Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Island Blitz: A Campaign Analysis of a Taiwan Takeover by the PLA

By Max Stewart


In recent years, there has been an increased and discernable concern surrounding the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The topic returned to prominence in the wake of the 2018 National Defense Strategy which described a China seeking “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”1 In the years since, despite the increase in geopolitical tensions, mainstream debate, and the unofficial public statements of U.S. figures, the official policy of the United States remains “strategic ambiguity,” or an unwillingness to firmly commit to the military defense of Taiwan. This is the natural byproduct of the U.S.’s “One China Policy” built upon the Taiwan Relations Act, Three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances.2

What this means in practice is that in the event of a PRC attempt at coercive military unification with Taiwan, the Biden Administration would lack the explicit standing legal authorities to intervene that exist with congressionally ratified treaty allies outside the limited War Powers Act. As indications and warnings (I&W) of a possible cross-strait assault emerged, and as the invasion began, a robust and likely time-consuming interagency debate would occur within the White House, Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill.

This campaign analysis seeks to determine how long U.S. decision-makers can realistically have those debates before the PLA seizes Taipei and the window for effective intervention with military force has closed. It does so by employing analytical modeling, informed by historical data, to determine how long the Taiwanese can resist a Chinese invasion absent direct U.S. military intervention given best-case-scenario timelines for the PLA. That is to say in this campaign analysis, tactical and operational chance favors the PLA, and Taiwanese resistance is more similar to that of the brave but desperate 2014 Ukrainian military fighting in the Donbass than the more successful and combat credible 2022 Ukrainian military which halted a Russian invasion. What follows is not meant to be predictive, but rather cautionary, and presents the most stressing timeline for U.S. decision-makers. Any deviations from this scenario would only serve to elongate the timeline for the PLA’s campaign, thereby increasing the decision-making space for U.S. leadership.

Scenario “Road to War”

In the scenario used for this campaign analysis, at the conclusion of the October 2022 20th Party Congress, President Xi orders the PLA to complete the forceful (re)unification with Taiwan in the summer of 2023. PRC and PLA decision-makers view the summer months as the best window to launch a cross-strait invasion. This period encompasses the most favorable tidal conditions in the strait, the highest readiness of its conscript force, and has the ability to partially mask its large-scale force buildup with its normally held annual summer exercises.3,4 However, despite PRC outward messaging as to the normalcy of the summer exercise, certain indicators over time will lead the U.S. Intelligence Community to assess with increasing confidence that an invasion is likely. As reported by John Culver with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, some of these indicators and warnings may include:

  • Surging production in munitions.
  • Actions to insulate its economy from the impact of sanctions.
  • Freezes of foreign assets within China.
  • Return of Chinese assets held in foreign states.
  • Stockpiling of critical supplies and war-making materials.
  • Psychological preparation of the Chinese populace for war.
  • Large-scale movement of ships, planes, and armored vehicles.
  • General mobilization to include “stop-loss” of conscripts.5

With the combination of factors above, initiated in the wake of the 20th Party Congress, it can be assessed that the U.S. and Taiwan would begin seeing I&W of a possible invasion six months before its execution. For the analysis that follows, the U.S. and Taiwan modify their assessments from “invasion possible” to “invasion likely” one month prior to the cross-strait assault. This is a generous assumption for China, as during the Russian invasion of Ukraine the U.S. had reliable intelligence of a coming invasion nearly five months before its start.6 In this PLA-best-case scenario, a combination of PRC operational security, messaging, misinformation, and military deception enables this surprise.

PRC Concept of Operations and Desired Endstate

The scenario below is broken down into distinct phases roughly corresponding to the anticipated concept of operations envisioned by various PLA scholars.7 The evaluated phases for this analysis will be:

  1. Joint Firepower Strike Operation (JFSO), Outlying Island Seizure, and Mine Warfare
  2. Strait Crossing and Initial Landing
  3. Securing the Lodgment and Building up the Breakout Force
  4. Breakout, Advance, and Seizure of Taipei

The desired endstate for the PLA is the complete seizure of Taipei and the inability for Taiwanese forces south of the city to counterattack and liberate the capital. The desired endstate for the PRC is dislocation, dissolution, or capitulation of the Republic of China (ROC) government and successful (re)unification of the island with the mainland before U.S. intervention can occur. While it is conceivable that the PRC may choose to isolate rather than seize the capital city, in this evaluated scenario, the PRC seeks to avoid a prolonged siege and has determined that once they seize Taipei, the credible threat of immediate U.S. intervention will end. In order to achieve this objective, the PRC has placed every emphasis on speed in its invasion, while also opting not to take preemptive action against U.S. bases and stations in the Western Pacific, knowing such an action would likely galvanize the U.S. public and provoke an immediate response.

Joint Firepower Strike Operation, Island Seizures, and Mine Warfare

Campaign Day 0 – Day 15

The PRC campaign against Taiwan will begin with what in PLA doctrine refers to as the JFSO. “According to the PLA textbook Science of Joint Operations, the purpose of the [JFSO] is to intimidate an adversary’s leadership and population, break its will to resist, and force it to abandon or reverse its strategic intentions.”8 These strikes would combine kinetic cruise and ballistic missiles and rocket artillery with non-kinetic cyber and electronic attack to systematically degrade Taiwanese command and control (C2), coastal artillery, ROC naval combatants, air defenses, and destroy much of the ROC Air Force (ROCAF) on the ground. Effective Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) here would be critical to enable the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) to establish air superiority over the island as well as provide their own strike capabilities in support of the JFSO.9

Because in the scenario the PLA has determined that speed is of the essence to close the window on U.S. intervention, the JFSO assessed will be time-based vice conditions-based, using what some PLA scholars believe to be the desired campaign length of 15 days.10 According to Ian Easton,

“Chinese writings do not at all appear comfortable with the idea of blockading and bombing Taiwan for an extended period of time… the longer China blockaded and bombed Taiwan, the more likely it would be that the United States and other democracies would decide to enter the war. Chinese doctrine calls for short but intense strikes on Taiwan to secure localized control over the airwaves, airspace, and seascapes. Once these were in hand, it is anticipated that the campaign would shift gears to focus on surprise landings.”11

In this evaluation the PLA will commence their cross-strait invasion on Day 15, viewing the risks of incomplete shaping of Taiwanese defense as more acceptable than the risk of providing U.S. decision-makers time to choose intervention and mobilize forces. The following assessment will primarily focus on three areas of the JFSO: Destruction of anti-ship cruise missiles, SEAD, and destruction of the ROCAF. While the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), in accordance with their Systems Confrontation and Destruction doctrine, will also conduct extensive cyberattacks during this period to “completely destroy the enemy’s command and control network, communication network, and computer systems of weapons and equipment,” these operations are not modeled in this scenario, but do support the overall analysis’s PLA-best-case-scenario timelines by enabling actions in other domains.12

In recent years, Taiwan has significantly increased both its quantity of anti-ship missiles (ASMs) as well as diversified their firing units from ground-based launchers to air- and sea-launched systems. Amongst its ground-based forces, it had roughly 20 Hsiung Feng III missile launchers in 2020, with plans for 70 more in 2023. For this scenario, the ROC fields half of the new launchers by the time of invasion. This brings total ASM launchers to 55. With an average of 490 missiles built a year by 2023, there will be no shortage of munitions to target a PLA invasion fleet.13 Additionally, Taiwan just purchased 100 Harpoon Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) launchers with 400 missiles, bringing the total number of ground-based platforms for the PLA to target up to 155 launchers.14 For this scenario, being a PLA best-case, ASMs on ROC Navy (ROCN) and ROCAF platforms will not be considered. The ROCN’s larger surface combatants, whose locations will be well known to the PLA at the outset of the conflict, are unlikely to survive the initial JFSO and be subject to the PLA’s first mover advantage. As naval battles are often shorter and more decisive than land battles, this will likely present an unrecoverable setback for the ROCN.15

