. History is full of such idiocy, like Japan attacking a country in 1941 that had over ten times the GDP that they did. So we cannot rule out, no matter how the situation looks on paper, that someone will ignore the statistics and do it anyway. There are plenty of examples of this in history.

Now, I do believe that it is essential that the U.S. maintains its commitment to Taiwan to maintain the deterrence. This certainly includes maintaining fleet presence in the area, arm sales to Taiwan, and conducting exercises with South Korea and Japan the emphasizes reinforcing the area. This are all good and what we have been doing. Of course, plopping a brigade in Taiwan would be the ultimate commitment, but I don’t think that is on anyone’s agenda.

Still, my conclusion is that this is:

  1. Not going to happen in the next 6 years.
  2. Probably not going to happen in the next 15 years.
  3. May be a threat in the next 15-20 years, but only if
    1. The new Chinese leadership is willing to take a risk.
    2. The Chinese economy is growing.
    3. The Chinese governance is stable.
    4. The Chinese military has been built up significantly.
    5. The U.S. commitment has weakened.
  4. Could always happen if the Chinese make a major mis-calculation.

My overall conclusion is that this is not very likely to happen. Still, one must be prepared for it, and by being prepared for it, it decreases the likelihood of it ever happening.



—–some additional ruminations from the first draft of this blog post that was done about a month ago——-

It is clear that the danger to Taiwan will become obvious over time. The army may be capable of conducting an amphibious invasion now, but the navy and air force is not large enough. With a concerted effort, certainly the Air Force could be built up and modernized over a decade or so, but it going to take longer to build a fleet that at least temporarily contest the seas with the U.S. These are build-ups that will develop over time and will be noticed. So we will know when were are truly moving into a period of real exposure. Whether the political leadership will react in the proper and timely manner is another subject.

But, there is also the possibility of a changing regime in the People’s Republic (more democratic or in political turmoil) could obviate the threat to Taiwan or much less likely, a changing regime in the Democratic Republic (Taiwan) could take away the need to defend it (they might want to join China?). So the problem could magically go away, but we have no indication of that now.

The end result is I do not think there is a real threat of it happening any time in the next decade. I think in the second half of the second decade (more than 15 years from now) China could have all the pieces in place to make it happen, but we will see them develop it over time. Right now, with defense spending at 1.7% or less of their GDP, they may not get there in two decades. But regardless, it will be clear if it is happening.

So, I sort of discount the possibility that China will invade Taiwan in the next 20 years. It could happen. To do so would require 1) new leadership that is willing to take the risk, 2) significant build up of the air force, 3) build up of naval and sea-lane control assets, 4) the correct internal regime conditions (desire and sufficient economic/political stability), and 5) a favorable international situation (U.S. lack of commitment). Will all these conditions track in a manor favorable to invading Taiwan in the next 20 years? I would not stake money on it.

Variable 6: What is the size and capabilities of the Chinese Armed Forces?

I think I covered most of this in my previous posts, for example: Invading Taiwan in the next six years – the fight? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org). But, let me walk and talk through the subject one last time.

An amphibious invasion of Taiwan is going to require China to not only put an army across that can defeat the 130,000-man Taiwanese Army, but to also supply that invading army for the duration of the operation (which could takes weeks or months). This means maintaining control of the sea and the air. So while China probably has the army right now that is capable of doing this, if the United States supports Taiwan, it does not have the navy or the air force to do this (especially over time).

So, for the Chinese armed forces to invade Taiwan, they will need not only an army (which the have), but a navy (which they currently do not have) and an air force (which they really don’t have) that can control the sea and the air around Taiwan.

So, for the Chinese to invade Taiwan, they need to either 1) build up their navy, 2) built up and modernize their air force, and/or 3) make sure the United States does not intervene. As this last point is covered in the last post, let us just look like at what they need to do to address the first two points.

The Chinese navy currently consists of 2 small carriers and 36 destroyers. The U.S. navy consists of around 11 large carriers, 9 amphibious carriers, 22 cruisers and 59 destroyers. This is a gross mismatch. See: .

