Any chinese move to take over taiwan would trigger a confrontation with the us navy and air force. Is the us prepared to counter this growing threat?
By Erik Sofge
August 9, 2015
The war for Taiwan starts in the early morning. There are no naval bombardments or waves of bombers: that’s how wars in the Pacific were fought 70 years ago. Instead, 1 200 cruise and ballistic missiles rise from heavy vehicles on the Chinese mainland. Taiwan’s modest missile defence network – a scattered deployment of I-Hawk and Patriot interceptors – slams into dozens of incoming warheads. It’s a futile gesture. The mass raid overwhelms the defences as hundreds of Chinese warheads blast the island’s military bases and airports.
Taiwan’s air force is grounded, and if China maintains air superiority over the Taiwan Strait, it can launch an invasion. Taiwanese troops mobilise in downtown Taipei and take up positions on the beaches facing China, just 150 kilometres to the west. But they know what the world knows: this is no longer Taiwan’s fight. This is a battle between an old superpower and a new one. Ever since 1949, when Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan following the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, Beijing has regarded the island as a renegade province of the People’s Republic. Now, in 2015, only the United States can offer Taiwan protection from China’s warplanes and invasion fleet.
The nearest aircraft carrier is the USS Nimitz, which had just left the Japanese port of Yokosuka on Tokyo Bay when the missiles landed on Taiwan. Although Beijing has promised to attack anyone who interferes with this “internal security operation”, the US president orders the Nimitz and its escorts to the Taiwan Strait. The Nimitz battle group needs at least two days for the carrier to reach the strait, more than 2 000 kilometres southwest. The closest other carrier group, near Pearl Harbour, is six days out.
Until the Nimitz arrives, it’s up to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, 650 kilometres northeast of Taiwan, to defend the island. By 0515 hours, Air Force pilots are taking off in 40 F-15E fighters to conduct combat air patrols over the island. Half of them are airborne when Kadena comes under attack. First, error messages begin popping up on computer screens. Modern air defence systems share sensor information and targeting data to better co-ordinate their actions, but this connection is going to become a liability. An army of hackers operating throughout China swarms the base’s networks, tying up communications with gibberish and cluttering the digital screens of radar operators with phony and conflicting data.
Next, early-warning satellites detect the infrared bloom of 25 ballistic missiles launched from the Chinese mainland. Five detonate in orbit, shredding American communication and imaging satellites. Although not a technical first – both the US and China have knocked down satellites – it’s the first outbreak of a hot war in space, and it partially blinds US forces. The 20 remaining missiles re-enter the atmosphere over Okinawa. Kadena’s Patriot batteries fire missiles in response, but they are off-network and in disarray – 10 missiles are struck by multiple interceptors, but an equal number slip through the defensive screen and hit Kadena. Some of the GPS-guided warheads contain bomblets that crater the base’s two runways. Others air-burst over the base, devastating barracks, radar arrays and hangars.
Kadena is far from destroyed, but until its runways can be repaired, it is out of the fight. The F-15s on the way to Taiwan must bank for Guam, 2 000 kilometres southeast – they have the range to reach the base there, but only Kadena is close enough to stage efficient combat patrols. Also, F-22 stealth fighters based at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, now cannot land on the base’s shattered runways and reinforce the F-15s. With Kadena’s satellites gone, the Nimitz and its flotilla of eight escorts, including Aegis-guided missile destroyers and a pair of submarines, are steaming toward an enemy possessing one of the world’s largest submarine fleets and an arsenal of land-, air- and sea-launched anti-ship missiles.
About 8 hours after the mass raid on Taiwan, klaxons start blaring aboard the Nimitz and her escorts. There are more missiles in the air, this time headed straight for the carrier group. The Taiwan Strait is still more than 1 500 kilometres away, but the war has come to the Nimitz. Skimming the surface of the Pacific are four supersonic missiles flying faster than their own roar.
Chances are that war between China and the United States will not happen in 2015, or at any other time. Under normal circumstances, a war for Taiwan would simply be too costly for either side to wage, especially given the chance of nuclear escalation. But circumstances are not always normal.
“I get criticised often for saying this, but I think Beijing is capable of acting irrationally when it comes to Taiwan,” says retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon, who served as a naval attaché in Beijing and is currently senior adviser of Asia- Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “They are obsessed with Taiwan. On some given day, it’s entirely possible for people to be standing around a table in the Politburo in Beijing, and someone gets the ball rolling. And when it stops, we’re at war.”
