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The East Is Red, Or It Will Be Soon

5:11 PM, Aug 14, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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DOD Buzz's Greg Grant reports that "for all the talk about irregular and hybrid warfare, the driving force in the QDR strategic review currently underway is the High End Asymmetric Threat, or HEAT, team." That would be the folks studying how the Red Chinese will go about keeping the U.S. Navy and Air Force from engaging in a conflict in the Western Pacific -- by disrupting communications, destroying runways, and effectively targeting ships and aircraft in the conflict zone. Just by having the capacity to inflict such damage on U.S. forces, the Chinese will alter the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait to their advantage, giving great pause to any administration confronted with the choice of intervening to defend Taiwan or watching as it is gobbled up whole by the mainland. And a new report from the RAND Corporation sees the latter as an increasingly likely scenario. Again, Grant:

It makes the timing and the findings of a new RAND analysis of a full blown Chinese attack across the Taiwan straits all the more interesting. The new report, in typical RAND style, uses sophisticated modeling to simulate a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the 2010-2015 timeframe, including a preemptive ballistic missile bombardment, a cyber assault on the island's infrastructure and a Normandy style amphibious landing.

In a 2000 report that looked at a similar scenario, RAND predicted a bloody repulse for the attacking Chinese as Taiwanese and U.S. aircraft savaged the Chinese air fleet and seaborne landing force. However, this time around, RAND sees China establishing air superiority over the strait within hours of the first shots being fired.

How to explain such a reversal? Primarily, it's due to China's burgeoning stock of increasingly accurate short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), around 1,000 of which are deployed opposite Taiwan. Launching a preemptive strike, RAND figures that with 90 to 240 SRBMs, China could: "cut every runway at Taiwan's half-dozen main fighter bases and destroy essentially all of the aircraft parked on ramps in the open at those installations." Follow on bombing raids by Chinese aircraft armed with precision bombs would destroy any surviving Taiwanese aircraft parked in hardened shelters.

Add to that the fact that Chinese surface to air missiles can now target Taiwanese aircraft as they land and takeoff from airbases anywhere on the island and you have a serious imbalance that Taiwanese military intelligence estimates will definitively tip the balance of power in the Strait in favor of the Communists by the end of this year. Ask the Taiwanese what they're doing to prepare for a future attack and they'll tell you they've really mastered the art of repairing damaged runways -- it's not a response that inspires confidence.

The obvious solution is to give the Taiwanese some sort of deterrent capability -- the capacity to level every skyscraper in Shanghai within the first hours of any confrontation, giving the regime in Beijing its own reason to think twice before plunging headlong into a war with Taiwan. But the Obama administration wouldn't dare do that, and the current government in Taiwan probably wouldn't want such weapons anyway lest they anger their allies on the mainland. The Taiwanese government has requested 60 F-16C/D fighters, which can be fitted with external fuel tanks to extend their range for offensive operations, but they wouldn't stand much of a chance against China's sophisticated air defense systems. (Taiwan also wants in on JSF, but that ain't gonna happen).

There is language -- inserted by Senator John Cornyn -- in the Defense Authorization bill asking for a report from the Pentagon on the air balance in the Strait, but the administration has already killed the F-22, the most potent weapon in the U.S. arsenal for deterring, or finishing, any potential conflict in the Pacific. More than that, the Taiwanese don't really want to help themselves.* Attempts to procure aircraft and subs since President Ma came to power have been half-hearted at best. It's not a good situation, made worse by decades of neglect on both sides of the aisle here in Washington. And as the RAND report correctly points out, the obsequiousness of the current government in Taipei may keep a lid on things in the short-term, but in the medium- to long-term, it's liable to create even more problems as Beijing learns that no matter who is in charge in Taiwan, reunification can't be achieved peacefully.

* A China watcher says this is a bit unfair:

Ma's team may be whistling in the wind but the LY and the ministry of defense have pretty consistently pushed for getting both the subs and the planes.

What the report shows is they are going to need a whole lot of anti-air missiles and VSTOL aircraft to make something of a battle of it...