Why America Can’t Defend Taiwan
Basic military geography means that America is no longer able to defend Taiwan from mainland China.
Here’s the basic, overriding fact to keep in mind about being a so-called superpower separated from every potential battlefield by two vast oceans:
Military power always declines with distance.
Armies run on their stomachs, and modern armies have a metabolism rivaling a herd of dinosaurs. To keep thousands of personnel deployed and in action on the other side of the world means shipping astonishing amounts of material across thousands of miles of ocean. Deployments are incredibly stressful on flesh and metal, so for every formation you have in the field you’ve got to have at least two others either recovering from or preparing for a deployment.
Americans by and large don’t care about their military members except on holidays where they make a ritual of thanking them for their service (why I rarely talk about mine around Veterans Day). The vast majority have never served or known anyone who did. They simply don’t understand what military life is like or the challenges personnel face.
A hard truth about the American military is that most of its equipment is badly outdated, relying on technology China has spent the last twenty years working out how to disrupt and defeat. It can’t protect its ships or bases in the region from mass attacks by ballistic missiles, as Iran’s bombardment of US forces after the Soleimani killing in 2020 proved with painful clarity.
And it’s leaders aren’t much better, the officer corps a technocratic elite cast of its own obsessed with managing the less-educated enlisted underlings. None have any real experience in high intensity modern combat, only counterinsurgency — which didn’t go all that well, in case you forgot.
More important by far though is the simple fact it takes a long time for America to get equipment into position to fight. Aircraft carrier battle groups are powerful formations, but they can only travel about 700 nautical miles a day. The U.S. Navy has eleven, with two typically in and around the Western Pacific during moments of tension, but reinforcements from west coast ports of Seattle and San Diego take about two weeks to cross the Pacific, and five of America’s carrier groups have home ports on the Atlantic coast, requiring many weeks to a month to get to the West Pacific.
China, on the other hand, has a ton of bases within 200 miles of Taiwan. Where America will always struggle to keep 1/3 of its military on the field of battle for more than a short period of time, China can probably sustain a full half of its own military on Taiwan-related operations for months.
China’s military — even its relatively young navy — is bigger than America’s and always will be. While China’s military budget is only around $200 billion — around a quarter of America’s — and isn’t quite as sophisticated yet, this doesn’t account for purchasing power differences between the two countries. And China is still growing, while America is stagnant or, I suspect, in the middle of a broad scale systems collapse.
As the old military saying goes, numbers have a quality of their own. American historians like to forget it, but in the Korean War China’s intervention defeated the joint American and United Nations invasion of North Korea (after, of course, they had defeated North Korea’s attempt to take over the South). More impressively, Mao’s forces accomplished this just a couple years after the civil war that pushed Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists to seek refuge on Taiwan.
Proximity defines warfare, always has and will. And the hard truth about Taiwan is that China could retake the island right now and America could do very little to stop it short of resorting to nuclear strikes on the Chinese mainland.
Which it won’t, because China has nukes too, and no American leader is going to commit national suicide over Taiwan. China’s leaders know full well America can’t handle the casualties and global economic turmoil that would result from a direct, all-out conflict. They’d be fools to bet otherwise, given available evidence, so bluffs and threats won’t sway them — these lack credibility.
A hard truth the Pentagon and its media boosters are desperate that Americans never realize — they consume about half of Americans’ federal income taxes, after all — is that if you want to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan imposing economic costs is now the only option.
Reuters recently published a solid analysis that reflects conventional American military thinking on a Taiwan crisis fairly well. Where it fails in its presentation of the likely conflict scenarios is misunderstanding China’s checkmate option, one Beijing can always choose provided it is willing to take the hit to its global reputation that would come with stong-arming Taipei.
Beijing knows that it can now win a fight over Taiwan — that’s why, for all his bluster and intimidation, Xi Jinping has been careful to set a final reunification date for 2049. A classic symbolic promise everyone knows he won’t be around to have to fulfill.
In the near term, so long as Taiwan doesn’t try to declare independence and the United States doesn’t embrace a devoted military and diplomatic containment effort with forward-deployed forces in the First Island Chain, which is incidentally exactly what the American foreign policy elite demands— mainland China has no real reason to launch an invasion. Time is on Beijing’s side and there are plenty of strong reasons not to go that far.