The deciding factor could be anything from domestic unrest in China’s increasingly rebellious rural provinces to a spike in aggressive, vocal Taiwanese nationalism. However, like many Pentagon war games, this notional conflict is not concerned with potential political triggers, but instead with evaluating China’s raw military abilities. The scenario is based on analyses by civilian think tanks including RAND Corporation, Chinese defence papers and interviews with senior Pentagon officials.
The chance of war may be remote, but the Chinese strategy to deny American access to battlegrounds near China’s coasts – and the hardware to pull it off – certainly exists. Since the Gulf War, the Chinese military has shifted from academic analysis of how to defeat US aircraft carriers in the East China and South China seas to buying and building the weapons to make the plan a strategic reality.
This is not a Cold War-era buildup, aimed at waging or deterring an apocalyptic last stand. This is a force engineered to win a limited local war – for example, keeping the United States away long enough to win Taiwan.
China’s economic boom has allowed its military to rapidly expand its inventory of cruise missiles, aimed at Taiwan, and multistage ballistic missiles with enough range to hit much of Asia. The People’s Liberation Army has also bought submarines – including at least 12 whisper-quiet diesel-electric models from Russia – and is developing a large fleet of warplanes.
But China’s most dangerous new weapon could be an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), specifically designed to target a moving aircraft carrier. The United States has 22 carriers. To win a future conflict, China would not have to destroy every one of them, just the pair that would be available to respond to a fight off China’s coast.
Senior Pentagon leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about the Chinese arsenal. Admiral Robert Willard, head of the navy’s Pacific Command, told the US Congress in March that “the PLA’s continued military advancements sustain a trend of shifting the cross-strait military balance in Beijing’s favour”. In June, in a speech at the Asia Society in Washington, DC, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that he had “moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned” about the build-up.
The man who would face the Chinese in battle, Admiral Patrick Walsh, the current commander of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, sees preparation as a way to avoid a future fight. “When we look at these sorts of developments, such as the ASBM, they are technological developments that we respect, but do not necessarily fear,” Walsh says. “The key element in any sort of deterrent strategy is to make it clear to those who would use a given piece of technology that we have the means to counter it, and to maintain a technological edge.”
Right now the Chinese seem to have taken the lead in this new arms race. When RAND released a report in 2000 describing the potential outcome of a Sino-American con. ict over Taiwan, the United States won the war handily. Nine years later, the nonpartisan think tank revised its analysis, accounting for Beijing’s updated air force, its focus on cyber warfare and its ability to use ballistic missiles to take out American satellites. RAND’s new conclusion: the United States would ultimately lose an air war, and an overall con. ict would be more di. cult and costly than many had imagined.
August 9, 2015
The Kilo-class submarines are waiting. Like any patient hunter, that's what they do best. Smaller and slower than their nuclear-powered counterparts, the 70-metre boats are fitted with diesel-electric engines and sound-absorbing tiles that make them virtually invisible to active and passive sonar. They have chosen the spot for an ambush wisely, lurking near rises in the seafloor that clutter sonar returns, and the Nimitz's escorts don't detect the Kilos.
The Chinese subs rise to launch depth and re two missiles each from their torpedo tubes. The Russian-made weapons burst out of the water and tear directly at the carrier group.
Alarms are wailing on every ship as sailors dash to battle stations, but the Nimitz is the sole target of these Russian-built anti-ship cruise missiles. They are called SS-N-27B Sizzlers. When the missiles come within about 20 kilometres of the carrier, a rocket-propelled warhead separates from each and boosts into a darting, Mach 3 sprint, skimming along just 10 metres above the surface of the waves.
In the final moments, chaff launchers on the Nimitz release a volley of decoys, while a trio of robotic chain guns aboard the Nimitz – the last line of missile defence – automatically pivot toward the warheads and re hundreds of 20-mm rounds per second.
One Sizzler misses. Two more break apart under fire. The fourth detonates against the Nimitz, tearing a hole in its port side. More missiles arc across the sky as Aegis cruisers shoot anti-sub munitions into the ocean, tearing apart one Kilo. The other sub will eventually be hunted down by aircraft carrying sonar and torpedoes, but the damage is done.
