By Griffin Cannon
Moderator: Admiral Gaumon, I can’t thank you enough for speaking with us on this anniversary of the second Battle of the Philippine Sea. It goes without saying this is an emotional day for all Americans and I can only imagine how difficult today is for you.
RADM Gaumon (ret.): Thank you, Steve. I know all Americans have heard some version of this story or another but there is a lot to tell. Many brave men and women fought and died on this day and I just hope their stories are not soon forgotten. This is about remembering them, the sacrifices they made, and, to be quite honest, what we did to fail them. I can’t say I’m glad to be telling that story, but for whatever reason I’m still around to tell it and I think that’s important to do.
Moderator: And sir, we thank you for that. Today I’d like to talk about why the war started. You have a fascinating perspective on the events that led up to the war that I think our listeners would appreciate hearing. Most Americans know the names: Stennis and Roosevelt but I must say I’m consistently surprised with how few know the name Ma Su-Wei, let alone know anything about her.
RADM Gaumon: It’s interesting you say that because even over at Indo-Pacific Command very few of us were tracking the Taiwanese elections that year. We of course took note when the PLAN started playing with their naval parade schedule but frankly PLA posturing before Taiwanese elections was nothing new.
Moderator: What about the disinformation campaign? What about the deepfakes going around?
RADM Gaumon: I don’t want to say we had no idea what was going on. Without getting into specifics, those of us high up on the operational side, as well of course as those in Washington, knew pretty early on that the Ministry of State Security was very interested in the election but again, nothing new there. I mean it provided more fodder for people in and out of government to talk about how “‘the cyber’ was going to change democracy as we knew it” but it looked manageable. Information operations and shows of force were nothing out of the ordinary. They were posturing, and we reminded them we were in the neighborhood.
Moderator: You mean the Roosevelt taking up station in the Philippine Sea?
RADM Gaumon: More or less. We put more bombers out at Anderson, put out Rapid Raptor elements at Kadena and Misawa, just generally trying to remind the PLA that we weren’t messing around.
Moderator: And did that work?
RADM Gaumon: I mean, you have to understand that this was kind of how the game was played before. If they start feeling too comfortable they get ideas, so it was our job to remind them that nothing would be easy, nothing would be quick. It’s not that we thought they’d take the first shot they had, just that if they kept getting easy shots, they might take one eventually. To your question, I don’t think the Chinese really wanted to do anything, not if they didn’t have to. It wasn’t until that diver got himself captured scouting Quemoy that things really started to heat up.
Moderator: Li Zhanyong, you mean.
RADM Gaumon: Yeah, Li fucking Zhanyong.
Moderator: That’s what got your attention?
RADM Gaumon: The cycle that kicked off caught our attention, yes. At one point after things got really heated but before the shooting started I got a reservist flown out to me on the T.R. to track things. I had China guys, but there’s a difference between an O-4 you send through language school and a War College professor who’s been looking at these things for two decades. Turns out the “confession” video they got out of him only happened because some intel officer posted to Quemoy had a sister who’d married a guy working the defense portfolio for Ma’s campaign staff. He figured he helps the campaign and boom he’s got a brother-in-law high up in the Ministry of National Defense. Crazy, right?
Moderator: And that led to the independence speech?
RADM Gaumon: Yeah. It took about a week of back and forth after Ma’s campaign leaked the video, but the electorate was already pretty pissed at the heavy-handed information operations the Ministry of State Security and Strategic Support Force were running. Then you see a video of a prisoner talking as if your entire country is one big petulant child. The guy is sitting in a prison cell in Taipei for christ’s sake and is here he is talking like he owns the place! It’s not like a lot of the island didn’t already support de jure independence, this asshole just gave them a little push. The next day we get Ma saying “The destiny of Taiwan lies elsewhere” to cheering crowds and Beijing starts playing hardball.
Moderator: You don’t think Ma realized how seriously the PRC would take comments like that?
RADM Gaumon: I… I think the risk was a calculated one to be sure, she wasn’t stupid. Taiwan has had the PRC messing in its affairs for a long time. Yeah this was a big step, but they’d let the election get this far without shooting any missiles into the strait, we’d just done our first port call in decades in Tsoying a year earlier, and the Chinese were still reeling from the construction bubble collapse of 2021. But if there’s a time to take a risk like that, especially in such a tight election, it was then.