Taiwanese Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missile launchers. (Photo by Simon Liu/Taiwan Presidential Office)

Similarly, as other studies have found, most of the ROCAF will be destroyed either on the ground or in the air after during the bombardment. It is important to note that this can be done with an estimated 60 – 200 Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs).16 With an assessed SRBM inventory of roughly 1,000 missiles, this estimated expenditure is extreme reasonable even if as much as 50 percent of PLA missiles are kept in reserve for a possible counter-U.S. intervention operation.17 The few remaining ROCAF aircraft, limited to solely those planes operating out of the underground Jiashan Air Base, will likely be loaded for air-to-air combat rather than with air-launched Harpoon missiles.18

The PLA’s SEAD mission to destroy Taiwan’s Integrated Air Defenses (IADs) and hunt for Taiwanese mobile ASCM launchers however will be far more difficult than the strikes against the ROCN and ROCAF. Due to the mobile nature of these launch platforms, the PLA will rely more heavily on aviation-delivered fires rather than their ground-based missile inventory to prosecute these targets. This can be exceedingly difficult. During Desert Storm, despite the U.S. having total air superiority over Iraq and Kuwait, it still had difficulty in identifying, tracking, targeting and destroying mobile forces on ground. In five weeks, the U.S. only managed to degrade 40 percent of Iraqi armor vice almost 95 percent of the largely stationary Iraqi IADs.19, 20 In Serbia by contrast, “NATO aviators sought to neutralize Serbia’s approximately 40 SA-3 and SA-6 area defense SAM launchers but were able to destroy only three launchers and ten air defense radar emitters after several thousand SEAD sorties and the expenditure of more than 1,000 [missiles].”21

Taiwanese mobile anti-ship and air defenses will further be able to utilize the urbanized nature of Taiwan to its advantage, using larger factories, warehouses, and tunnels to conceal themselves while reloading or avoiding detection. With those considerations, it is likely that with a constrained JFSO driven by time vice conditions, the PLA will find a still partially functional IAD network and certainly more than 100 ASM/ASCM launchers operable at the start of their invasion.

During the JFSO, the PRC will set the conditions for the cross-strait invasion by first seizing Taiwan’s outlying islands closest to the Chinese mainland. The PLA will employ Marine brigades already located in the Taiwan Straits Area to quickly seize Kinmen Island.22 This rapid action will not utilize any of the PLA Navy’s (PLAN’s) limited amphibious warfare ships. Rather the PLA Marines will employ their Type 05 amphibious assault vehicles to swim shore-to-shore across the four to nine miles separating Kinmen from mainland China.

Overlay 1: Kinmen Island. (Author graphic via Google Maps)

Similarly, the Matsu Islands, which stretch between 10 and 40 miles from mainland China, will also be seized during the JFSO utilizing airborne brigades supported by a follow-on air assault brigades from the Eastern Theater Command.23 These formations will be of limited utility during the initial assault on Taiwan itself due to the high likelihood of ROC IADs surviving the initial JFSO. However, the PLAAF’s SEAD mission against the smaller Matsu Islands would likely be successful enough to enable the deployment of paratroopers and heliborne forces. Both outlying island seizures can be support by shorter ranged shore-based artillery not otherwise required during the JFSO against Taiwan.

Overlay 2: Matsu Islands. (Author graphic via Google Maps)

Naval mine warfare would also play a critical role in the events leading up to the PLA’s invasion of Taiwan. In this scenario, the ROC government does not begin immediately deploying naval mines into the strait at the determination that invasion is “likely” one month before the campaign begins. Rather, they assess that precipitously closing the Taiwan Strait to commercial maritime traffic via minelaying may incur international condemnation and jeopardize the goodwill they hope to generate amongst the international community. Because of this, only once the ROC government has determined that deterrence has failed and they can observe final PLA preparations that they begin their mining operations. In this scenario, that moment begins 72 hours prior to the start of the JFSO.

Overlay 3: PLAN strait crossing. (Author graphic via Google Maps)

Taiwan has four indigenously build minelaying ships.24 While the mine magazine of each is unknown, these ships are roughly a third of the size of the Finnish Hämeenmaa-class minelayers, each capable of carrying roughly 150 mines.25 As such, for this campaign analysis each Taiwanese minelayer will be capable of carrying 50 mines per sortie. Additionally, Taiwan has four submarines: two Hai Shih-class subs and two Hai Lung-class subs.26 The Hai-Lung subs are roughly the same size as the Type 877 Kilo-class submarines assessed in Caitlin Talmadge’s Closing Time,” while the Shih-class subs are two thirds of the size of the Kilos.27 With these considerations, the average mine payload for the four submarines will be set at 20 mines each. Each minelaying craft (submarine and surface ship) can conduct one minelaying sortie a day. Tasked with overcoming these explosive obstacles will be the 57 minesweepers of the PLAN. In the modelling conducted below, 50 vessels are available for clearance operations.28

Figure 1: Minelaying and mine clearing abilities of Taiwan vs PRC. Model derived from Talmadge’s “Closing Time.” (Author graphic)

In the scenario, the PLAN begins conducting its mine clearing operations concurrently with the JFSO to allow the invasion force to immediately begin its cross-strait movement on Day 15. The model shows that the 50 minesweepers of the PLAN can clear 80 percent of the mines laid by the Taiwanese within the 15 days of the JFSO, even if they consist of the more difficult influence mines. It is important to note that this model does not depict PLAN minesweeper attrition at the hands of Taiwanese ASM/ASCMs. However, the model is built upon maximalist ends in the clearance of 80 percent of mines. Even with attrition, the PLAN could still clear two Q-routes for the invasion force within the 15 days of the JFSO with as few as 12 remaining minesweeping ships.29

Overlay 4: Taiwanese minefields and PLAN Q routes. (Author graphic via Google Maps)
Figure 2. Click to expand. Minimum required mine clearing abilities for PLAN Q routes. Model derived from Talmadge’s “Closing Time.” (Author graphic)

Furthermore, because in this scenario the PLA has chosen to conduct a massed assault against only a single beachhead, while the Taiwanese will be forced to mine multiple approaches, the area required for clearance will be even smaller than in a larger scale scenario. This demonstrates that naval mine warfare, given Taiwan’s current minelaying capacity, is unlikely to play a critical component in the attrition of amphibs and other maritime lift platforms once the cross-strait invasion begins on Day 15. Furthermore, it shows the PLAN has tremendous flexibility in how it can choose to accomplish its endstate (clear routes for the invasion force) with different courses of action incurring various risk-to-force/risk-to-mission considerations.

Straits Crossing and Initial Landings

Campaign Day 15 – Day 20 (Landings Day 1 – 5)

On Day 15 the PLA initiates the start of its cross-strait invasion of mainland Taiwan. The island has few suitable landing beaches, and the defending Taiwanese forces know them well. Furthermore, each of these beaches has prepared defensive positions, which would be reinforced over the weeks preceding the invasion. With these considerations, in this scenario the PLA has decided that instead of spreading limited amphibious, airborne, and Special Forces capacity across the whole of the island, they will mass their forces on a single beachhead directly adjacent to Taipei at the northernmost Western-facing beaches suitable for amphibious assault.30

Overlay 3: Landing area. (Author graphic via Google Maps) 

By focusing their assault on only the northern portion of Taiwan, the PLAN can more easily mass the minesweepers and surface combatants required to protect the AWS and vulnerable Roll-On/Roll-Off (RORO) militarized commercial vessels. Similarly, this plan allows for the rapid buildup of ground combat power in order to avoid a lengthy overland campaign across the entire island. The proximity of the landing beaches to both a major industrial port and large international airport will further expedite the buildup of combat power and supplies, and the removal of casualties, during the invasion. By utilizing speed, intensity, and violence, the PLA hopes to isolate and rapidly seize Taipei and force the dislocation, dissolution, or capitulation of the ROC government.31

Facing this PLA invasion force will be the ROC Army and Marine Corps, comprised of both its active and reserve components. Taiwan’s active ground forces consist of 89,000 troops.32 The bulk of the Taiwanese Army is divided into three Army Corps spread across the northern, central, and southern portions of Taiwan. In the north of the country, the 32,000 soldiers of the 6th Army Corps is under the newly established joint headquarters the Third Combat Theater Command (CTC) and is responsible for the defense of Taipei and its surrounding areas. Their adjacent units are the 20,000 soldiers of the 10th Army Corps in the center of Taiwan under the Fourth CTC and the roughly 20,000 soldiers of the 8th Army Corps in the south under the Fifth CTC.33, 34 For the purposes of this analysis, the two ROC Marine Brigades are spread between the Third CTC co-located with the Army 6th Corps and the Fifth CTC co-located with the Army’s 8th Corps.35 The remaining ROC ground forces are located off mainland-Taiwan defending its various outlying islands.