On the Nimitz, there’s no time to mourn the dead. The next attack will come soon. The crew assesses the battle damage and begins repairs while the carrier presses on.
August 9, 2015
On the southeast coast of China, more than 800 kilometres west of the Nimitz, an over-the-horizon radar array has picked up the carrier’s position. Based on co-ordinates supplied by the now-sunk Kilos, the array seeks the carrier by banking radio waves o. the atmosphere to peer beyond the Earth’s curvature. After the signals indicate the flotilla’s rough location, the Chinese deploy a drone to con rm the radar x. This 4-metre unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) does its job before being blown apart by an anti-air missile red by a destroyer. The Nimitz is swarmed within the hour.
A formation of ghters appears on the carrier’s radar screens. Defensive missiles lift off from a picket line of escort vessels, and the Nimitz begins launching its own F/A-18s to meet the incoming aircraft, which appear to be more than a dozen outdated Jian-7s. With no satellite coverage, thanks to the anti-sat attack, the surprised escorts can only form a defensive ring around the carrier as the J-7s unleash a volley of anti-ship cruise missiles.
The US escorts fire at all inbound aircraft, not knowing that the Chinese have retro tted these older warplanes to serve as unmanned decoys. The battle group cannot trust its computer networks, given the hacking attacks on Kadena, so they must pick targets independently. The defence crews double up on some incoming ghters, wasting their defensive missiles. Radar contacts are vanishing as aircraft and incoming air-launched cruise missiles are destroyed, but one missile gets through, ripping another fiery hole in the Nimitz.
By the time F/A-18 pilots radio that no one is parachuting from the downed J-7s, the main Chinese attack force of high-performance, manned J-10 and J-11 warplanes arrives from the east. The carrier group’s F/A-18s move to intercept them. But the Chinese fighters aren’t here to dogfight – they launch anti-ship cruise missiles at the carrier and disengage.
The Aegis cruisers fire a slew of defensive missiles; F/A-18s fire anti-air missiles. The sky over the Pacific is a lattice of smoke trails, and through the call and response of sonic booms there is another explosion as the Nimitz takes its third cruise missile hit of the day.
There is no lull, no time to regroup – unharmed Missile Defence Agency satellites have detected another volley of ballistic missiles fired from China. These aren’t projected to hit Taiwan, Okinawa, or any other land-based target. They are tracking toward the carrier group. These are ASBMs.
The Aegis cruisers respond, launching multistage SM-3 interceptors that rise like a cluster of suns. Once in space, they deploy kill vehicles, self-guided craft designed to ram ballistic missiles. Only one connects. Four ASBMs re-enter the atmosphere and perform a swooping, high-g manoeuvre that allows them to scan the ocean’s surface for their moving target.
So the battle for the Nimitz, and for Taiwan, ends as it began, with missiles. At 2015 hours, two ASBMs dump harmlessly into the sea, victims of technical glitches. The other two dive into the carrier, shattering the superstructure and killing hundreds. The damage doesn’t reach the two nuclear reactors, but two gaping holes in the flight deck, and the carnage in the hangars below, render the ship useless. The Nimitz must retreat. If this were an all-out war, the PLA would push one last time to sink the carrier. But China’s goal was never to trigger an extended, costly, bloody contest of superpowers. The goal was to deny American access to Taiwan prior to an invasion.
The following morning, Chinese troop transports cross the strait and secure the island without firing a shot. A brutal ground war was never part of the plan. Beijing calculated that, without American assistance, Taipei would surrender. It also predicted an endless loop of video footage of the crippled Nimitz returning to port. There is more than one way to win a war.
The US military shocked the world when it unveiled the sophisticated weaponry used to defeat Iraq’s military in 1991. Now potential adversaries have invested in tools similar to those that made the United States military so dominant during the Gulf War. “Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve been in the position to unleash substantial quantities of precision firepower on our adversaries, while suffering none of that type of attack,” says RAND’s David Shlapak, one of the authors of the think tank’s original 2000 report on a war over Taiwan as well as the follow-up 2009 report. “That led us to a certain style of warfare – bases that are sanctuaries, lines of communication that are indestructible.”
That technological edge led to overconfidence, and Cold War skill sets, such as submarine hunting, atrophied. At the same time, the Russians sold quiet diesel-electric Kilo submarines to countries such as Iran and China.