Moderator: And they killed her for it.
RADM Gaumon: And didn’t really try to hide it either. I think that’s what made it so galling for the Taiwanese. They knew enough to know they depended on the PRC economically and that wasn’t going to change. The thing with conscription though is that almost everyone has some sense of the military score and frankly it was up in the air at that point, at least when it came to an amphibious invasion. It was a gamble for the PLA to try to cross the strait in force and the ROC knew it. So yeah, the protests went off, Ma’s running mate Wu Yu-Chen got the presidency, and then shit really hit the fan.
Moderator: On inauguration day.
RADM Gaumon: We all knew something was coming. We saw missile units moving around and figured the PLA Rocket Force might put a couple more missiles into the strait to send a message coupled with large scale cyber intrusions. Maybe they’d blow up a few targets on Quemoy to soothe their pride? We figured it would be a military demonstration, nothing more. The ROC was already about as ready as it could get short of full mobilization. The fleet was scattered, the air force was already sending out detachments to operate from civilian airports and the highway strips that were being prepped. They almost decided not to do a public inauguration on security grounds, but I suppose there’s only so much a nation’s pride can take. They were done with the PRC pushing them around, Hong Kong had convinced them “one country, two systems” was bullshit and that was that.
Apparently, the call for independence was in Wu’s speech for that day but of course he never got around to making it. Looking back at it, the strike was surprisingly unambitious. I mean it sounds pretty absurd to call more than 600 warheads landing across an entire country in under an hour “unambitious,” but it was pretty straightforward. Missiles, aircraft, one big massed strike followed by heavy air raids, it was big, simple, and got the job done.
Even the cyber-attacks were functional, not stunning. The power grid in Taipei was only down for an hour or so and the air defense communications network was down for less than ten minutes. Of course, that was 10 of the 15 minutes it took for the initial wave of ballistic missiles to hit their targets so it’s not as if their attacks didn’t have an impact, but it certainly wasn’t any “cyber Pearl Harbor” or anything like that.
Really the damage on that first day was done by the PLARF. We all knew they had plenty of short ranged ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan, but we’d hoped they’d have to use so many to get through the Patriot batteries around the high value targets that there would be fewer to go around the rest of the country. Instead they practically shut down the PAC-3 batteries, knock out the radars with medium-range missiles and they get off two full, practically unimpeded short-range missile salvoes… It’s not that the PLA owned the skies after that. Between the fighters the ROCAF could get up and their medium range air defense systems the Taiwanese were able to shoot down a solid hundred PLAAF aircraft on that first day. That said, those first two salvos ripped the heart out of the Taiwanese Air Force.
Moderator: What do you mean by that? They were still fighting well into the war, weren’t they?
RADM Gaumon: Well, yes and no. There were just so many targets that got hit that first day, mostly the same types of things we went for in Desert Storm actually. Air search radars, runways, and above all command and control. You know people always make a big deal about the fact the top five people in the Taiwanese line of succession were killed in the first hour, and don’t get me wrong that was huge. Frankly though, the mid-grade officers, the regional command posts, those were the targets that put PLA in a situation that would just keep getting easier and easier, in the air at least. When we started giving the Taiwanese a hand we frequently struggled to find anyone to pass the information to. They talked a big game before the war about their defense infrastructure functioning without a head, and that was probably true with regards to Taipei. The regional and local commands though, losing those was huge. They had one functioning regional headquarters on the second day of war and to make it even worse, those they lost weren’t simply questions of blown out antenna and comms lines, they were lost with all hands, blown up or buried alive. That was decades of military experience, training, and education, gone in an hour. It’s not that others didn’t step up after that first day, but those early losses showed for the rest of the conflict.
Moderator: And then came the amphibious assault?
RADM Gaumon: They built up to it but yes. They had plenty of shaping to do before the surge across the strait, but the proper crossing followed pretty soon after the initial salvos. Between the air raids, the mop-up missile strikes and the handful of special operations attacks, life was hell for the ROC as they watched shipping concentrate at Xiamen and Fuzhou. They knew it was coming, they just couldn’t do much but put their subs in the way and hope they got shots off.