The active force is furthermore augmented by questionably effective reserve formations. While Taiwan ostensibly has a large reserve force on paper, recent reports have revealed that the readiness, capability, and utility of this force is likely far below what would be required to repel a PLA invasion. As Paul Huang argues:

“They are called up at most once every two years by the Reserve Command to receive refresher training for five to seven days. In practice, such training rarely consists of more than just basic drills and a short practice session at the rifle range… And even if Taiwan somehow manages to muster dozens of fresh reserve infantry brigades before Chinese troops come ashore, Huang said they would be little more than cannon fodder consider how poorly the military has trained them in peacetime and the fact that there is not even a clear plan to fit them into the overall defense strategy… They exist for political, not military, reasons.”36

On paper Taiwan can muster as many as 2.3 million reservists. However, official government sources put the number of combat-ready reservists at closer to 300,000, though it should be noted that these “combat-ready” forces receive only the same limited training described in the quote above. Furthermore, a survey conducted by the Ministry of National Defense found that only 73 percent of Taiwanese would be willing to fight if Taiwan was invaded.37 For the scenario, it is assumed that while all 300,000 capable reservists are equipped and ready to fight, only 73 percent arrive at their muster stations, totaling 219,000 troops. These forces will be spread evenly between the three Army corps, totaling 73,000 additional reservists per corps. Furthermore, for force ratio considerations, and given the low-quality nature of these reserve formations, they are tabulated as .5 per soldier.

This brings the total number of defenders to the following: 

Figure 3. Click to expand. Taiwan Ground Forces by CTC. (Author graphic)

To achieve their initial beachhead, the PLAN will deploy its 70 amphibious ships of various types, capable of carrying roughly 20,000 troops in a single lift.38 These ships will depart their respective ports of embarkations, averaging roughly 150 miles from the targeted landing beaches, to aggregate with the minesweepers, cruisers, destroyers, and other surface combatants who will protect them on their 100-mile cross-strait movement. The primary task of these PLAN amphibs will be to land their embarked forces and rapidly return to mainland China to re-embark follow-on waves. Until the PLA secures the Port of Taipei, this will be the only method of building combat power ashore.

Based on the most up-to-date PLA doctrine on amphibious assault, “an individual amphibious combined arms battalion now likely has an expanded landing point width of 1.5 to 2 km, which would make the brigade landing section an approximately 3- to 4-km front.”39 The 20,000-man PLA initial landing force will be comprised of multiple brigades landing abreast. Facing them in the immediate area around the landing beaches will be roughly 20,000 troops from the Third CBT, with the remaining 51,500 troops spread out across the rest of the northern area of responsibility (AOR) to include the megacity of Taipei.

Overlay 4: Initial landings. Unit type, size, and location is approximate. (Author graphic via Google Maps)

As the PLAN amphibs cross the strait, they will succumb to a roughly consistent 10% percent attrition based on the calculations provided in A Question of Balance depicting probability of hit based on remaining ASM/ASCMs who will themselves be attrited as their firing positions are revealed.40 PLA personnel casualties for the first wave are similarly depicted as 10 percent, with a sustained 2.2 percent once the fighting transitions inland.41 This results in a model that depicts it will take the PLA five days to meet the requisite force ratio of 3:1 to begin driving inland from their initial beachheads. During those first five days, the initial PLA landing forces will have to contend not only with the static defensive positions along the coast and immediately inland from the landing beaches, but also localized counterattacks from 6th Army Corps and the Marine brigade from the Third CTC. However, in this PLA-favoring scenario, these counterattacks will be severely degraded by the SSF attacks on the Taiwanese command and control networks, as well as massed fires from the mainland, both of which will cause not only the tactical degradation of the defenders, but also create significant psychological effects. Reinforcements from the adjacent Combat Theater Commands will be delayed for reasons that will be explained later in this analysis.

Figure 4. Click to expand. PLAN amphibious landing capacity vs. force attrition. Model derived from Shlapak et al., “A Question of Balance,” Chapter 5. (Author graphic)

Securing the Lodgment and Building up the Breakout Force

Campaign Day 20 – 34 (Landings Day 5 – 19)

After the initial landings occur, the PLA will seek to rapidly expand its initial foothold on the island. This will occur on Day 5 of the invasion. Once the force ratio within the initial landing area reaches a 3:1 in favor of the PLA, the initial assault waves and their immediate reinforcements will push inland. This will allow them to secure key terrain and provide enough secure area to rapidly build up a force capable of breaking out of the initial lodgment and conduct the follow-on ground campaign. In this scenario, the PLA chooses to use the North-South running Highway 1 as their limit of advance tactical control measure and behind which to conduct their buildup. As a part of this operation to secure the lodgment, PLA amphibious forces will conduct a deliberate attack to secure the Port of Taipei located 16 km from the northern-most PLA unit on Day 5. The critical question in this phase will be how long the expected buildup of the breakout force will take given the ongoing attrition of PLA amphibs and other maritime lift vessels.

Overlay 5: Securing the lodgment and Port of Taipei. Unit type, size, and location is approximate. (Author graphic via Google Maps)

The seizure of the Port of Taipei will be a critical enabling action during this phase of the operation, allowing an increased throughput of PLA forces to be unloaded not just via ship-to-shore connectors, but also directly at the industrial dock facilities of the port. To determine how long it will take to secure the port as well as reach the limit of advance at Highway 1, the below chart will be utilized with the following factors. The localized force ratio is 3:1 is in favor of the PLA against Taiwanese forces occupying prepared defenses, with the hilly and urbanized terrain in the lodgment classified as “Slow-Go Terrain.” With these factors considered, it will take the PLA a total of 4 days to seize the port and secure its lodgment along the limit of advance, occurring on Day 9 of the invasion and 24 days after the start of the JFSO.42 It is important to note that this timeline would remain unchanged even if the PLA chose to seize the port with a direct amphibious or airborne assault, as those forces would still require relief from the assault elements landed at the primary landing beaches 16 km away.

Figure 5. Click to expand. Division opposed rates of advance (km/day). Model courtesy of MAGTF Planner’s Reference Manual. (Author graphic)

In this PLA-favoring analysis it is assumed the invasion force can capture the port infrastructure intact and it is not sabotaged by its Taiwanese defenders or extensively damaged in the fighting. The seizure of the port will enable the PRC to begin ferrying additional forces across the strait in commercial vessels pressed into military service. These militarized RORO vessels are a key component of any invasion scenario and critical to the success of the land campaign.43 The PRC has spent years conducting the legal and regulatory requirements to ensure these vessels are available during times of war: “The 2003 Regulations on National Defense Mobilization of Civil Transport Resources, the 2010 National Defense Mobilization Law, and, most recently, the 2016 National Defense Transportation Law… allowed for the creation of National Defense Transportation Support Forces.”44 This provides the PLAN with a massive fleet of maritime transports to augment its own amphib inventory. In 2019, there were 3,987 PRC-flagged ships of 1,000 tons or greater in operation, with more than double that number of vessels being PRC-owned but foreign-flagged.45 Capt. Tom Shugart (ret.) evaluated the utility of this civilian maritime capacity during an invasion scenario and found the following:

“China’s military-associated roll-on/roll-off vessels could deliver more than 2,000,000 square feet of vehicles per day — more than four heavy brigades’ worth of equipment. Over time, this roll-on/roll-off civilian shipping alone could deliver seven full Group Armies with their associated brigades — likely more than 300,000 troops and their vehicles — in about 10 days.”46

Without knowing the exact details of the computations used by Shugart (attrition, port availability, etc…) this campaign analysis will conservatively reduce the author’s original number by 25 percent, resulting in a total of 225,000 additional PLA forces arriving on mainland Taiwan 10 days after the seizure of the port on Day 19 of the landings.