When the US Navy placed Rear-Admiral J J Waickwicz in charge of the Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Command in 2004, he determined it would take years to re-establish subhunting expertise. “There was a lack of training and really good equipment to manage the problem,” says Waickwicz, now retired. “We have to be willing to put the funding into synthetic and simulation training.”
When it comes to missiles, China may be surpassing the United States. Earlier this year, the Pentagon said China has “the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile programme in the world”. And no one else has developed an ASBM.
Despite billions of dollars in research and controlled tests, the results of a clash between sophisticated missiles and modern defence interceptors are unknown. If missile defence tools do not perform as advertised, carriers could be pushed so far from a fight that they’d become irrelevant, nullifying America’s principal tool of power projection.
What can be done? Most war games end with a “hot wash”, a kind of debriefing, where participants discuss what went right and what went completely wrong. They discuss what they would do differently if they could roll back the clock. And sometimes, they do just that – rewind and run through the fight all over again.
August 9, 2015
The battle to defend the Nimitz no longer begins with missiles, but with robots. Hours before the carrier group reaches those lurking diesel-electric Kilos, the carrier’s escort ships deploy a handful of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) to patrol between Taiwan and Okinawa.
These torpedo-sized drones use continuous active sonar (CAS) arrays, which release a steady stream of energy, the sonar equivalent of a spotlight. “CAS will change the calculus from the sub being the hunter, to being the hunted,” says Waickwicz, who now works for Virginia-based Alion Science and Technology, which is testing its CAS technology on a surface vessel and next year plans to begin testing the sonar on UUVs.
The robots protecting the carrier group aren’t armed, but the nuclear-powered Virginia-class sub monitoring their progress certainly is. The Chinese subs lying in ambush must scatter before firing or be sunk.
There are ways to make air defences more resilient as well. This time Kadena is better prepared for hacker attacks, thanks to sophisticated missile defence batteries like the Medium Extended Air Defence System. Instead of relying on a single computer network to co-ordinate anti-air launches, each MEADS can operate autonomously and cover 360 degrees of sky.
With the Air Force base functional, F-15s (and, later, F-22s flying in from Hawaii) can guard the Nimitz, engage the incoming decoys and preserve the group’s supply of anti-air missiles.
The Chinese fighters launch their missiles, but only two reach the Nimitz. Pilots and sailors are killed and wounded, but the flight deck is intact, and the carrier’s mission to protect Taiwan can continue.
There’s one more threat to counter, though. The ASBMs take off from five different locations in southeastern China. One of them is spotted by an American stealth UAV, one of a handful operating high-endurance missions out of Kadena. In 2009, the US Air Force confirmed the use of the first radar-deflecting drone – the RQ-170 Sentinel – on surveillance missions over Afghanistan. By 2015, the Air Force is flying heirs to the Sentinel that are armed with experimental Network-Centric Airborne Defence Element missile interceptors. Fired from standard air-to-air launchers, these missiles can strike ballistic missiles before they leave the atmosphere. When tensions between China and Taiwan began to rise, the Air Force quietly rushed the experimental weapons from the Nevada Test and Training Range to Kadena.
The high-endurance UAVs can loiter, unseen, waiting for a ballistic missile launch. When their sensors detect the rocket’s plume, two of the UAVs fire at the rising missiles, and one scores a hit; the missile disintegrates into a ball of burning fuel and debris. That’s one fewer carrier-hunting missile streaking at the Nimitz.
Another is knocked out in space by SM-3 interceptors. Now three are entering the ASBM’s signature death dive. The Aegis ships shoot again, but during this replay they are using a new model, the SM-2 Block IV. Like most terminal-phase systems, it is a defensive Hail Mary. Two ASBMs miss, but a third is clipped by an SM-2 and dumps into the sea.
The short, sharp conflict ends with the carrier safe, its presence thwarting the invasion and tipping the scales toward Taiwan during cease-fire negotiations.
Preparedness is the cornerstone of deterrence, and some analysts say that the Pentagon must match Chinese advances to prevent conflict. “Part of what keeps the probability of war so small is that the US and Taiwan have taken steps to make sure it would be painful for China,” RAND’s Shlapak says.
As it adapts to China’s strengths, the Pentagon is confronted with an unfamiliar position. The battle for Taiwan – even if no shots are ever fired – has already begun.