The coastal missile batteries were even worse off. They had been dodging air raids for the first few days and while most of them were still intact, the PLAAF owned the skies. With the area air defenses going down to the constant raids and the fighters on the run, the Chinese could keep UAVs up over the coast pretty regularly. The missile batteries that stayed got hit, and those that headed north where the attacks were a little lighter took themselves right out of the fight. Then, the day before the cross-strait invasion kicked off, the PLAN managed to land a brigade of marines at Hualien and seize the airbase there and that was about it for the ROCAF.
Moderator: Well, until the F-35 sale went through in the Senate right?
RADM Gaumon: Ok, so I’m retired right? There are things no one in government is going to acknowledge that I can, and this is one of them. From the moment the first F-35B touched down on Taiwanese soil, the air war was an American affair. The American people weren’t ready to go to war over Taiwan but the President, the House, the Senate, State, DoD, literally no one was willing to let Taiwan go without bloodying the PRC’s nose. We were obligated by law to ensure Taiwan could defend itself, right? “Defense articles?” “Defense services?” I hear people talking about “the rogue admirals” as if it was us that started this damn war! We followed the law as our commander in chief understood it and as senior lawmakers understood it! I won’t name names but I had people on the Hill literally read me the text of the Taiwan Relations Act over the phone “to make sure we are all on the same page here.” People who, I might add, I see on the news today talking about this “rogue admiral” bullshit!
Moderator: Would you say you feel betrayed?
RADM Gaumon: I’d say I… You know what, I think I’m done talking about the domestic scene. I keep going and I’ll end up saying something I’ll regret.
Moderator: I… Ok sure, let’s turn back to Taiwan then. What did you mean a second ago about the air war being an American affair?
RADM Gaumon: Thank you. Well… as I was saying earlier, the ROCAF was kind of in shambles at that point. Half the major bases in the south had been hit so hard and so frequently that for all intents and purposes they no longer existed. The cream of the air force had been trapped by cratered runways at Hualien when the mainland’s marines took that base and the remaining fighters were dispersed at a mix of airfields and runway strips in the north of the country. The real issue though… actually let me take that back. Everything was an issue. Leadership was hectic to say the least, fuel and ammunition were haphazard, you’re outnumbered by an order of magnitude, not a pretty picture right? What we really brought into the fight, without fighting of course, was coordination and a common operating picture. Even before the first batch of F-35s came over our E-2s were basically running the air battle. The Taiwanese had had all of their Hawkeyes at Hualien when it went down so pretty quickly the coordination role fell to us. We never shot at the Chinese mind you, but the Taiwanese went from maybe 20 minutes of warning before a raid to two hours and with a proper AWACS, their air-to-air losses fell off pretty quickly as well.
It got even easier when the 35s got there because they could shoot without ever going active and we could get the missile to terminal homing with only the E-2 radiating. Not only did this keep the 35s hidden but it meant the poor J-10 or J-11 pilots didn’t know they were targeted until they were practically dead. And that’s not even the craziest stuff we were doing back then. With the 35s you could get places you could never get an F-16 or a Mirage. There were a couple times where we’d sneak the Taiwanese pilots around the PLAAF Combat Air Patrols to the tankers or AEW birds. There was this one time we forced an entire brigade of J-10s to ditch in the strait after the 35s we were directing killed the primary and secondary tanker groups that were supposed to get them home.
Honestly it was kind of a thrill. No one and I mean no one knew what a proper, modern, no-holds-barred war would look like and here it was, right in front of us and we were at the center of it. Sure, the 35s we gave to the ROCAF had Taiwanese pilots in them but pretty quickly people learned that you either listen to the American E-2 or you eat a PL-15 before your second combat sortie. They needed us, but there was respect there too. The ROCAF started calling our AEW guys the “Talking Tigers” a few days in and our guys loved it. I think we had just got in patches with the new tiger logo for VAW 115 the morning the PLA snapped. Crazy thing is, that afternoon as I was swimming for the nearest life raft a little clump of the damn things came up right in front of me. Fucking poetic right?
Moderator: It sounds like you were really making headaches for the PRC in those days.