Figure 6. Click to expand. Attrition of ROC and PLA forces during buildup. Model derived from of Posen’s “Measuring the European Conventional Balance.” (Author graphic)

In the evaluated scenario, the PLAN suspends amphib lift operations after landing 8 on Day 13 once the amphib force has sustained over 50 percent attrition. With a sustained 2.2 percent attrition rate amongst both the initial forces and the troops landing at the port and driving forward to secure the lodgment, that results in a total of 262,000 PLA troops ashore on Day 19 of the landings, and 34 days since the start of the JFSO. It should be noted that while the Taoyuan International Airport is seized during the initial days of the landing, the air bridge established by the PLAAF will be utilized primarily for supplies and casualty evacuation. The PLA’s heavy ground forces will be brought to the island almost exclusively by ship to maintain unit integrity and avoid mass casualties in the air as a result of the lingering IAD threat.

The PLA cannot break out from their lodgment and seize Taipei until they amass two forces. The first is the city assault force, hereby referred to as Assault Task Force 1 (ATF 1). This is the force whose primary mission will be the intense urban fighting required to conduct the first megacity seizure operation in the history of warfare. Based on a Third CTC defensive force from 6th Army Corps and Marine brigade in and around the city comprising roughly 51,500 troops, ATF 1 will require a force of 206,000 to achieve the desirable 4:1 odds required for this type of heavy urban combat.

Overlay 6: PLA posture prior to breakout. Unit type, size, and location is approximate. (Author graphic via Google Maps)

The second PLA force to amass prior to the breakout is the blocking force, hereby referred to as Assault Task Force 2 (ATF 2). ATF 2’s mission will be to establish blocking positions south to isolate Taipei and prevent Taiwanese reinforcements from entering the city. There are 116,000 Taiwanese active and reserve ground troops in Fourth and Fifth CTCs, responsible for the middle and southern portions of Taiwan, respectively. In this scenario, given the gravity of the situation, the Taiwanese military command chooses to displace two-thirds of those forces north to attempt to defeat the PLA assault on the capital. The remaining third are ordered to stay in place to prevent further landings around the island. Thus ATF 2 be required to defend against 76,500 Taiwanese soldiers in their counterattack towards Taipei. This requires the PLA to amass a blocking force of only 38,225 to deny the Taiwanese from achieving the 3:1 or better force ratio generally required for offensive operations.

This means the total required PLA breakout force, consisting of both the ATF 1 and ATF 2, will require 244,225 troops and is met by the 262,000 troops available from the above-calculated combination of amphib and commercial sealift deliveries by Day 19 of the landings. The remaining 17,750 PLA troops ashore not otherwise assigned to ATF 1 or ATF 2 will form a reserve capable of surging to either objective as required.

Breakout, Advance, and Seizure of Taipei

Campaign Day 34 – 46 (Landings Day 19 – 31)

Overlay 7: ATF 1 and ATF 2 breakout. Unit type, size, and location is approximate. (Author graphic via Google Maps)

Once the PLA amasses the requisite number of forces, on Day 19 ATF 1 and ATF 2 would conduct their breakout from the initial lodgment. ATF 1 would follow Highway 1, which provides the most direct route towards the outskirts of Taipei. This route consists of a multi-lane highway with rolling hills on either side mixed with urbanized terrain. While the route offers an ostensibly high-speed avenue of approach, this will be partially negated by the hilly and urbanized terrain along the roadways which offers opportunities for easy-to-conceal defensive positions. The clearance of these defenses will slow the overall tempo of ATF 1, operating at the division level, as it fights down Highway 1 and adjacent routes for a total of 7 km to reach its assault positions at the outskirts of Taipei. Given the 4:1 forces ratios available, the prepared Taiwanese defenses, and “Slow-Go Terrain,” the likely rate of advance for ATF 1 will be 5 km a day, requiring a total of two days. Once this force arrives in its assault positions on Day 21, it will have to hold in place until ATF 2 has established its blocking position to the south and sets the conditions for the city’s seizure.

Figure 7. Click to expand. Division opposed rates of advance (km/day). Model courtesy of MAGTF Planner’s Reference Manual. (Author graphic)

Simultaneously with ATF 1’s drive towards Taipei to its assault positions, ATF 2 would break out from the lodgment and push south to assume the blocking positions meant to isolate Taipei and prevent a Taiwanese counterattack from interfering with the seizure of the capital. In this PLA-favoring scenario, this ROC counterattack is delayed by a series of factors to include: the mistaken belief that the Third CTC can defend its own AOR, a fear of additional landings elsewhere on the island, the degradation of Taiwanese command and control networks by the Strategic Support Force, damage to the physical road infrastructure by the JFSO, and the mass exodus of Taipei’s millions of residents fleeing south causing both a humanitarian crisis as well as blocking all major routes north.

ATF 2’s drive will be opposed by the remaining Taiwanese forces originally tasked with defending the landing areas, who have been reduced from 20,000 to 8,500 after 2.2 percent attrition daily for 19 days of combat. This force, facing the 38,225 troops of ATF 2, create a better than 4:1 force ratio in favor of the advancing PLA fighting over similar ground as their counterparts in ATF 1. With these calculations, and with ATF 2 attacking at the division level with multiple brigades operating abreast along multiple routes, it will take ATF 2 just over three days to travel the 16 km to reach their blocking positions.

Overlay 8: PLA postured for Taipei seizure. Unit type, size, and location is approximate. (Author graphic via Google Maps)

Once ATF 2 has successfully established its blocking positions and completed the isolation of Taipei on Day 22, and 37 days after the start of the JFSO, conditions will be set for ATF 1 to seize the city. PLA doctrine uses the rapid 2003 seizure of Baghdad and Fallujah in 2004 as the archetypal rapid urban assaults to emulate on Taiwan. This is especially important as during this final stage of the invasion, “time is of the essence—either to counter U.S. intervention or to minimize the window during which the international community might rally to the cause of the defender.”47 However, it should not be lost that Taipei and its surrounding area, comprised of over 10 million residents, is a megacity roughly twice the size (in terms of population) of Baghdad in 2003.48

Overlay 9: PLA seizure of Taipei. Unit type, size, and location is approximate. (Author graphic via Google Maps)

ATF 1 conducted its breakout from the initial lodgment with 206,000 troops on Day 19, arrived at its assault positions outside Taipei on Day 21, and will begin its assault on the city on Day 22. With 2.2 percent of attrition suffered each day, ATF 1 will have 192,500 troops available to conduct their urban advance and will operate along a multi-division wide frontage. Facing them will be the remains of Third CTC’s ground forces, the 6th Army Corps and Marine brigade, originally numbering 51,500. This force has also been fighting since Day 19 with a 2.2 percent attrition rate, and by the time ATF 1 is ready to conduct its assault, will be comprised of 48,100 personnel. That results in a force ratio of or 4:1 in favor of the PLA.

Taipei, easily described as no-go terrain, consists of prepared defenses and is 15 km in distance across. While it is impossible to know the appetite ROC ground forces will have to subject their own capital to destruction, the PLA will seek every opportunity to achieve maximum speed. Whenever able they will attempt to maneuver to bypass and isolate enemy strongpoints in the dense urban terrain, rather than fight a lengthy siege block-by-block, in an attempt rapidly seize the city, close the window on U.S. intervention, and bringing about the end of the ROC government. With these factors considered, ATF 1 will take nine days to seize the entire city moving with multiple divisions abreast at the pace of their infantry advancing.