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)

Therefore, over the next 20 years, any significant build-up of naval capabilities will be a strong indicator of intention. The build-up has to be more than another small carrier or two and more than a few more destroyers. They have to build up a capability to at least seal the Straits of Formosa from U.S. naval intervention for at least a month. Now that can be done with air, missiles, smaller surface ships, submarines, etc., but without a deep water navy, they will have lots of other problems (economic interdiction, interdiction of oil supplies, loss of the Spratly Islands, etc.). It is not a pretty picture for them no matter how they look at it, and building up a navy that can take on our deep water fleet is a very tough task to do in next 20 years. Kind of reminds me of Kaiser Willy’s attempt before the Great War to build a battlefleet to challenge the British. That did not work out well either.

And then there is the air. Now according to an article Clinton Reilly just posted in the comments (and I saw not reason to cross-check their data) the U.S. Air Force has nearly 2,300 warplanes in service and 1,422 aircraft for the U.S. Navy and Marines. So, 3,700 + Taiwan’s air force (300+) + anyone else that wants to help (S. Korea, Japan and Australia come to mind). China has 1,264 airplanes. Furthermore, among the most advanced planes are 19 J-20s, 50 J-16s, and 235 J-11s (a variant of the Su-27), 24 Su-34s, 76 Su-30s or 404 airplanes that hold my attention. In contrast the United States Air Force has 432 F-15s, 939 F-16s, 186 F-22s, and 283 F-35s or 1,840. The U.S. Navy has 532 F-18s and 18 F-35s while the USMC has 273 F-18s and 57 F-35s. Taiwan has 113 F-16s and 46 Mirage 2000. So a total of 2,720 vice 404. 

So while one can talk about differing world-wide missions and obligations for the U.S. air forces; for a short period of time, it ain’t that hard to quickly shift a lot of the planes to the defense of Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China (Red China) kind of needs to be able to take on over 2,000 hostile modern fighter aircraft. Hard to do with only 400 of their own.

So, for China to be able to establish permanent control of the airspace around Taiwan, do they need at least another 1,000 planes? May be…probably. Not sure how they do so otherwise. So, then means a pretty serious building program over the next 20 years. We will see this coming. 

So, to have a serious threat to invade and maintain that invasion force they are really going to have go through a serious build-up of both naval and air assets. Far more than what they are doing right now. Furthermore, we will see it coming for years. Added to that, we can also respond in kind. So…..

Variable 5: What is the degree of U.S. commitment to Taiwan?

The people who are saying with certainty that China is going to invade Taiwan in the next two decades seem to be discounting a lot of factors that would indicate that China would not do so, regardless. For example, I would guess that there is at least a 50% chance that the Chinese economy would stagnate or slow down in the next two decades. This most likely precludes them taking a step as drastic as invading Taiwan. Then there is the current leadership of China, which tends to be careful and cautious. I do not think the current leadership of China is likely to invade Taiwan. They may well be in power for the better part of the next two decades. So, one could make the argument that there appears to be a least a 75% chance that China will not invade Taiwan in the next two decades, regardless of the degree of U.S. commitment.

Now, I have heard some people talk about this invasion as almost a certainty. To bring me on board with their thinking they would have convince me that: 1) Xi Jinping and the current politburo are ready to take such a gamble, 2) that the Chinese economy will be continually stable and  growing for the next two decades, and 3) that they have built up their air and naval capability to ensure such an effort. I don’t think one can make a rational argument that it is almost a certainty. Still, it is a possibility and a very real possibility, which leads us into examining U.S. commitment.

The degree of U.S. commitment is a significant variable, and perhaps the most difficult element to predict. There does some to be some sort of “conventional” wisdom that the United States is hesitant to commit troops to fight in far off places. Yet, the actual track record is the reverse. So, for example, it appears that some people (including Joseph Stalin) assumed that the United States would not intervene if there was an invasion of South Korea. So North Korea rolled across the border in 1950 with their T-34s, the U.S. responded, and my father ended up fighting there.

Then there is Vietnam, where we had a large military assistance program of tens of thousands of people and the South Vietnamese government was still losing the war. So we then decided to send hundreds of thousands of troops there to engage hundreds of thousand of Vietnamese guerillas and even some North Vietnamese troops, putting us into the fourth bloodiest war in U.S. history. My father ending up fighting there twice.

