Battle for Taiwan. US losses: 10,000 casualties, two aircraft carriers sunk

A prestigious US think tank conducted 24 war games. The defence of the island succeeded in most cases, in few scenarios China won. But there were such scenarios.

War games, or, to put it better, warfare simulations, are the daily bread of military planners. They build the most varied scenarios, involving the use of the most diverse weapons, including nuclear weapons, to prepare their countries for all eventualities. This is what they are for.

Arguably, if ordinary people were given access to this material they would be horrified and assume that the most horrible warmongers working in the seclusion of offices to destroy the world were seething in armies and ministries. Such simulations are therefore rightly kept under lock and key. Civilian war enthusiasts, mainly teenagers, can play countless strategy games that give them the pleasant illusion that they are winning, while the vast majority of the public are unaware of what military planning actually looks like. Which is a good thing.

But what happens when the analysis of war simulations is made available to the public? When the curtain is lifted and we are allowed a glimpse into a room that the planners and analysts have just left for a moment? Where you can still feel the tension after the conflict has been brought to an end and all that is left is to summarise the long rows of numbers, each one signifying someone’s life, no matter if it is virtual – this game can be played for real when things go in an unforeseen direction. What about when we are shown what would happen if the two biggest military powers in the world, the United States and China, clashed? What is the purpose of such an endeavour?

I think this is one of the important questions that should be asked after the renowned US think tank on security issues, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, published a report on the results of 24 military simulations of a conflict over Taiwan starting with an attack by China, and the United States stepping in to defend it with variously formed coalitions of allies.

War games

The phrase about “lifting the veil” is accurate, but it does not mean that the CSIS report allowed us, laypeople, to peek into the Pentagon’s offices. Its authors stress that it is not based on classified material. It is therefore not a report on simulations done by the US military. It is a report made by a private foundation, based on publicly available sources, which, however, are plentiful in a country that values the opinion of taxpayers and gives them a lot of information about what they pay for. Far more than in countries like Poland.

That said, this foundation is no ordinary one. Established in 1962 by Admiral Arleigh Burke, after whom a class of US guided-missile destroyers was named while he was still alive, from its inception it has served as a platform to provide Congress and the administration with information and ideas related to national security and foreign policy. It is currently headed by a former undersecretary of defence, its predecessor was a long-serving senator in charge of military affairs in the Senate, and the foundation’s board members include a former secretary of commerce, a former head of the CIA and secretary of defence, a former presidential security adviser, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, State Department officials, negotiators of international agreements, generals, bankers, industrialists and philanthropists, i.e. the people who make up the American “deep state”.

At the presentation of the report, the panellists discussing the report were two retired senior military officers now active in military and war science institutions. They certainly would not have attended a “partisan” event. With all the assurances that CSIS is “independent and non-partisan”, it is hard to imagine it being independent of and acting against the American raison d’État.
Taiwanese army exercises in Kaohsiung in January 2022.Annabelle Chih/Getty Images
The public was not shown the simulations themselves, nor was detailed information provided on what the results of each of the 24 war games were. Not even a simple breakdown was given as to how many games ended in a Chinese victory, how many led to a stalemate, and how many were won by the US-led coalition defending Taiwan. One could only learn that the defence of the island was successful in most cases, while China’s wins were relatively few. But there were such scenarios.

Losses were important. In each of the simulations, the war for Taiwan ended with heavy losses on all warring sides. The largest on the Chinese side, but that was not what worried the authors of the report and the experts discussing it. It was America’s losses, which on average were put at around 10,000 dead soldiers and at least two nuclear aircraft carriers. War games specialist Becca Wasser, who participated in the panel, asked a dramatic question of whether the US public was psychologically ready for such heavy losses. Others agreed with her, and no one had a good answer at hand that took care of the problem. The question hung in the air and will soon demand a public answer.

  The level of losses, which Vladimir Putin’s generals would not even have noticed, has been considered severe by US experts. The last armed conflict in which US army losses exceeded 10,000 was the Vietnam War, which ended almost half a century ago and lasted 20 years, with almost 50,000 casualties. The losses there transformed America’s consciousness and changed the face of the country. In the case of the war over Taiwan, 10,000 soldiers would have fallen in a matter of weeks, which can only be compared to the losses of World War II. What effect would this have on contemporary American society, which is much more peace-minded than in the first decades after 1945?