Figure 8. Click to expand. Division opposed rates of advance (km/day). Model Courtesy of MAGTF Planner’s Reference Manual. (Author graphic)

Policy Implications 

While combat operations may continue on the island, the above modeling shows the practical window for U.S. intervention in a Taiwan invasion prior to the seizure of Taipei and the displacement, dissolution, or capitulation of the ROC government effectively closes 31 days after the initial landings. In the scenario, this is 46 days after the start of the JFSO and 76 days after the “invasion likely” assessment, though both of those times were based on educated assumptions vice data-backed models. As stated, this analysis is based on a best-case-scenario timelines for the PLA, in which the Taiwanese resistance they encounter is more akin to that demonstrated by the beleaguered 2014 version of the Ukrainian military vice its more successful 2022 descendant. U.S. policy in the short run must be focused on ensuring Taiwan’s military is not the overwhelmed, underequipped, and unprepared former, but rather the well-equipped, well trained, and motivated latter.

While U.S. leaders have limited ability to influence the Taiwanese will to fight, as seen in Ukraine, they can indirectly increase it by providing the island nation with the weapons and equipment it needs to conduct an asymmetrical defense in depth. These provisions should include mobile anti-air systems, land and naval mines, as well as the platforms to rapidly emplace them, and additional anti-ship missiles. Critically, the U.S. should also provide Taiwan with additional redundant, survivable, and hardened command and control capabilities to enable the efficacy of their battle networks and directly counter PLA attempts to implement a systems confrontation and destruction approach to the campaign.49 As seen with Starlink in Ukraine, ensuring a reliable command and control ability even in the face of a powerful adversary can prove decisive, and can serve to boost not only operational abilities, but also morale. These capabilities should be furnished either through expedited foreign military sales or the limited use of presidential drawdown authorities. All of these assets will serve to slow the advance of the PLA and thus elongate the decision-making space available to U.S. leaders.

To reduce that decision-making timeline, U.S. political leadership and the interagency must have the discussions and debates now, prior to crisis, about potential U.S. responses to various possible scenarios. These scenarios should include low-end contingencies such as the blockade of Taiwanese-administered islands in the South China Sea to high-end scenarios such as the invasion depicted above. While it is widely reported that the Department of Defense conducts planning and exercises to prepare for these eventualities, it is a dangerous misconception to believe the military can or will operate in isolation during a conflict between the PRC and U.S.

To rectify this, the administration should amend their priorities for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administered National Exercise Program (NEP) to include preparedness for major state-on-state conflict. The NEP conducts exercises incorporating the interagency, local and state leadership, non-governmental organizations, as well as the private sector and “is the primary national-level mechanism for examining and validating core capabilities across all preparedness mission areas… aligned to the Principals’ Strategic Priorities, which are determined by the Principals Committee of the National Security Council.”50 Per FEMA, the 2021-2022 Principal’s Strategic Priorities for the NEP include such topics as Continuity of Essential Functions, Cybersecurity, Economic Recovery and Resilience, National Security Emergencies and Catastrophic Incidents, and others.51

While all are important topics for the nation’s security, preparation and conduct of war should be added to the list and be the focus of a biennial national level exercise. Though it was recently reported that the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party conducted a wargame on a Taiwan invasion scenario, “the members of Congress took the role of the president’s national-security team” rather than wargaming their own legislative responsibilities.52 Encouraging congress and the interagency to realistically exercise their own expected roles and responsibilities in the lead up to crisis and during conflict will serve to expedite decision-making and will drastically, and perhaps decisively, improve the nation’s ability to respond.

Major Maxwell Stewart, USMC, is a Combat Engineer Officer and Northeast Asia Regional Area Officer. He is currently serving as an Action Officer in Operations Division, Plans, Policies and Operations, Headquarters Marine Corps. He holds a master’s degree in security policy studies from the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs. These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official views of any U.S. government department or agency.


1. “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States.” U.S. Department of Defense. 2018. Pg 2

2. Office of the Secretary of Defense. Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021 Annual Report to Congress.” United States Department of Defense. November 2021. Pg 123

3. Wood, Piers and Charles Ferguson. “How China Might Invade Taiwan.” Naval War College Review; Volume 54. November 2001.

4. Clay, Marcus, Dennis Blasko, and Roderick Lee. “People Win Wars: A 2022 Reality check on PLA Enlisted Force and Related Matters. War on the Rocks. 12 August 2022.

5. Culver, John. “How We Would Know When China Is Preparing to Invade Taiwan.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 3 October 2022.

6. Harris, Shane, Karen DeYoung, and Isabelle Khurshudyan. “The Post Examined the Lead-Up to The Ukraine War. Here’s What We Learned.” The Washington Post. 16 August 2022.

7. Easton, Ian. “The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia.” CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 3 October 2017. Ch 4

8. Wuthnow, Joel, Derek Grossman, Philip Saunders, Andrew Scobell, and Andrew Yang. “Crossing the Strait: China’s Military Prepares for War with Taiwan.” National Defense University. Washington, DC, 2022. Pg 118

9. Wuthnow, Grossman, Saunders, Scobell, and Yang. “Crossing the Strait.” Pg 121-122

10. Easton. “The Chinese Invasion Threat.” Ch 4

11. Ibid.

12. “In their Own Worlds: Science of Military Strategy 2020.” China Aerospace Studies Institute. Montgomery, AL. January 2022. Pg 153.

13. 1945. “Taiwan has big Plans for its Missiles if China were to Invade.” Sandboxx. 4 August 2022.

14. Press Release. “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office In The United States (Tecro) – Rgm-84l-4 Harpoon Surface Launched Block Ii Missiles.” Defense Security Cooperation Agency, United States Department of Defense. 26 October 2020.

15. Anderson, Nicholas. “Session 6: Introduction to Maritime Operations.” The Analysis of Military Operations. Fall 2022. Slide 55

16. Shlapak, David, David Orletsky, Toy Reid, Murray Tanner, and Barry Wilson. “A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute.” The RAND Corporation. 2009. Pg 51.

17. “2021 Annual Report to Congress.” Pg 163

18. Wuthnow, Grossman, Saunders, Scobell, and Yang. “Crossing the Strait.” Pg. 330

19. Press, Daryl. “The Myth of Air Power in the Persian Gulf War and the Future of Warfare.” International Security Volume 26. Pg 31.

20. Heginbotham, Eric. “The US-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996 – 2017. The RAND Corporation. 2015, Pg 128

21. Ibid. Pg 128

22. “2021 Annual Report to Congress.” Pg 161

23. Ibid.

24. “Taiwan Navy Launches Third and Fourth Indigenous Mine-Laying Ships.” Naval Recognition; Naval News December 2021. 17 December 2021.

25. Hämeenmaa Class.” Naval Technology. 14 September 2010.

26. “The Military Balance. Chapter Six: Asia. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group. 14 February 2022. Pg 93

27. Talmadge, Caitlin. “Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz.” International Security, Vol 33. Summer 2008. Pg 89 – 96

28. Ibid. Pg 259

29. Talmadge. “Closing Time.” Pg 89 – 96

30. “Taiwan’s Best Landing Sites Are Well Defended.” Bloomberg News.

31. Wuthnow, Grossman, Saunders, Scobell, and Yang. “Crossing the Strait.” Pg. 144

32. Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2022 Annual Report to Congress.” United States Department of Defense. November 2022. Pg 165

33.“Republic of China Army.”

34. Yeo, Mike. “Taiwan Unveils Army Restructure Aimed at Decentralizing Military.” Defense News. 17 May 2021.

35. Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Military and Security Developments Involving the PRC.”