Then there is Kuwait, where the United States had no political, legal, alliance, or defense obligations; yet when they were invaded in 1990 by Iraq, we sent over hundreds to thousands of troops and drove the Iraqi’s out in the 1991 Gulf War. None of my family were involved in that one, although Trevor Dupuy did some estimates for congress that are worth noting (see: Forecasting the 1990-1991 Gulf War | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org) and Assessing the TNDA 1990-91 Gulf War Forecast | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org) and Assessing the 1990-1991 Gulf War Forecasts | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Then we were attacked on 9/11. In response in 2001 we invaded not only the country that was housing Osama bin Laden (Afghanistan), but in 2003 we also invaded Iraq. Threw both governments out of power and occupied both countries. My brother was in Afghanistan a half-dozen times. None of my family were involved in Iraq, although I did do an estimate of casualties and duration for a guerilla war in Iraq: See America’s Modern Wars, Chapter 1.

And then there is also the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Invasion of Grenada (1983) and the Invasion of Panama (1989), among many other interventions. My father was deployed in the first one as part of a projected amphibious invasion force. We have no direct connection to the other two events.

So, if you have smugly adopted the “conventional” wisdom that the U.S. won’t commit troops to fight in far off places, well you probably should re-evaluate the basis for your smugness. It does not match with my personal experiences.

The real discussion:

So, will the United States intervene to support Taiwan? Well, that does not have to be answered with a definitive “yes.” A simple “maybe” is probably enough. It is a case of deterring the Chinese from determining that this could be a successful course of action. If it is uncertain, will they then undertake it? 

The main thing is that it needs to be clear that the answer is not “no – we won’t intervene.’ We also have to ensure that the Chinese do not make the mistake of assuming that it is “no” or calculating that if they move quick enough, it can be presented as a fait acompli (much like Stalin tried with North Korea in 1950). So, the most likely U.S. strategy is that they will continue to make it clear that they are willing to support, able to support Taiwan. The problem is that not only do they need to make it clear, but they need to make sure that China believes it.

Now, the actual level of support for Taiwan in the U.S. may decline over the next twenty years. There are three major factors driving this 1) the U.S. does not have strong ties to supporting Taiwan, 2) the current Republican Party appears to be leaning towards being anti-interventionist, 3) the Democrats have traditionally not been interventionist (although WWI, WWII, Korea, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam occurred on their watch). Lets address each of these:

  1. Are the U.S. as willing to defend Taiwan because it was a democracy as they were when they were “anti-communist?” The PRC is still one of four communist countries in the world, but the policy of containment and anti-communism is not what it once was. Do we care as much about supporting democracies as we did about containing communism? Probably not. There is not a track record to strongly indicate otherwise.
  2. Elements of the current Republican Party appears to be anti-interventionist. This is not the first time. They were very much that way in the 1920s and 1930s and there have been significant isolationist and anti-interventionist movements in the party in recent times, including Pat Buchanan’s runs for president in 1992, 1996 and 2000 and Ron Paul’s campaigns for president in 2008 and 2012. The last Republican president appeared to be instinctually an isolationist and anti-interventionist. Is this the future of the Republican Party going forward? Hard to say. I saw Liz Cheney tweeting this week about defending Taiwan, but she is kind of on the outs with a lot in people in the party (they voted her out of her leadership position in the House). So, it may well be. As it is, I suspect they will be out of power more often than they are in power for the next 40+ years (See: Is the United States on the Verge of Becoming a Single Party Democracy? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org))
  3. Then there is the Democratic Party, which has been anti-interventionist since the Vietnam War (they were not before the Vietnam War). Still, since the Vietnam War we have seen intervention by Democratic presidents in places like Kosovo, Syria, Libya, etc. So, they are not completely anti-interventionist, but this is a strong tendency in the party.

So, we are staring at a situation where the vast majority of the electorate, many congressmen and many senators don’t really have a strong opinion on this. This creates an environment where there is not a lot of clear underlying support for Taiwan.  

The key then becomes who is president. That seems to be driven by whoever is randomly in office (and sometimes it does seem random). Would we have sent over a couple of hundred thousand troops to liberate Kuwait in 1991 if Michael Dukakis was president instead of George Bush Sr.? Would the United States have invaded Iraq in 2003 if Al Gore was president instead of George Bush, Jr.? It is clear that who is in charge makes a big difference in these types of decisions. So, the question is: who will be in charge of the United States from 2029-2036 (assuming the current president serves for two terms, which is the most likely scenario) or 2037-2044? That is a pretty tough guess at the moment, although I do believe it will most likely be a Democrat. Will that individual be willing to intervene to protect Taiwan? Keep in mind, they actually don’t have to intervene, just have to appear to be willing to.