The second major problem that the simulations have shown is that without US and other allied troops (but the US must be the keystone of the coalition), Taiwan always loses. The difference in military potential between the island about the size of Mazovia, with a population of less than 24 million, and a mainland colossus, with a population approaching one and a half billion, is simply too great. In a parallel case, even Ukraine left to its own devices would probably stand a better chance against Russia.

Since the role of the US is crucial, the question is how the US should provide assistance. The Ukrainian model of supplying equipment and ammunition to the fighting troops of an attacked country is impossible to replicate. Geography is inexorable: deliveries to an island thousands of kilometres away from the allies and under attack from sea and air are simply not feasible. Once Chinese troops manage to land and deploy large numbers of troops, it is only a matter of time before the Taiwanese lose. This war must be fought at sea and in the air for the island to be saved. That, at least, is what the simulations suggest.

So only direct engagement comes into play, and immediate engagement at that. For simulations have shown that the allies must step in immediately to destroy the invasion fleet. Any hesitation and delay gives China a decisive advantage. So the US president must decide now whether to defend Taiwan. And the military must prepare actions that will be a simple consequence of that decision.

Die for Taipei?

Taiwan’s history has seen it fall victim to the political manoeuvre of trying to break up Communist China’s alliance with the Soviet Union. To this end, President Jimmy Carter decided to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1979, for which the price was the withdrawal of recognition of Taiwan. From then on, the United States did not recognise the island’s independence de jure, but recognised it de facto, maintaining relations through entities calling themselves Institutes and acting in effect as embassies.

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Surely this must have happened at some point in history, because it is hard to imagine that a country of one billion people could be ignored and call China a small island off its shores. Just what was to be done with a society that at the time was not yet an oasis of democracy in the current sense of the word, but was certainly a hundred times freer than the communist colossus in which the “cultural revolution” had just ended, with millions of victims.

Carter, with his human rights offensive, could not accept that twenty million people, citizens of a country that had previously been America’s ally, should be transferred to the communist Gulag. He would have lost credibility. So he gave the island a number of guarantees, perhaps the most important of which was that the United States would not mediate between Beijing and Taipei, read: would not force the islanders to submit to the PRC. The second important aspect of the guarantees was arms sales and military cooperation.

However, the commitment to defend Taiwan was not there. There did not need to be. Communist China was militarily weak at the time. They were just getting a solid beating from seasoned Vietnamese troops and carrying out an operation as complex as a naval invasion was far beyond the limit of their capabilities.

Only after more than forty years, the military situation has changed fundamentally. Chinese armaments are now advanced, with a third aircraft carrier about to leave the shipyard, joining eight missile cruisers, 36 destroyers, 45 frigates, 50 corvettes and 57 landing ships. China’s air superiority over Taiwan’s is more than six times, the numerical superiority of the army, which in peacetime numbers more than one million soldiers, is eleven times.

In addition, China is very advanced in the military use of artificial intelligence and has rapidly accelerated the development of its nuclear arsenal, which is currently slightly above that of France or the UK, but is expected to reach 1,500 warheads within a decade, putting the country on a par with Russia and the US. Now, defending Taiwan on its own is simply not possible. Guarantees and deterrence are needed.

Uncle Joe’s gaffes

The master of political slips of the tongue, the current President of the United States Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. or Joe, known for his gaffes and slips of the tongue, which usually have a hidden agenda, came to the rescue. He violated the principle of so-called “strategic ambiguity”, which had been in place for more than 40 years. This consisted of America officially answering neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’ to the question of whether it would defend Taiwan.

This silence was for everyone to interpret for themselves. The islanders looking at the arms sales, military cooperation and political gestures hoped that the answer was yes. The Chinese may have thought otherwise, but they could not be certain. Meanwhile, Biden has answered the question posed to him in the affirmative several times in the past. In a moment, all sorts of spokespeople were whipping around to prove that the president had not said what he had said at all, but everyone knew that something had changed. After the last such statement in May last year, Taiwan’s president expressed gratitude, while China spoke of “serious damage to mutual relations”.