36. Huang, Paul. “Taiwan’s Military is a Hollow Shell.” Foreign Policy. 15 February 2020.

37. Huizhhong, Wu. “Army Reserve Worry Taiwan as China Looms.” Taipei Times. 12 September 2022.

38. Wuthnow, Grossman, Saunders, Scobell, and Yang. “Crossing the Strait.” Pg. 224 – 230

39. Ibid. Pg. 224 – 230

40. Shlapak, Orletsky, Reid, Tanner, and Barry Wilson. “A Question of Balance.” Pg 116

41. Posen, Barry. “Measuring the European Conventional Balance: Coping with Complexity in Threat Assessment.” International Security, Volume 9. 1984.

42. “MAGTF Planner’s Reference Manual.” MAGTF Staff Training Program Division (MSTPD). Training and Education Command; United States Marine Corps. 11 January 2017.

43. Wuthnow, Grossman, Saunders, Scobell, and Yang. “Crossing the Strait.” Pg. 232

44. Ibid. Pg. 231

45. Ibid.

46. Shugart, Thomas. “Mind the Gap, Part 2: The Crossing-Strait Potential of China’s Civilian Shipping has Grown. War on the Rocks. 12 October 2022.

47. Wuthnow, Grossman, Saunders, Scobell, and Yang. “Crossing the Strait.” Pg. 146

48. Ibid.

49. Work, Robert. “A Joint Warfighting Concept for Systems Warfare.” Centers for New American Security. 17 December 2020.

50. “National Exercise Program Base Plan.” Federal Emergency Management Agency. Washington, DC. 22 Oct 2018.

51.“NEP Overview Flyer.” Federal Emergency Management Agency. Washington, DC.

52. Quinn, Jimmy. “What a Taiwan War Game Taught Congress.” National Review. 20 April 2023.

Featured Image: Marines assigned to a brigade of the PLA Navy Marine Corps move forward for assault after disembarking from their amphibious armored vehicle during a beach raid training exercise in the west of south China’s Guangdong Province on August 17, 2019. ( by Yan Jialuo and Yao Guanchen)

Winning High-End War at Sea: Insights into the PLA Navy’s New Strategic Concept

By Ryan D. Martinson

American leaders have finally awakened to the challenges posed by an ascendant People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over two presidential administrations, the U.S. has strived to better defend the country from PRC policies that harm American interests, from unfair trade practices to actions that undermine U.S. partnerships and alliances. U.S. policymakers describe the new approach as “great power competition” or “strategic competition,” implying that U.S.-China antagonism is, and shall remain, below the threshold of armed conflict.

The U.S. sea services’ most recent maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, is very much a product of this new consensus. Issued in December 2020, the strategy highlights China’s growing assertiveness in maritime East Asia, which is “undermining the rules-based order.” In response, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard must gird themselves to “prevail in long-term strategic competition.” This means confronting China across a “competitive continuum” mostly comprising operations short of war. While the sea services must be prepared to fight and win a military conflict, no putative adversary is mentioned, and warfighting is just one possibility across a broad spectrum of confrontations that could occur.

Whether America’s sea services can prevail in this new era of great power competition will depend on how quickly and competently they can execute the strategy. It will also depend on China’s response. Anticipating Beijing’s next steps requires a solid understanding of how the PRC sees U.S.-China rivalry in the maritime domain. Is “strategic competition” also their preferred term of art? Does the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) believe that it is vying with the U.S. Navy to uphold a rules-based international order with Chinese characteristics? If not, what is the current framing?

Fortunately, enough data exists in the public domain to answer these important questions. Perhaps no one source of information is more valuable than Chinese media coverage of an important—but largely unknown—conference of PLAN admirals held at the end of 2022, in the wake of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress. The available reporting on the conference sheds light on how to better understand how the PLAN sees its strategic priorities.

The Conference of the Admirals

From December 14-19, 2022, the PLAN’s most senior officers gathered in Beijing—or dialed in via video teleconference—to talk about the implications of the 20th Party Congress for their service. This was not a debate, or an open-ended theoretical discussion. It was an “intensive training” (集训) event designed to inculcate a correct understanding of near-term PLAN priorities. Matching the focus of Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress Work Report, the training centered on how to achieve certain benchmarks set for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PLA in 2027—the so-called “PLA centenary goal.”1

During the six days of training, PLAN flag officers read and re-read Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress Work Report and other original texts, received “coaching” on what to think about specific topics, and shared their views on the issues from the perspective of their current posts. As part of the agenda, the admirals received briefings from government officials who participated in the drafting of Xi’s Work Report and experts from the Academy of Military Science and National Defense University, among others.2

Although this was not a public event, the PLAN media covered it in some detail. The service’s official newspaper, People’s Navy, published summaries of speeches given by PLAN Political Commissar, Admiral Yuan Huazhi (袁华智), and PLAN Commander, Admiral Dong Jun (董军). The newspaper also shared lengthy excerpts from remarks delivered by eleven “representatives” from among the PLAN admirals receiving training (see table below).3 These excerpts are particularly valuable because they reflect content formally approved for publication, giving them added authority.

As might be expected, politics was front and center during the six-day event. The PLAN’s political commissar, Admiral Yuan, set the tone in his opening remarks. He highlighted the need for the PLAN to maintain unquestioned loyalty to the Party in general and Xi Jinping in particular. He told his audience to uphold the “two establishes” (两个确立), i.e., decisions formalizing Xi Jinping as the “core” of the Party and Xi Jinping “thought” as the definitive guidance for ruling the Party-state. In their remarks, Admiral Dong Jun and the eleven other admirals reiterated the main political themes, paying homage to the Party and its paramount leader. None of this is surprising.

But the speakers also spent a significant amount of time delving into the PLAN’s current military priorities and steps that must be taken to achieve the goals of the PLA centenary. Their published remarks reveal a clear and profound preoccupation with the U.S. Navy.

Core Focus: “High End Naval War”

Setting aside the ritualistic pledges of loyalty to the Party and Chairman Xi Jinping, the six-day training event can be reduced to a single theme: make all necessary preparations to defeat the U.S. Navy in great power war at sea. This conclusion is borne out by the speakers’ repeated references to a new phrase in the PLAN lexicon: “winning high-end naval war” (打赢高端海战). In his opening speech, Admiral Yuan Huazhi described winning high-end naval war as “the critical issue” (紧要的) facing his service.7 The term “high-end naval war” or “high-end war” appears in most of the published excerpts (8 of 11), often multiple times.8

This phrase did not make its debut at the Conference of the Admirals. It seems to have been elevated to the PLAN’s main force development goal sometime in early 2022. Critically, it was a core theme at the PLAN’s once-in-five-years Party Congress (中国共产党海军第三次代表大会), held in Beijing in mid-June 2022. It featured heavily in Admiral Yuan Huazhi’s June 14 report to the Congress, which included a dedicated section entitled “Accelerate the Upgrading of the Navy’s Ability to Win High-End Naval War.”9 The phrase was the focus of published commentary by PLAN delegations attending the event. According to the Northern Theater Navy delegation, for example, prevailing in high-end naval war is the service’s “fundamental starting point and ending point.”10 In his speech to the Congress, Admiral Dong Jun echoed Yuan’s remarks, declaring that “assuming the main responsibility for winning victory in war and winning high-end naval war is our mission and the reason we have value.”11

A PLA Navy destroyer fires its close-in weapons system at mock sea targets during a three-day training assessment on January 18, 2022. ( by Qian Hao)

While the U.S. Navy is not mentioned by name, it is the only plausible opponent in any “high-end naval war” that the PLAN might envisage. China and India’s recent tensions stem from a border dispute hundreds of miles away from the sea. No conceivable scenario brings the two into large-scale naval conflict. All tensions with other territorial claimants in the South China Sea remain well below the threshold for military conflict, in the so-called “gray zone.” The main trigger for high-end war in the South China Sea would be if the PRC engaged in an act of aggression that activated the U.S.-Philippine alliance. The same goes in the East China Sea with the Senkaku Islands and the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Taiwanese Navy would play an important role countering a PRC attack on the island, but no scenario rises to the level of a “high-end naval war”—unless the U.S. Navy is involved.