While I don’t think the U.S. policy on Taiwan will officially change over the next twenty years, the issue will be whether the United States has a credible deterrence. The key adjective is credible. As long as the Chinese believe there is a good chance that the United States will intervene, then there is deterrent value to the policy. If they do not believe we will, then that deterrence is gone. 

Now, the one thing we could do to maintain a credible deterrence is to base troops there (like we do in South Korea). I don’t think that anyone senior in the last or the current administration is recommending that. I also don’t think that this is likely to be U.S. policy going forward. Still, it is an option worth considering, for even if the vast majority of Americans are not interesting in supporting Taiwan, having troops there serves as a trip wire. It almost guarantees U.S. involvement and therefore serves as a very credible deterrent. Still, I suspect this would be a very hard sell for the American people. Also, if the U.S. did deploy troops to Taiwan, there would certainly be an outcry and some kind of response from China. That may not be worth the pain.

Now, in the past, deterrence has worked. Obviously, it has not always worked (Korea 1950), but in the case of the cold war, western Europe was not invaded by the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union and the United States did not fire nukes at each other. So, in those cases deterrence did work for 40+ years. The question is: can the U.S. maintain a credible deterrence against China in the decade after next. I do have my doubts. Of course, this does not automatically mean that Taiwan gets invaded, but it does open the door to that possibility.

Variable 4: Is there a problem with internal turmoil and unrest in China?

Depressions begat revolutions. Now it ain’t so simple as that, but there is a big enough correlation here that every time there is a economic downturn, a nation’s leaders should be looking over their shoulder in concern. If they are a democratic government, it probably means they will now have time to write their memoirs. If they are a dictatorship, they could end up dangling from a meat-hook.

The seminal quantitative work on this subject was two separate studies done in the 1960s by Ted Gurr and the couple Ivo and Rosilind Feierabend. Ted Gurr’s work was summarized in his book Why Men Revolt, while the Feierhabend’s never issued out a book (which is a shame as their work was as significant). There has not been much of significance done since then (which I think is fairly bizarre actually… it is not like revolutions are a dead subject).  We have blogged about this before.

So Variable 3 is “How is the economy of China doing?.” As long as the China economy is growing and thriving over the next 20 years, then this only increases the danger to Taiwan. On the other hand, there are lots of reasons to doubt that their economy will continue to thrive over the next 20 years. If the economy is not growing, then this fourth variable comes into play: Is there a problem with internal turmoil and unrest in China?  This affects the odds that China will decide the invade Taiwan in five ways:

  1. The reduced economic growth probably reduces their “defense” budget.
  2. If there is unrest or political turmoil, it probably distracts the government to worry about internal issues, vice invading their neighbors (although it some cases, it can actually do the reverse).
  3. It may result in a leadership change:
    1. This leadership could be even more internally absorbed.
    2. This leadership could be even more nationalistic.
    3. This government could be unstable.
  4. It may result in a change of the form of government:
    1. Communism collapses.
      1. It becomes a democracy
      2. It becomes a dictatorship.
      3. The new government could be unstable
      4. Central government may collapse entirely.
    2. Communism is reinforced (sort of another cultural revolution)
    3. Communism is de-stabilized, but returns back in control.
  5. It may result in no government at all (more on this later).

So, what are the odds that China will have a economic slow-down in the next 20 years? Is it 25%, is it 50%, is there no chance at all? 

If there is an economic slowdown, what is the chance of political turmoil, and then what is the extent, nature and virulence of this political turmoil? Is it a bunch children of “princelings” that can be run over with tanks, or is something more broadly based.

The problem with revolutions, is that once they start, they gets pretty hard to predict where they are going to go. For example, when the Shah of Iran abdicated in 1979, much his vocal opposition came from the left, often college students. The country ended up being taken over by Ayatollahs. The Russian revolution started in 1917 with the moderately liberal Cadet Party and Alexander Kerensky running the country in a somewhat democratic manner and ended up with Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin in charge. The Russian revolution of 1991 ended up with Boris Yeltsin in charge of a developing democracy and ended up with Vladimir Putin in charge. The Arab Spring of 2010-2012 resulted in demonstrations and revolts in 17 or so different countries. In four of those countries the governments were overthrown (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen). Only one ended up with a democratic government in its aftermath. 

