Creating a Real Deterrent to Defend Taiwan

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August 25, 2022
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Gary Anderson lectures of Wargaming and Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’’ Elliott School of International Affairs

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger believes that the threat of having Marines leapfrogging from island to island plinking at Chinese warships in the South China Sea with anti-ship missiles will either deter China from starting a war or will be decisive in winning it.

He is wrong.

China’s warships are a very expendable part of its overall strategy. The Chinese believe their mobile missile launchers, high endurance drones, reconnaissance satellites and swarms of attack aircraft, combined with attack submarines, would be sufficient to create a bubble that would prevent Americans from interfering with an invasion of Taiwan.

The Chinese view their surface navy as mere pieces on the chessboard. Americans should realize that the key to deterring a war or winning it will be to deconstruct the Chinese recon-strike complex and use attack submarines to first sink Chinese amphibious ships attacking Taiwan and then strangle Chinese overseas maritime commerce.

At the present time, we can do the second with existing submarine assets, but the first will need new capabilities to prevent incurring unacceptable casualties. Attack submarines can stop an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, but we must also defeat the anti-navy capability in order to reinforce Taipei’s forces. A combination of these two capabilities could deter Chinese adventurism, but the United States must be able to show not just the capabilities themselves but the will to use them. This would mean demonstrating the willingness to fight a long war of attrition, which China cannot afford.

China is an export economy. American attack submarines could effectively enforce a blockade of those exports. If Beijing realizes that we are willing and able to disrupt Chinese trade if it initiates a conflict with Taiwan or any other state in what it believes to be its sphere of influence, deterrence is possible. Such a conflict would be painful for us, but disastrous for China. We can demonstrate our determination by building more attack submarines, particularly cheap automated craft to augment our already impressive capability.

Countering China’s anti-navy capability would be more complicated. The center of gravity of its capabilities is its recon-strike complex centered on mobile missile launchers, including tactical anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles but also long-range strategic attack systems capable of striking U.S. bases on Guam, Japan and even Australia. By shooting and moving, the Chinese hope to keep these systems protected.

As we found during the failed SCUD hunt during Operation Desert Storm, locating and destroying such systems can be a wicked problem. If we can demonstrate the capability to find and destroy such mobile systems, the Chinese will be much less likely to employ them.

As director of Marine Corps Wargaming in the early 1990s, I initiated a series of war games to examine potential solutions to the mobile launcher problem. Later, we partnered with the late Andrew Marshall’s DoD Office of Net Assessment to look to 2030 and examine where China might take its nascent anti-navy capability. What we found in both series of games was that overhead detection of mobile launchers would remain difficult against a skilled adversary. But once fired and moving, the launchers could be tracked easily if there were enough “eyes” on the ground around the point of origin to follow the vehicle in whatever direction it moved. It could then be targeted by precision strike assets.

Of course, the problem was getting the eyes on the ground behind enemy lines to do the tracking. Our conclusion was to do this by covertly inserting swarms of small-to-micro robotic sensors along all possible routes a launcher could take from point of origin. We began to call this concept a Reconnaissance-Surveillance-Target- Acquisition (RSTA) Cloud. We also quickly realized that this would need to be a joint capability. At the time, the technology to realize the capability did not exist. We did some field experiments to track mockup SCUD launchers using surrogates for the small sensors we imagined.

I came to believe that the concept was viable. That technology exists today. We should not only develop it, we should advertise it if we want to create a credible deterrent.

A credible South China Sea deterrent strategy that emphasizes our capability to use attack submarines to disrupt a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, blockade Chinese commerce, and effectively cripple their anti-navy capability would not increase our defense outlays radically and would reassure our Indo-Pacific allies of our capability to support them.

What does this mean for the Marine Corps? Gen. Berger’s Force Design 2030 concept is tinkering on the margins. It will not significantly help deter the Chinese. The Marines would be better advised to lobby for prepositioning the equipment of a Marine expeditionarybBrigade on Taiwan to assist in repelling a threatened invasion from mainland China.

Instead of buying anti-ship missiles — which other services already have — the Marines should reconstitute the tank and heavy artillery capabilities that they gave up funding the ill-conceived Force Design 2030 strategy. These capabilities would be key to destroying amphibious beachheads and airheads. Marine Corps prepositioning in Norway has been a valuable addition to NATO strategy in that country for decades and would signal U.S. resolve to defend against a takeover of Taiwan by force.

A policy shift would be required. The United States would have to reverse its ambiguous stance on the defense of Taiwan to one of unambiguous action if the mainland attempts to take the island by force.

Such a defensive guarantee would come at a cost to Taipei. It would have to agree not to declare independence. This is a red line that might force China’s hand.

Inciting a war is not deterrence. Real deterrence means not only showing credible military capability, but the will to use it. Unfortunately, that would require a bipartisan consensus that is sadly lacking at this time.

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