The assumption that “high-end naval war” refers to conflict with the U.S. Navy is confirmed by its frequent association with a common codeword for the U.S. military—the “powerful enemy” (强敌). In his June 2022 speech at the PLAN’s Party Congress, Admiral Dong Jun made this connection explicit, declaring that the service “must take aim at the powerful enemy and ground itself in preparations for high-end war.”12 As will be discussed in the next section, preoccupation with high-end naval war against the powerful enemy is a core theme in the published excerpts from the December 2022 Conference of the Admirals.

Preparing to Fight the “Powerful Enemy”

In order to achieve its centenary goal—i.e., to be able to prevail in high-end naval war—the PLAN must engross itself in preparations to defeat the “powerful enemy.” This theme pervades the excerpted remarks from the Conference of the Admirals. This passage from Rear Admiral Wang Hongbin serves as a useful illustration:

“We must go shoulder to shoulder with the powerful enemy, and research and plan war. High end war is a war between great powers. It is an apex contest. The powerful enemy will never give up on his suppression, but will only grow more arrogant. We must break through our own limitations, expand our research on military affairs, research war, and research how to fight, exploring the mechanisms for victory that will allow us to use our strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses (以能击不能).”13

The need to better grasp the threat posed by the powerful enemy is a recurring theme in the published remarks. Vice Admiral Fu Yaoquan calls for “thoroughly researching the powerful enemy.”14 In his remarks, Rear Admiral Huang Long declares that the PLAN must “strengthen research into the powerful enemy’s strategic intentions, operational concepts, and combat tactics.”15 Similarly, Rear Admiral Wang Jundong notes that the service should “accelerate the generation of research on the powerful enemy opponent.”16 With the powerful enemy as the “target” (以强敌为靶标), Rear Admiral Wang Yuefeng highlights the need to “deeply research and assess the characteristics of war between two powerful [militaries] and fully research the powerful enemy’s operational concepts.”17 Further, Wang calls for the PLAN to “deeply analyze the new tactics and new methods being promoted by the powerful enemy in the current local war,”18 clearly referring to U.S. support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

But studying the powerful enemy is just the first step. The PLAN must then prepare to counter his strengths. One key focus is on the undersea domain, an enduring U.S. Navy advantage. As Rear Admiral Zhou Jianming explains:

“We must be aware of the serious situation in which the powerful enemy’s undersea warfare system is improving by the day and closing in on us step-by-step. Building on existing weapons and equipment systems, [we must] actively iterate and advance our operational concepts and operational design, creating the ability to win by damaging the enemy’s systems and attacking the enemy’s weaknesses.”19

Also, with the powerful enemy clearly in mind (直面强敌对手), Vice Admiral Wang Zhongcai calls for the PLAN to “strengthen and solidify” its undersea warfare capabilities.” Specifically, this means “deepening the systematized real-combat employment of submarine and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, upgrading the submarine force’s operational capabilities, and constructing and improving a multi-dimensional (多维立体) ASW system.”20

A PLA Navy submarine bears off a port after separating from towboats during a training exercise on March 21, 2023. ( by Wu Haodong)

To prepare to defeat the powerful enemy at sea, the PLAN must engage him in peacetime. In his speech at the Conference of the Admirals, the PLAN head of navy, Admiral Dong Jun, emphasized the need to “use the enemy to train the troops” (拿敌练兵). This phrase refers to a practice adopted under Xi Jinping to exploit peacetime encounters with rival foreign air and sea forces to hone China’s own tactical capabilities and better understand how foreign counterparts are likely to act in wartime. In his published remarks, Rear Admiral Huang Long echoes Admiral Dong by calling for the PLAN to “leverage opportunities on the [peacetime] battlefield to use the enemy to train the troops.”21 In a similar vein, Vice Admiral Wang Zhongcai declares in his remarks that the PLAN must use its “resource advantages” in terms of air and sea assets to take the full measure of the opponent through hostile encounters (literally, “struggle”) on the front lines.22 

Though warfighting is the central theme, the PLAN admirals do not assume that war with the U.S. is inevitable. If the right steps are taken, the U.S. can be deterred. Rear Admiral Zhou Jianming, for instance, declares that the PLAN must “resolutely shoulder the mission and responsibility of deterring the powerful enemy.”23 In his words, the “most fundamental [way]” to build a “powerful strategic deterrence force system” is to develop real combat capabilities that “terrify the powerful enemy.24 Vice Admiral Wang Zhongcai echoes this point, calling for the service to “adopt methods and tactics that will instill fear in the enemy,”25 suggesting that America’s strategic calculus can be influenced by things that the PLAN does. Rear Admiral Sun Zhongyi cites the need to research and develop new hardware that can “deter and thwart the powerful [enemy].”26According to Rear Admiral Huang Long, the “core” of PLAN efforts must be to “hone actual combat skills that can deter the enemy and shape momentum and defeat the enemy to achieve victory.”27


Returning then to the central question, how does the PLAN see U.S.-China rivalry at sea? Based on sources cited from the December 20222 Conference of the Admirals, it should be obvious that the PLAN’s strategy is not fixated on peacetime “competition” for influence with the U.S. Navy. Nor is it bloated with abstract concepts or diluted by a laundry list of priorities. The answer could not be any clearer: the PLAN is almost singularly focused on high-end war with the U.S. Navy—deterring war, if possible, fighting and winning war, if necessary.

Over the next five years, the PLAN will be taking steps to erode the U.S. Navy’s advantages, especially in the undersea domain—doing so through careful study of U.S. Navy systems, platforms, tactics, operational concepts, and doctrine. It will also be striving to grasp the “mechanisms” of modern warfare, paying close attention to how they manifest on the battlefield in Ukraine. It will also be seizing on peacetime encounters in the Western Pacific to practice tactics for defeating the U.S. Navy and better gauge how the U.S. Navy is likely to fight the war of the near future.

The PLAN’s conception of its rivalry with the U.S. Navy contrasts markedly with the American sea services’ framing of their own strategic priorities. Whereas the U.S. is animated by abstruse principles such as defending the “rules based international order” and committed to competition across a broad spectrum of operations—while overburdened with a global mission set—the PLAN is laser-focused on building concrete warfighting capabilities to defeat a defined operational opponent on its doorstep.

This conclusion immediately prompts other questions. Which of the two strategic frameworks is likely to result in better preparation for the worst-case scenario—a major maritime conflict in the Western Pacific? If the PLAN’s framework is superior, how should America’s sea services update their priorities to truly ensure advantage at sea? These questions must be asked, and they must be answered—and answered soon.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. His recent work incudes “Blue Water Command: The Evolution of Authority on Chinese Warships,” published by the Sea Power Centre-Australia (April 2023). The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.


1. 范晓昱,牛涛 [Fan Xiaoyu and Niu Tao], 全面学习全面把握全面落实党的二十大精神努力在新航程上开创海军建设发展新局面 [“Comprehensively Study, Comprehensively Grasp, and Comprehensive Implement the Spirit of the 20th Party Congress and Strive to Create a New Situation for the Navy’s Construction and Development on the New Voyage”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 15, 2022, p. 1.

2. 牛涛 [Niu Tao], 潜心学思践悟 聚力奋战转型 [“Concentrate on Learning, Thinking, Practicing, and Enlightenment, Gather Strength to Fight for Transformation”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 20, 2022, p. 1.

3. 牛涛,宫雨辰, [Niu Tao and Gong Yuchen], 深入破解备战转型重大理论现实问题 推进海军建设高质量发展 [“In-Depth Examination of Theoretical and Practical Issues Associated with Readiness Transformation, Promote Naval Construction and High-Quality Development”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 20, 2022, p. 1.

4. 周启青,张惊天 [Zhou Qiqing and Zhang Jingtian], 用理论之光照亮新征程 [“Illuminate the New Journey with the Light of Theory”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], November 15, 2017, p. 3

5. 肖德伦,高毅 [Xiao Delun and Gao Yi], “种子艇”是怎样炼就的 ——探寻南海舰队326潜艇走向大洋的历程 [“How the ‘Seed Boat’ is Made—Exploring the Process Whereby South Sea Fleet Submarine No. 326 Went to the Open Ocean”], 解放军报 [PLA Daily], January 9, 2011, p. 2.