RADM Gaumon: That’s a bit of an understatement. Neither us nor the PRC wanted a full-on war, but it got pretty bad. Our electronic warfare people barely slept for those weeks as they went toe-to-toe with the PLA every single day. The things I was just telling you, getting the tankers and all that? Those were our good days. There were a couple times where things got so bad, whether it was EW, cyber, or whatever that we had to switch on the cruisers’ radars to have any idea what was happening in the air.
And then of course there was the fun little ambiguity of whether a particular aircraft was American or Taiwanese. We were never really willing to transmit and let them know, better to make their lives a little harder. For a while it wasn’t a huge issue. If it was flying over Taiwan or over the strait it belonged to the Republic of China. If it wasn’t it was probably American. Once we started operating around the island though, we needed fighters to escort our E-2s and tankers which complicated things somewhat, and then it got even worse when the F-35s arrived.
Not only were they hard to see, but now both us and Taiwan had the same platform in the sky and as we had to get more and more creative with routes for our Taiwanese friends we started bringing US and Taiwanese platforms closer and closer together. At first, they just stopped shooting at anything they weren’t sure of. Then they started shooting at everything.
Moderator: You’re talking about Lieutenant Commander Hodges?
RADM Gaumon: There were a couple close calls we didn’t let get out to the press before Commander Hodges went down. A well-flown 35 is pretty hard to shoot at, let alone hit. There were a couple times we only realized they’d been trying to target one of ours when an NSA memo came in a day or two later on PLAAF chatter about some low observable target they’d tried to prosecute at such and such location. As time went on though they got better at getting vectors from the long wavelength radars to pilots and we started losing a few of our ROC flyers here and there and then Hodges got hit.
Honestly, I was surprised him going down didn’t do more. Those that already believed we needed to push back against the Chinese were further convinced. Those that bought the PRC’s line that this was an internal matter didn’t really change their minds after Hodges was shot down. The key was the posturing that followed the shootdown.
Moderator: You really think there was still a chance of peace until that point?
RADM Gaumon: You see the CCP had been feeding their people a narrative of Japanese and Western meddling and interference for a long time, the “century of humiliation” they called it. A lot of people don’t realize this but “losing” Taiwan to the Dutch and then to the Japanese is part of the same humiliation narrative as the opium wars and the Japanese invasion. So not only is Taiwan an ideological threat, you know, a genuinely Chinese democracy and all that, but it’s one of their last badges of shame. They couldn’t back down on Taiwan, they needed to win that one. As long as everything we did was plausibly deniable though, as long as they could still get Taiwan at the end of the day, they’d rather deal with our shenanigans than to push back and risk us getting involved in a proper war.
For our part, the fact we didn’t go to war when they first crossed the strait meant we were never going to and they should have recognized that. You can talk all you want about “cyberwar” and “greyzone conflict” and don’t get me wrong, those of us on the operational side stayed busy in those days, but no one who fought in the Westpac would confuse those things with real war. It was for the PRC and ROC, but not us, not yet. All we were doing was poking, prolonging the inevitable. The PLA would have taken the island eventually and we would have let them. Despite our best efforts and all our spectacular little successes, it was just a question of time as long as the U.S. stayed out. After they shot down an American pilot though, we couldn’t look weak. We had to do something, even if it was only moving a few ships and bombers around.
Moderator: If you’ll excuse me saying so, “a few ships and bombers” seems like something of an understatement.
RADM Gaumon: *Chuckles* I suppose it is. Believe it or not we really did try to calibrate it to be meaningful without being too threatening. Going from one carrier strike group to two, six new fighter squadrons around Japan, two bomber squadrons to Darwin and Guam, a few more patriot batteries here and there, in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a huge increase in forces. Well, at least it didn’t seem so to us.
You know there’s a tough balance with situations like these. On the one hand the more you have forward, the more visible you are, the more vulnerable you are if or, in our case when, the other guy decides it’s time to go. On the other hand, you want to make things messy for the other guy, even if you can’t actually shoot at him. You also want to show your allies that you are there, and they can depend on you and that you’re in this together. In our case it was more a question of continuing the support we’d been providing so far but you shouldn’t underestimate what it meant to Taiwan that we were there at all. Sure, they were pissed at us for leaving them to fight it alone but after the first few days the fact that we were there, that we wanted to help even though we couldn’t do much, it kept a lot of people going.