Battle of Taiwan
In this hypothetical scenario based on Chinese defence plans and the Pentagon’s response, the invasion of Taiwan would start with a missile barrage aimed at the island. The White House would order the USS Nimitz to intervene; ballistic missiles would soon rain on the US Kadena Air Base at Okinawa, Japan, grounding planes that could protect the aircraft carrier. China’s next step: Destroy the Nimitz.
August 9, 2015 / 12:30 hours / First attack
Quiet Kilo-class submarines evade the sonar of the Nimitz’s escorts and hammer the aircraft carrier with Russian-made hypersonic missiles. These move so fast – closing in at Mach 3 – that the ship’s defences cannot shoot them down.
August 9, 2015 / 19:21 hours / Second attack
Fighters from the Nimitz scramble to meet Chinese aircraft, not knowing that the incoming strike group is made up of older warplanes converted to fly unmanned. Modern, better-armed Chinese planes then attack from another direction.
August 9, 2015 / 20:35 hours / Third attack
Deadly missile debut
The crippling blow is delivered by anti-ship ballistic missiles, launched from the mainland. They carry warheads manoeuvrable enough to target a moving vessel. One warhead slams through the Nimitz’s deck from directly above, disabling the carrier
Weapons behind the plane
China has spent billions developing and buying arms to sink American aircraft carriers. Here’s how the US can fight back.
China attacks with:
Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine
China purchased at least a dozen small subs that are practically invisible to standard sonar. The PLA out. tted them with supersonic Sizzler antiship cruise missiles that can outrun many shipboard defences.
Status: Deployed since the 1990s.
Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)
China’s inventory of UAVs ranges from converted warplanes used for target practice to experimental high-altitude surveillance drones. A swarm of robots can be a cheap way to help overwhelm and deplete air defence systems.
Status: The Chinese military already uses foreign-made UAVs; development of domestic UAVs is well under way.
The DongFeng-21C is part of the new generation of precision ballistic missiles, capable of hitting targets throughout much of Japan. It can carry multiple warheads, and its GPS-based guidance makes the DF-21C as accurate as a cruise missile.
Status: Believed to have been deployed since 2004.
Df-21d antiship ballistic missile (ASBM)
If Chinese engineers can perfect it, the ASBM will be the . rst of its kind: a ballistic missile with sensors that enable it to hunt down an aircraft carrier at sea.
Status: In development; Pentagon of. cials warn that demonstration . ights of early prototypes could come soon – perhaps within a year.
America counters with:
Continuous active sonar (CAS)
A steady beat of acoustic pulses forms a single high-resolution image, defeating sound-absorbing materials found on Kilo-class subs.
Status: The US Navy has tested CAS towed from surface ships; vendors are installing CAS in underwater unmanned vehicles.
Free electron laser (FEL)
This ship-mounted, 100-kW laser would specialise in hitting missiles and small aircraft. Laser systems avoid dependency on a stock of defensive missiles, and can quickly adjust . re to handle massed aerial attacks. The DDG-1000 destroyer, to be fielded in 2015, may carry the system.
Status: FEL remains in early development; Boeing’s Avenger in 2009 became the first laser system to shoot down a UAV (above).
Terminal high-altitude area defence (THAAD)
This vehicle-towed battery of 24 groundbased interceptors can target ballistic missiles in their final, or terminal, phase of flight.
Status: Limited deployment in Hawaii and Texas in 2008; the US Missile Defence Agency planned to deploy THAAD in March, but quality-control problems have delayed the first deliveries.
Network-centric airborne defence element (NCADE)
The US has no current defence against an ASBM. One possible foil is NCADE, an aircraft-launched weapon designed to spot and ram a ballistic missile before it reaches space.
Status: Could be deployed by 2014. In late 2007 Raytheon successfully tested NCADE missiles . red from two F-16s over the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
China 's carrier killer
The most alarming weapon China is developing to deny the US Navy access to the East and South China seas is the anti-ship ballistic missile – the first such missile able to change course to hit a moving aircraft carrier. Mounted on a mobile launch vehicle, an ASBM would rise in two stages, reach space and then use fins to manoeuvre at hypersonic speeds on its way back down. The warhead then glides along a level path to permit synthetic aperture radar, which processes multiple radar pulses to form a single picture to target the carrier. Finally, the warhead’s infrared seeker locates a carrier’s signature and closes in for the kill.