Over the summer, following a meeting between US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, the official press organ there, the English-language Global Times posted a special editorial commentary reiterating and clarifying what General Wei had said and should have said on the subject at his meeting with Austin: “The Taiwan issue is at the heart of vital Chinese interests and is an impassable red line in US-PRC relations”. It went on to say that if anyone tries to break Taiwan away from China, “the Chinese army will not hesitate to fight, and to fight at all costs”. He could not have put it any clearer.
The US Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely during a visit to Gdynia in 2019. Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Biden was attacked after these statements for giving the Taiwanese a blank cheque, but it seems that his gaffes were simply an attempt to implement the concept of deterrence. Whether successful – it is difficult to say. Just as it is difficult to say what effect the end of his speech in Warsaw had when he said of Putin that “such a man can no longer remain in such a position”.

Dominance and microchips

Actually, why is Taiwan so important? For China and for America. What makes it possible that this relatively small island, where Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers took refuge in 1949 after losing a civil war, could now become the cause of a conflict with incalculable consequences?

For China, the issue is simple: it recognises Taiwan as its province and its authorities have set as their goal the unification of the whole of China. This should happen by the centenary of the founding of the PRC at the latest, i.e. by 2049, but given the personal commitment of President Xi Jingping, who will turn 70 this year and would like to see the project completed while he is still alive, so probably quite a lot sooner.

And for the United States? Why should their soldiers die for Taipei? There are many reasons, but the most important are two. One is geostrategic. China has challenged America and wants to take its place as the most important power in the world: the most populous, the richest and the strongest. The post-Cold War order, which was based on US dominance, is wobbling.

Many observers are excited about when the Chinese economy will surpass the US economy. According to some indicators this has already happened, trends of others show that it will happen in a few more years, but the exact date is not important. What is important is that this change is inevitable. China’s power is growing and nothing seems to stop this growth.

Economic importance is followed by political importance. Countries that fear being dominated by China (for now, these are countries in the region, but in time this group may expand) are looking to America as a counterweight. If the US gives Taiwan back to China, the US reputation will be ruined. The country will be at a point of no return to its previous situation. It will begin to walk on an escalator leading to a loss of relevance. The pax americana, already in question, will begin to come to a definitive end.

The second reason is purely economic and somewhat trivial: Taiwan produces 90% of microchips in the world. The destruction of its factories, or worse, their takeover by the PRC, would be a worldwide disaster. Since microchips are in almost everything from fridges and smartphones to missiles and fighter planes, the world would overnight be deprived of the ability to mass-produce all electronic devices or find itself at the mercy of the Chinese. The consequences are hard to imagine.

The latter reason will be felt less acutely in a few years’ time as the US (and not only the US) invests rapidly in domestic microchip production, but the former reason will persist. America is determined to maintain the existing world order and is not going to let the Chinese remodel it. This, among other reasons, is why it is investing so much in the war in Ukraine, which is weakening China’s biggest ally. Admittedly, they have not openly sided with Russia, but in the event of a Russian victory, they would certainly seek to further develop their anti-Western alliance and there would be a kind of return to the situation of the immediate post-World War II era, when the USSR and PRC stood together against the “capitalist camp” with the intention of destroying it.

Deterrence and taming

Last September, Michele A. Flournoy, former undersecretary of defence in the Obama administration, and Michael A. Brown, former director of the department dealing with military innovation in the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations, published an article in Foreign Affairs in which they wrote that the innovation arms race currently being conducted by China and America should lead to a clear American advantage after 2030.

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Consequently, in 2024-27, President Xi may be tempted to take advantage of what they called a “window of weakness”, when he may think he can win militarily. The authors called for this “window” to close as soon as possible and focus on innovative combat systems.

Also former Australian Prime Minister and close observer of Chinese affairs, Kevin Rudd takes the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan seriously and postulates that both Taipei and Washington should build effective deterrence so that when China’s political leadership decides to attack, the military leadership will say that it involves too much risk. In fact, no serious observer rules out conflict, and deterrence is the key word in their analyses.

It seems that the war games report released this week by CSIS is part of just such a deterrent. It is intended to show Beijing that its defeat is very likely and that any victory will be Pyrrhic and will stunt the economic development of the world, but especially of China, for a long time.

Incidentally, however, as I mentioned earlier, the report shows the enormous human and material costs for the United States. Perhaps in this way it is meant to open up a discussion on whether these costs are worth incurring and, consequently, to “tame” Americans, as it were, to the coming war. And if so, Europeans should also think about it.

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Chinese army combat exercises with live ammunition in Zhangzhou in August 2022. photo: CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images
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