We got the balance wrong though. We thought they knew we didn’t want to fight over this. There was no way we were going to stop making speeches at the U.N. and putting sanctions on the PRC for this massive, aggressive attack, but that was going to be it. Well, that and those of us over at TF 70 were going to continue making their lives hell for as long as we could. But they’d win. They’d fight through that mess they were getting themselves into in Taichung City, take Taipei, and then the great Chinese nation would be rejuvenated or whatever. They got their island back, their “China Dream,” and we got to show the world we didn’t do nothing. Everyone wins! Well, no one loses too much at least.
Moderator: So why didn’t that happen? Why did they attack?
RADM Gaumon: Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed? I mean part of it was obviously political. Despite the best efforts of the PRC, the Chinese people were getting pissed, not just at Taiwan but at us for helping them. Say what you want about communism and Mao and the party and all that, China is a nation-state and the nation had its pride wounded. You have to understand this is the middle kingdom we’re talking about here, this is the center of the world, right? Not only had their lost province given them an embarrassing bloody nose but the Americans were helping them do it while having the audacity to deny any “military involvement.”
What pushed them over the edge though was the surge after Hodges. We had spent so much time talking about “A2/AD” and all the nasty new technologies that would expand the damn “bubble” that we forgot why they started doing this stuff in the first place. From the beginning it was always about stopping us from building the forces in-theater to win. Sure, we weren’t shooting at them yet but what about when we had the rest of our Air Force scattered across the First Island Chain? What about when two carriers turned into five? Taiwan had eaten up so much of the PLA’s resources they were simply too stretched out, too vulnerable to do anything else.
Their army was consumed by the absolute slog that was Taichung City, their air force still hadn’t really knocked out the ROCAF thanks to us, and a few lucky missile shots into the strait meant they were struggling to ship over enough to keep their forces in the southern half of the island fighting, let alone bring over anyone new. Think about what happened when our subs actually did start sinking things in the strait. What if they’d been supported by functioning air bases at Okinawa, by two, three carriers in the Philippine Sea? China was more stretched out, more vulnerable than it had been in decades and it didn’t take much to push them over the edge. They were scared and saw what they were afraid to see.
We never thought what we were bringing in would be enough to win a war and it wasn’t. The Chinese though, to them it looked like it might be enough to push them off Taiwan or worse, especially if we could get in one solid first strike. And after that? They saw how busy Norfolk and Bremerton and San Diego and Pearl had gotten. They noticed when large parts of 6th and 5th Fleets started pulling off station and heading east. We knew we were just being careful, but you think they were ever going to believe that? They just had too much they didn’t know, too much they couldn’t control, and it seemed to be getting worse every day. They decided to take the initiative back.
Moderator: And that was that?
RADM Gaumon: And that was that…
Moderator: The Stennis, the Roosevelt…
RADM Gaumon: And most of their escorts, and the Blue Ridge, and the Tripoli, and the Bataan, and the New Orleans, and too many sailors and marines to name. *Pauses* There are no words for a day like that.
Moderator: What was your immediate reaction?
RADM Gaumon: My immediate reaction?! My immediate reaction involved the worst hour of my entire life and a hell of a lot of swimming!
Moderator: I’m sorry, I… I meant after you were picked up by the Lake Champlain, when you saw what had happened, when you talked with Admiral Kourosi at INDOPACOM, when you talked with the President. What was the immediate reaction?
RADM Gaumon: Well, the president wouldn’t talk to us, at least not right away. His daughter was an officer on the Stennis you know. Apparently, he got the casualty report and just kind of walked into the residence and didn’t come out. It was two days before anyone besides NSC staffers and his chief of staff heard from him again. By that time Congress had declared war, OPLAN Delta had been disseminated, and things had begun in earnest.
Griffin Cannon is an aspiring navalist and a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s Security Studies program. He is currently interning with the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School for the fall semester. You can find him on Twitter at @RowRowRow7.
Featured Image: “USS Destroyer” by David Oakes via Artstation