China is economically bound to Europe and developing countries in Africa and South America. In a true global conflict it would face American attacks on its shipping which it can’t hope to stop — submarines are a threat no one is prepared to handle unless and until China’s anti-submarine LIDAR satellite system is proven to work.
If China ever attacks Taiwan without provocation, it proves everything America insists about the regime in Beijing to the rest of the world. At a moment when people around the world distrust America more than ever before, this would be an incredible self-own.
Supply chains would shift dramatically, international investments too. Taiwan controls a huge portion of the semiconductor market and Taipei’s democratic government is friendly with half the world. A Chinese attack would have immediate worldwide consequences and crash the global economy, making China far worse off.
Beijing has come too far in recent decades to waste this progress on a futile, unnecessary conflict that gains it little but a wrecked island to rebuild. A war over Taiwan only happens if China feels that its ability to successfully invade is eroding too quickly — more or less, if America pushes China into an attack.
The basic overriding fact controlling the course of any conflict over Taiwan is the fact China can pretty much cut the island off from the rest of the world at will and there is no longer anything America or anyone else can do about it without a war that will cost thousands of lives. Beijing doesn’t need to invade to inflict a dramatic humiliation on America.
China can move into a dominant military position faster than America or Taiwan could even confirm a real operation was underway. A key reason why China runs so many flybys of Taiwan these days is to make sure that if and when they do decide to encircle it and put customs checks in place, no one will be sure that’s actually what’s happening until it’s too late.
Assuming that China will need to commit ground troops to an invasion is a mistake — naval and air forces can be recalled without the true intent of their deployment being revealed, giving China plausible deniability if it chooses to ramp up pressure then back down at the last minute. Beijing will not deploy ground forces and risk casualties until it is certain of victory — as Sun Tzu said, the best victory is one you achieve without fighting at all.
If China does make a move, one day, perhaps as soon as 2023, the world will wake up one morning to find that a hundred Chinese naval vessels backed by flotillas from their maritime militias are in international waters, surrounding Taiwan. Soon it will be obvious that dozens of China’s quiet diesel-electric submarines are in position, floating silently in the shallows near every Taiwanese port.
Beijing will deny anything is even happening up until the first news reports confirm ships en route to or from Taiwan are being stopped, boarded, and inspected before being turned back or allowed to continue on, depending on their cargo. Taipei will suspect something is up within hours and alert allied governments, but it takes time — hours to a day — for most governments to simply collate the reports from all their various agencies and confirm something big is underway.
By then, China’s military advantage if shooting started would already be extreme. Probably enough that Taiwan’s government would either be isolated or forced into reunification talks.
Day 1 of the Chinese blockade would be a confused mess. It takes time for global leaders to accept what they’re seeing is real. Public outcry and half-accurate media reports will create a sense of panic and confusion — in America you can be sure action aside from putting forces on alert will be delayed until the President’s political managers can evaluate the impact of any response.
Some, like the authors of the Reuters piece, might expect that Taipei would begin firing on Chinese forces right away, but this isn’t really a viable response at this stage. If Taiwan fires the first shot in anything less than a full-scale Chinese invasion, it loses sympathy with the world. Shooting first gives Beijing an easy excuse to wipe out Taiwan’s main defenses.
American leaders keep talking up the idea of equipping Taiwan with long-range missiles powerful enough to strike back against the Chinese mainland. This is completely futile — first off, China already has a world-class air defense network designed to ward off the kind of massive air strikes the US prefers to unleash against its foes. Taiwan simply can’t hope to procure enough missiles to penetrate this shield, it’s generally cheaper to build multiple surface to air missiles than a single cruise or ballistic missile.
Even more important, we now live in an age where satellites can scope out every square meter of the landscape in real time. These days, only what can be carefully hidden can expect to survive long on a battlefield. Those new long-range missile launchers will become targets the moment they move into position to fire.
The moment Taipei fights back, Beijing can drop an apocalypse of ballistic and cruise missiles on the island. Taiwan is also protected by a decent air defense system — but Patriot missile launchers and especially the active radars they rely on to guide their weapons are easily hit by swarms of missiles. Taiwan is in range of literally thousands of short and medium range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and even drones — its air defenses will be saturated if it comes to it, and at relatively low cost to China’s military power.
Beijing literally has more missiles to bomb Taiwan with than it has to use to shoot down incoming fire — and this will never change. Air bases, even remote or austere strips of highway usable by fighter jets, can easily be rendered unusable by a few successful strikes. As important, it almost impossible to launch, recover, and re-arm military aircraft while missiles are raining down every few minutes. Taipei does have sheltered airbases under several mountains, but exits can be blocked by missile hits.