And then there is always the possibility that China could end up with no central controlling government at all. This is not all that far-fetched. China has spent almost of much of its history broken up into smaller states as it has spend unified as a single state. There is no strong reason to assume that over the next decades that China will remain unified. There is no history that suggests such a pattern.  

Modern countries do break up. Yugoslavia comes to mind. There are significant independence movements in Catalonia (Barcelona) and Scotland. So the image of China as a dominating unified state may not be the image moving forward.

Anyhow, I suspect we are looking at maybe a 50% chance of a major economic slowdown in the next 20 years (this is just a wild guess, I have no idea what the odds of such an event are). If there is an economic slowdown, then I am guessing maybe a 50% change of unrest and turmoil. So….there is no guarantee that China will be in a position or place to even consider invading Taiwan in the next 20 years. Maybe a 50% chance that this is the case.


Related blog posts:

Why Men Rebel? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Why Are We Still Wondering Why Men (And Women) Rebel? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Quote from America’s Modern Wars | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Ted Gurr Has Passed Away | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Variable 3: How is the economy of China doing?

Now, the Chinese economy has been on a tear for the last three decades. This graph cribbed from Wikipedia nicely shows this trend:

It was doing double-digit growth rates and is still growing 6-7% a year. As I point out in my previous blog posts, the Chinese armed forces are not really ready to invade a defended Taiwan, especially their air force and navy. This is going to take some time and money to build up. 

Such a build up sort of means that the economy needs to keep growing. Hard to justify lots of nice new shiny expensive high-tech airplanes when the economy is in the doldrums. As the economy has been steadily growing at 6% or more a year for 30+ years, their definition of doldrums may be pretty slanted. 

Now, relatively speaking, the Chinese have not been putting as much into defense as either Taiwan or the United States. Their defense budget is between 1.3% to 1.7% of their GDP. In contrast, the U.S. defense budget is between 3.4% to 3.7% of its GDP. Taiwan’s defense budget is around 2.3% of their GDP. As the Chinese economy grows, so to will their defense budget; I suspect we will know they are serious about changing the status of Taiwan if and when their defense budget expands to 2 or 3% of GDP.

But, the big question is whether the Chinese economy is actually going to keep expanding at 6% a year. A lot of people have been questioning that for a while, some people have been predicting that China is heading for an economic crash, some people have been claiming that the economy is artificially boosted, and other people are claiming that their economic statistics are artificially boosted. Regardless, they are facing a changing economic environment with India and other countries taking over the “cheap manufacturer” role. The transition to a more developed and growing economy could be a little fraught. 

There is one big ticking time-bomb the Chinese are facing, which is their demographics. I have blogged about this before (see below). The birth rate of China is below replacement rate, so the population is aging and the number of new young workers is declining. Old people are less productive and because of their health problems, sometimes more expensive. This is an economic drag with all aging populations unless one comes up with a Logan’s Run type solution. But, even a bigger problem will be the declining young work force. This is in part, a problem created by the one-child policy of China, which had good short-term benefits but has now created a long-term problem. Most likely the Chinese population will experience negative population growth by 2030. The population for China for 2021 is estimated at 1.44 billion. The United Nations predicts the Chinese population will be 1.36 billion by 2050. The real shortfall will be in the number of new workers.

Now, China is reacting to that with a new three-child policy. An article on that is below. China abandoned is one-child policy in 2015 (much too late in my opinion), went to a two-child policy and now have upgraded to a three-child policy. What is next: do they all become Mormons? This does look like an exercise in desperation. But, regardless of what the Chinese government does, I don’t think we are going to see a sudden sea-change in Chinese demographics over the next twenty years.

So, if the population starts declining by 2030…then does the economy decline with it? I think it will slow economic growth down. Hard to imagine they can maintain their 6% growth rates in that environment. They appear to have no quick and easy fix.

Now, a slow growth, stagnant or declining economy creates all kind of new problems. First, it is hard to increase or justify defense expenses when the economy is stagnant. If they are serious about creating the modern air forces and navy that they need to invade Taiwan, then they need to go on a spending spree for a decade or so. Chinese is looking at the population starting to decline by 2030. In 2020 they only had 12 million new births. By 2025 they will have over 300 million people over the age of 60. Does this mean that they have already “lost the bubble” for the chance to build up their military so as to take Taiwan?

