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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times Thoughts on defending Taiwan

Thoughts on defending Taiwan

It is well known that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) ambition is to rejuvenate the Chinese nation by unification of Taiwan, either peacefully or by force.

The peaceful option has virtually gone out of the window with the last presidential elections in Taiwan.

Taiwanese, especially the youth, are resolved not to be part of China. With time, this resolve has grown politically stronger. It leaves China with reunification by force as the default option.

Everyone tells me how and when mighty China would invade and overpower tiny Taiwan. However, I have rarely been told that Taiwan could be defended to defeat the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Whenever this question comes up, the first go-to option seems to be to call in the cavalry from the US.

Then the scenario shifts to a larger war between China and the US where 23.3 million Taiwanese are just pawns for sacrifice.

I have always felt that is kind of silly and strange. It goes against everything I have learned in the Indian Army. So here are some of my thoughts:

The responsibility to defend Taiwan is that of the Taiwanese. If the Taiwanese are clear that they do not want to be part of the communist People’s Republic of China and they want to continue to be a free democratic people, they must stand up and fight for it.

If they do so, there is no power on earth that could subjugate them or overcome them in a conflict. All other nations including the US and India would then be able to easily assist them to repel the PLA in case of an attack.

They must be firm about it and convey their intent to all concerned unmistakably. It must be unambiguous to China that the cost of a military misadventure would be inordinately high.

The communists understand the concept of cost — military, financial and political — perfectly well.

The defense of Taiwan begins with China. The number of high-value targets — tactical and strategic — that China has along its coast opposite Taiwan are too many and simply indefensible.

This includes the huge logistic bases which must be established near the coast well before any large conflict. There must be a plan for some of these juicy targets to be destroyed by a combination of fighters, missiles, rockets and drones if the balloon goes up.

There must also be a plan to target all the embarkation ports and follow-up echelons as part of this exercise. This could dislocate and unhinge any offensive.

The Taiwanese must fight their defensive battle offensively.

A great leveler is the 150km to 200km of open sea. The PLA would be vulnerable in crossing the Taiwan Strait.

The outlying islands of Taiwan, if turned into well-armed, stocked and fortified nests, would bleed dry all forces crossing the strait throughout the campaign.

Taiwan’s broad and shallow coastline implies that assaulting troops would have to disembark at a significant distance from the landing beaches and traverse open stretches of water without the cover of firepower.

They would be fair game for Taiwanese firepower. All crossing forces and shipping would be vulnerable from the air at every point in time.

Taiwanese forces could literally have a duck shoot.

Taiwan’s terrain permits it to be attacked from the west only.

Landing beaches are universally known. From all accounts, the Taiwanese have a well-thought-out beach denial plan based on obstacles, firepower and built-up areas.

The problem with amphibious landings is that once the assault troops hit the water, there is no way back. If a landing fails, that force is a write-off.

While multiple landings would be attempted, Taiwan must decide which beaches they must defend at all costs and make sure that those landings fail.

The trick is simple. Taiwanese must alter the force ratios in these critical places through timely and well-planned reinforcements.

Common military knowledge informs me that beach defenses which incorporate surrounding built-up areas would require a force ratio of at least six attackers for every defender.

The PLA could be forced to expend a lot of troops and effort just to hit the land, which would sap their morale.

There is always the fancy idea that the PLA would attempt an airborne/heliborne operation.

They could try. However, any such operation would have to be related to an offensive on the beach.

More importantly, such forces would be vulnerable during the air assault and would have limited staying power.

If Taiwan’s forces could ensure that a linkup between the air and beach assaults is prevented, then the PLA could be made to face a catastrophe a la “Operation Market Garden” during World War II.

Even if the PLA gains a few beachheads, their troubles would lie ahead. Undulating terrain, creeks, rivers, mountains, restricted approaches to urban areas and dense built-up areas is what any attacker must confront.

Taiwan’s terrain is a defender’s paradise. Such varied and broken terrain combined with good old deception would put paid to any attacker’s bravado. The PLA would be panting for help by the time they reach any target of significance.

However, the Taiwanese armed forces and population must show the nerve to fight and kick the offenders out. If they do, I doubt the PLA could ever succeed. Even if the PLA does overcome the formal Taiwanese armed forces resistance, the hybrid game could be just made to begin and kept going for a long time.

In my opinion Taiwan has all the attributes to be a large, poisonous and dangerous porcupine. Much bigger than Ukraine.

There is another issue which I would like to clarify.

The PLA could be N times larger than the Taiwanese armed forces, but it does not matter. The PLA could deploy only that many soldiers in any battle space. That number would be dictated by the terrain, the PLA’s logistic capability, its lift capability and training.

One cannot put an elephant in a small room. If troop densities are increased beyond normal, disasters would follow.

In my opinion, Taiwan would not be outnumbered in battle.

Reports indicate that the PLA is preparing for extensive amphibious operations.

Have they prepared fully? Let me put it in context.

The prelude to the Normandy invasion — often referred to as D-Day — in June 1944 featured a month-long bombing of Germany and important communication centers of France.

An elaborate deception plan was put in place. The “mulberry floating harbors” were so innovative that the Germans failed to discern what they were.

The invasion involved about 7,000 ships and landing craft manned by 195,000 navy personnel to land 133,000 troops in multiple waves. Up to 17 ports were used for embarkation. The allies suffered 10,300 casualties.

Over a period of one month, about 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles, and 570,000 tonnes of supplies had landed on Normandy shores.

Is the PLA prepared for these numbers? I doubt it.

Hence, we must be clear: There would be no surprise. Modern surveillance leaves one without a place to hide.

Much is made of China’s missile strikes, cyber strikes and information warfare capability. All this is good to a point. However, once the battle is joined, good old armor, infantry and artillery would have to battle it out.

At the risk of repetition, if Taiwan and its armed forces do not want the PLA to succeed — then they cannot. The bottom line in any fight is the will to win.

That will is based upon hard work before the battle. It means being well-equipped and well-trained. It also means being well supported by Taiwanese.

Taiwan could seek inspiration from Ukraine, Israel and even Hamas. A mixture of their methods suitably adapted to Taiwanese conditions would defeat PLA every time.

Taiwan must have the will to fight it out. Does it have that? That is the million-dollar question which Taiwanese must answer for themselves.

Lieutenant general P.R. Shankar PVSM, AVSM, VSM is the former director general of artillery in the Indian army. He is currently a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and writes extensively on strategic and geopolitical affairs.

Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2024/03/16

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A US government funding bill for next year that was unveiled on Tuesday authorized US$2 billion in loans to Taiwan to buy weapons, but did not include grants for similar purposes that had been approved in a separate defense bill.

The Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, covering funding for the US government for fiscal 2023, allowed up to US$2 billion in direct loans to Taiwan under the Foreign Military Financing Program.