A mass missile strike wouldn’t destroy Taiwan’s defenses entirely, but it would eliminate most of its long-range capabilities. What missiles Taipei does send at the Chinese mainland will mostly get shot down, the rest doing little to impede Beijing’s relentless operation. Within 2–3 days of fighting Taiwan’s main air defenses would be gone, its surface ships sunk, and its surviving submarines facing a gauntlet of anti-submarine aircraft and small ships when they try to leave the shallows off the Taiwanese coast.
Where is America in this? Outnumbered, outgunned, its local forces vulnerable to the same kind of bombardment as Taiwan. If the US does put units in the First Island chain in the near future, they’ll be wiped out the moment they open fire.
The Taiwanese government knows this all too well. Firing the first shot is tantamount to suicide. Its only hope in the event of a Chinese attack is rescue by the international community, and if Taipei does start the shooting, no united anti-Beijing front will be possible.
Taiwan is in a horrible position. Beijing can surround it, harass it, call Taipei’s bluff of being able to defend its territory and America’s bluff of being willing or able to assist. If Taiwan doesn’t shoot back, China can start landing small numbers of soldiers on one of Taiwan’s outlying islands that are closer to the mainland than Taiwan itself.
If China wants to apply maximum pressure, this might happen as soon as Day 2 of the crisis. It won’t need to be a full-scale invasion, just landing a few helicopter loads of soldiers on the edge of an island to assert Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over it.
Taipei will at that point face the same impossible choice as on Day 1 — start shooting and invite a brutal counter-response Beijing plays off as an American plot, or refuse to act and effectively admit China has the power to win. If Taipei doesn’t respond forcefully, China can escalate by expanding the landing operation, putting troops covered by mass air power on the rest of Taiwan’s outlying islands — but not the mainland, which there’s no reason to directly attack once its quarantined.
As all this is going on, America will face its own stark choices rooted in simple military reality. There is a hard limit on the number of jets, ships, and troops the American military can deploy to the Western Pacific in time to matter. A single carrier battle group, presently centered around the Ronald Reagan), forward-deployed in Yokosuka, Japan. Often there is another hanging around in the South China Sea or visiting allies. Most of the time, two carrier groups can be on scene within 3 days — but it will take another 7–10 days at least before a third carrier can arrive from the west coast and many weeks before a fourth would arrive.
American bombers can fly to the Western Pacific from bases stateside, but it takes around twelve hours to get there, so only one or two dozen can muster at once. There are major air bases in South Korea and Japan — including Okinawa, which is as close to Taiwan as many mainland Chinese bases — but it might take several days for those governments to approve American forces using them in combat operations.
All these bases are also well within range of China’s ballistic missiles and none can be defended against a wave of strikes. The moment America commits to the fight, you can be certain operations will be disrupted by missile hits. Trying to attack launchers on the Chinese mainland means bashing through a powerful air defense network deliberately prepared for this contingency.
Americans love to imagine stealth bombers and fighters can tip the balance, but here again military geography is a harsh mistress. To avoid mass Chinese missile strikes most jets would have to operate from Guam or Japan, not Okinawa, and both are around 2,000 miles from Taiwan. The combat radius on an F-22 or F-35 stealth fighter is less than half that. It takes them a couple hours to fly near Taiwan then refuel close enough to the fight to have an impact.
There are no more than a few dozen of these actively stationed in the Western Pacific at any time. A recent exercise saw a record of about 50 F-22s operate for a short time from Guam and other bases in the Marianas. Air bases can only support so many aircraft at once, and China can hit these bases too, though with less reliability than they can blast Okinawa.
Basically, in the first three days of a Taiwan crisis the U.S. Air Force would be lucky to maintain a dozen stealthy fighters near Taiwanese airspace at any given moment or surge several dozen into a fight lasting maybe an hour before they have to fly home. Two aircraft carrier battle groups together can host around a dozen stealthy fighters and three times as many F-18E/F Super Hornets, but half of the latter have to protect the carriers or serve as tankers for other aircraft.
And those powerful aircraft carriers themselves can’t get closer than 1000 miles to the Chinese coast without coming under attack by anti-ship ballistic missiles. A single hit would render one of these floating explosives depots inoperable for months or even years — with a crew of 5,000 that’s not something America is likely to risk.