Second, invading Taiwan is going to have a big negative economic impact. I have discussed this before, with perhaps a loss of 60-80% of their trade, 60% of their oil and a decline in their economy of 30-40% (just a guess). See the post below.

Third, stagnant or declining economies tend to lead to demands for political reform. This leads to either governmental reforms, leadership changes, civil unrest or even overthrow of the government. It was the extended period of economic stagnation that set the stage for the overthrow of Communism in Russia. We did go from a world in 1991 that had 16 Communist governments to a world with only four (China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea). Is this the final stage of that movement? One cannot rule it out. Hard to imagine the leadership of China is going to be focused on invading Taiwan if they are facing another Tiananmen Square (1989)

That said, there is a risk here in the danger to the government. Argentine invaded Falklands Island in part due to concerns about unrest in Argentina. In a sense, it was an invasion conducted for the sake of trying to bolster the government. This may not be a good example for China to follow, for not only did Argentina loose the war, but the government was overthrown and the leaders were arrested. The head of the Argentine junta was sentenced to a dozen years in jail. 

There is another example of a booming Asian economy that was going to surpass the United States. This is Japan. I have blogged about this before. To summarize: In 1995 the Japanese economy was 71% of the U.S. economy based upon GDP. In 2017 it was 25%.  I always liked this graph from that blog post:

Does history repeat itself?



Previous blog posts:

Invading Taiwan in the next six years – the fight? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Proposed Defense Budget for 2022 | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Demographics of China | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

“We can’t afford it”: Chinese internet users have rejected Beijing’s new three-child policy

Where Did Japan Go? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)


P.S. Chinese economy grew 6.7% in 2018, 6.0% in 2019, 2.3% in 2020 and is projected to grow 8.5% in 2021 (source: World Bank and for 2021 IMF). In contrast, the U.S. economy grew 3.0% in 2018, 2.2% in 2019, -3.5% in 2020 (it shrunk), and is projected to grow 6.39% in 2021 (source IMF).

P.P.S.: A recent article on Chinese demographics that repeats what I have been saying: https://www.reuters.com/world/china/china-2020-census-shows-slowest-population-growth-since-1-child-policy-2021-05-11/

Variable 2: What is the changing composition of the politburo?

This subject would be best discussed by a proper “China watcher”, vice me. But… let me make a few observations on this. Politburo’s in the Soviet Union and in Red China have traditionally, but not always, been subservient to the leading political figure of the day. This leading figure is usually the Chairman of the communist party, although during the time of Deng Xiaopiing, he was the leading figure even though his official role was the Chairman of the Central Military Commission until 9 November 1989. While he held no official office after that he clearly was still considered the “paramount leader” and was still the senior leader in China up until his death in 1997 at the age of 92. Still, politburo’s sometimes have a significant role. The next leader invariably comes from it, and they are involved to some extent in choosing the next leader. The nature of the politburo does matter as they often reign in leadership and sometimes even try to overthrow leadership. So usually their operations are low-key and behind the scenes, until such time as they are not.

The current politburo of Chinese Communist Party consists of 25 people. But the power of the politburo has been further centralized in the Politburo Standing Committee of seven members. They are Xi Jinping (President of PRC and General Secretary CCP, aged 67), Li Keqiang (Premier, aged 65), Li Zhanshu (Chairman of National People’s Congress, aged 70), Wang Yang (Chairman of Political Consultative Conference, aged 66), Wang Huning (First Secretary CCP, aged 65), Zhao Leji (Chairman Dicipline Inspection, aged 64) and Han Zheng (Vice Premier, aged 67).

This is a pretty homogenous crowd, all aged between 64 and 70. Mostly likely, as Xi Jinping ages and retires, none of these people are going to be his long-term replacement. Over the next decade or two there will a rising generations of new leaders pulled up into the politburo. So the generational replacement for Xi Jinping is not in place yet, or at least he/she is not currently sitting on the Politburo Standing Committee.

This, of course, just reinforces my impression that the Politburo and therefore the leadership of China will be fairly cautious and deliberate for the next decade and perhaps for the next two decades. Potentially adventurous and risk-taking leaders are currently not in place, and they can only rise to the top as positions are opened. This may take a while.