Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Question of Balance (RAND on the China-Taiwan Conflict)

Over at Wired's Danger Room (you can see it in my blog list) David Axe offers a nice summary of a new RAND study, A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute. The study's authors (David A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scot Tanner, Barry Wilson) argue that "Looking to the near future, improved air defense capabilities, including shipboard defenses, a growing inventory of modern fourth generation fighters, and a powerful and flexible force of offensive ballistic missiles place in jeopardy the long-held assumption of the defense’s control of the skies over the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan’s coastline" (p. 118).

The 185 page study, the PDF edition of which can (like much of that think tank's output) be accessed freely online, posits a scenario circa 2013 in which China uses those ballistic missiles to suppress the Taiwanese Air Force and make it a simpler matter for its own modernized air force (which might deploy 350 to 400 generation 3.5 and generation 4 fighters, while benefiting from better electronic warfare and precision guided munitions capabilities) to seize air superiority over the island (especially in the event that the missile attacks hit U.S. bases on Okinawa).

Chapter 3 works out the details with regard to the missile attack, Chapter 4 those with regard to the aerial fighting. This makes for a much more effective assault of any sort, and raises the odds of a successful invasion (the focus of Chapter 5)--but the latter (which the authors acknowledge is the "only . . . military course of action that guarantees China control of Taiwan") remains pretty unlikely. Even assuming the expansion of China's assault fleet, it would have the capacity to deliver only 30,000 troops to the beachheads, far too few to conquer the island--and even these would not be certain of getting there, even with air superiority, because of land-based cruise missiles, mines, helicopters and fires from ground forces on the Taiwanese coast.

As a result, they conclude that "an invasion of Taiwan would, in the face of properly prepared defenses, remain a bold and possibly foolish gamble on Beijing’s part."

And even that may be overoptimistic. As David Axe points out, the study fails to properly acknowledge the impact U.S. submarines (and it might be added, Taiwan's subs as well) could have on the invasion, relegating it to a single footnote on page 118, though conceding that "their firepower would
substantially increase the defenders’ odds of success."

It might also be suggested that the assumption of an attack on U.S. bases in Okinawa is a little too pat (as partially acknowledged in the sidebar on pages 86-87), given, if nothing else, the risk that Japan's own very large and very capable air and naval forces would enter the conflict, which would work strongly against China.

And then, of course, there is the broader political context, and all the factors in it that work against any decision to undertake a large-scale attack on Taiwan: that China has prioritized development over military confrontation; that China's trade with Taiwan, the U.S. and Japan approach $800 billion a year, or about 18 percent of the country's GDP (measured at official exchange rates); that the damage China would likely do to its military establishment and its relations with key neighbors and trading partners in even a relatively limited conflict would damage its security position and diminish its influence, and its economic growth, for years to come, while likely subjecting the country to even worse internal stresses than a war against Taiwan would be meant to alleviate; and that "any PLA combat with U.S. forces involves China’s tacit acceptance of the risks of fighting a nuclear-armed superpower" (p. 86).

These factors may not make a conflict between mainland China and Taiwan impossible (a move toward formal, permanent independence on Taiwan's part is seen by many as an exception to China's usually scrupulous practice of rational realpolitik, in part because Taiwan's status is seen as an "internal matter" and key legitimacy issue), but I suspect they diminish the likelihood of a major conflict much more than is generally appreciated.

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