The combat radius on most carrier-based aircraft is around half of that of a land-based jet, 500–600 miles without refueling. Which means that naval aircraft, as many as America has, won’t be able to intervene over Taiwan in large numbers.
All in all, the United States would be able to regularly deploy maybe two dozen stealth fighters backed by four dozen older jets… to challenge at least a hundred Chinese fighters, some stealthy too. These would be able to take cover behind the potent defenses provided by China’s own carrier battle groups — of which by 2023 it will have three, probably two prepared near its own coast to protect the blockade forces.
The absolute best-case scenario in an American intervention over Taiwan is a brutal aerial exchange of missiles that kills a lot of pilots yet leaves China able to dominate the airspace over Taiwan for at least a week and likely longer — enough to seize the outlying islands and very possibly ensure the island is sealed off from the world indefinitely. This would leave America and its allies in a wretched position — escalate the conflict by attacking the blockade after a multi-month buildup and risk extreme casualties, or publicly reveal the limits of their power.
Any US President would face a no-win situation: guaranteed American casualties and likely defeat or accept public repudiation of America’s claim to be a superpower.
Bottom line: China is now in a position to dictate the course of a conflict over Taiwan— it has the initiative, so can force America to respond to its actions, a situation that will persist absent some change in approach.
Since the 1990s, when American President Clinton sent aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait Beijing has been obsessed with protecting its coastline from a repeat in a crisis. So it has carefully built and trained exactly the weapons required to keep the United States Navy’s powerful carrier groups so far offshore they function as slightly-less vulnerable ancillary airfields to Guam.
And remember — none of this firepower even comes into play unless Taiwan starts shooting. No American President is going to fire the first shot before Taiwan does, but by then it is going to be far too late. Wargame after wargame shows American forces aren’t ready for this kind of fight, and politicians insisting America has to be are only putting military personnel at risk for no real chance of reward.
A fight with mainland China over Taiwan is now unwinnable. Taiwan’s independence will never be tied to survival for America in the same way it is for the regime in Beijing. If pressed, Beijing will be far more willing to tolerate the casualties an attack on Taiwan would produce simply to prove it can’t be forced to back down on an issue its leaders insist is vital.
Which makes America’s attempts to deter China through AUKUS and other like measures so obviously futile. Only if America were willing to prosecute a war more broadly with China — and there’s no reason to believe it is or ever will be given China’s expanding nuclear arsenal — can it hope to keep Taiwan free by force if Beijing decides to aggressively press its claim.
Which it only will if Washington’s foreign policy elites are allowed to push their new Cold War insanity on the world. There is no real competition between authoritarianism and democracy any more than actually finally passing long-deferred and still inadequate infrastructure spending is somehow going to be the moment people living in the future look back on as the moment America was reborn.
Taiwan is in the rotten position of being a bone two vicious dogs marking out their territory are considering fighting over. A competition between gangs of thugs in positions of power in Washington and Beijing who have claimed the right to control other people, to subordinate life and liberty to the inane European concept of sovereignty. Taiwan is a free and democratic country, no amount of self-defeating censorship by Beijing can change this basic fact and there is no military solution to the Taiwan issue.
Absent any war, Taipei and Beijing will most likely some day in my lifetime be part of the same unified China — once the Chinese Communist Party finally realizes it is in its own best long-term interest to transform China into a real multi-party democracy that enshrines regional autonomy for Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Seizing Taiwan by force would represent such an obvious own goal, a clear setback for China’s effort to become a permanent major player in global affairs that only a regime in Beijing doomed to repeat the mistakes of Chinese history would be dumb enough to try it.
Taiwanese autonomy and a united One China are not perpetually hostile concepts. It is entirely possible for China to be one country with many systems.
The most important step in defending Taiwan’s freedom is to accept that America can’t and most likely won’t, if pressed. Though certainly Taiwan must be provided the means to resist a direct overt invasion, making this prospect so bloody Beijing rightly fears to try it, the last thing Taiwan or the Western Pacific needs is more heavy, high-tech military gear primed to destroy or be destroyed.
There is simply no military solution to the Taiwan problem. The sooner the world accepts this and pushes back against America’s militarization of the problem, the better.
Because history is full of examples of situations where violence shouldn’t have been an option, but bad leaders made it so. Accidents happen — it is incumbent on everyone with a stake in the Taiwan issue to step back and work out ways to be certain one never does.