6. 王智涛,侯瑞 [Wang Zhitao and Hou Rui], 随船护卫指导商船反海盗 [“Escorting and Guiding Merchant Ships While Countering Pirates”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 23, 2011, p. 1.

7. Niu, “Concentrate on Learning, Thinking, Practicing, and Enlightenment, Gather Strength to Fight for Transformation,” p. 1; Fan and Niu, “Comprehensively Study, Comprehensively Grasp, and Comprehensive Implement the Spirit of the 20th Party Congress and Strive to Create a New Situation for the Navy’s Construction and Development on the New Voyage,” p. 1.

8. The eleven excerpted remarks were published under the headline 聚焦如期实现建军一百年奋斗目标 努力开创海军现代化建设崭新局面 [“Focus on Achieving the PLA Centenary Goal on Schedule, Strive to Create a New Situation for the Navy’s Modernized Construction”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, pp. 2-3.

9. 牛涛,王汉唐 [Niu Tao and Wang Hantang], 中国共产党海军第十三次代表大会隆重开幕 [“The Navy’s 13th Party Congress Ceremoniously Opens”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 15, 2022, p. 1. 

10. 加快转型升级建设新质海军 [“Accelerate the Transformation and Upgrading to Build a New Quality Navy”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 15, 2022, p. 2.

11. 郑祖,牛涛,王汉唐 [Zheng Zu, Niu Tao, and Wang Hantang], 中国共产党海军第十三次代表大会胜利闭幕 [“The Navy’s 13th Party Congress Successfully Concludes”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 16, 2022, p. 1.

12. Ibid.

13. 王洪斌 [Wang Hongbing], 扛起建设精兵劲旅的历史重责 [“Carry the Historic Responsibility to Build an Elite Force”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.

14. 傅耀泉 [Fu Yaoquan], 踔厉奋发实干 开创发展新局 [“Work Hard and Create a New Situation for Development”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.

15. 黄龙 [Huang Long], 锚定奋斗目标 加紧作战准备 [“Anchor the Centenary Goal, Step Up Combat Preparations”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.

16. 王军东 [Wang Dongjun], 努力构建高质量人才培养基地 [“Strive to Build a Base that Cultivates High-Quality Human Capital”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, pp. 2-3.

17. 王岳峰 [Wang Yuefeng], 瞄准高端海战 加快科研攻关 [“Aim at High-End Naval War, Accelerate Scientific Research”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.

18. Ibid.

19. 周建明 [Zhou Jianming], 推进奋战转型向更高层次发展 [“Advance the Transformation in Readiness to a Higher Level of Development”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.

20. 王仲才 [Wang Zhongcai], 聚力练兵备战 提高打赢能力 [“Focus on Training and Readiness, Improve Ability to Fight and Win”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 2.

21. Huang, “Anchor the Centenary Goal, Step Up Combat Preparations,” p. 3.

22. Wang, “Focus on Training and Readiness, Improve Ability to Fight and Win, ” p. 2.

23. Zhou, “Advance the Transformation in Readiness to a Higher Level of Development,” p. 3.

24. Ibid.

25. Wang, “Focus on Training and Readiness, Improve Ability to Fight and Win, ” p. 2.

26. 孙忠义 [Sun Zhongyi], 厚实打赢高端海战人才支撑 [“Strong Human Capital Support for Winning High-End Naval War”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 2.

27. Huang, “Anchor the Centenary Goal, Step Up Combat Preparations,” p. 3.

Featured Image: The PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer Huhhot (Hull 161) steams in waters of the South China Sea during a maritime training exercise in Mid-July, 2019. ( by Li Wei and Qian Chunyan)

An Allied Coast Guard Approach to Countering CCP Maritime Gray Zone Coercion

This piece originally published under the title of “Innovating the U.S.-Japan Alliance to Counter CCP Maritime Gray Zone Coercion: An Allied Coast Guard Approach,” in a monograph by the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. It is republished with permission. 

By Jada Fraser

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under General-Secretary Xi Jinping shows no signs of tamping down on its assertive campaign to secure revisionist territorial claims throughout the East and South China Seas, China’s Coast Guard’s (CCG) maritime gray zone activities present a particularly acute asymmetric challenge for the U.S.-Japan Alliance. This is because apart from the highly capable U.S. nuclear force and allied conventional military forces, in the realm of maritime gray zone coercion, the CCG faces no proportionate U.S. counterforce.1 On the other hand, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and Coast Guard continue to implement new technologies, upgrade logistics, and undergo reforms enabling Japanese maritime forces to more effectively track and respond to instances of gray zone coercion.

U.S. administrations have placed different levels of priority on determining the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) role in countering maritime gray zone coercion in the Indo-Pacific and have yet to implement a coherent strategy. An analysis of recent reforms to Japan’s coast guard presents several models that the USCG can build off. Such an approach recognizes current U.S. resource limitations and accounts for how an important U.S. ally at the forefront of countering CCG gray zone activities has pursued its own reforms, even while under similar and additional constraints.

U.S. and Japanese maritime forces, especially both countries’ coast guards, must innovate allied approaches to more effectively counter gray zone efforts that undermine the rules-based international order. USCG reforms must center on expanding the force’s own role in countering CCG maritime gray zone coercion to be on par with that of the JCG. This will require that the USCG strengthen combined capabilities with JCG as well as expand interoperability with the U.S. Navy (USN). Modeling USCG operational and organization reforms on the JCG will enable an allied coast guard approach to countering PRC maritime gray zone coercion that bolsters the U.S.-Japan alliance’s overall deterrent effect in the Indo-Pacific.

Pride of Place: The Role of the CCG in China’s Maritime Gray Zone Activities

China’s increasing reliance on “gray zone activities”—defined here as means short of war but above the level of regular diplomatic efforts—exploits “asymmetric advantage[s] at a certain level or domain of conflict” to impose costs on or coerce capitulation from any state that takes actions inimical to the CCP’s interests.2 One area in which China holds considerable asymmetric advantages is in its utilization of non-military assets to perform military functions. The CCG figures prominently into the CCP’s toolkit for maritime gray zone activities, evidenced by the chain of command transfer in 2018 that reorganized the CCG to fall under the Central Military Commission (CMC).3 In a recent 2022 report on countering China’s gray zone coercion, RAND attempts to categorize different types of PRC military, political, economic, and information activities into three tiers from least to most problematic.4 Activities that do or can rely on the CCG claim three of the seven military gray zone activities identified within the most problematic ‘top tier.’ 

“Competition in the Gray Zone: Countering China’s Coercion Against U.S. Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022.

Unlike most coast guards around the world, the CCG is not separated from the military apparatus of the CCP as a law enforcement body and is in fact staffed with a large number of personnel from China’s Navy.5 The China Coast Guard Law passed in 2021 further muddied the waters on the rules of engagement with what is nominally a civilian entity, but clearly operates as a military force.6 These unique qualities prime the CCG to operate in the gray zone in a way that regional coast guards struggle to contend with.

As national sovereignty and territorial integrity reign supreme in the CCP’s conceptualization of security, sovereignty enforcement operations are at the core of the CCG’s role in maritime gray zone coercion.7 And indeed, because of the CCG’s assertive stance in enforcing CCP claims in the East and South China Seas, coast guards around the region have similarly had to take on a sovereignty-defending role– a function typically reserved for navies. On the other hand, the United States has not had to resort to using its coast guard to defend any of its own sovereignty claims (nor directly had to defend any of its allies’ claims thousands of miles away). In this view, compared to allied and partner countries’ direct experiences countering CCG gray zone activities, there has been a relative lack of pressure for USCG reform to improve maritime gray zone coercion responses.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau and China Coast Guard vessel 2102 steam alongside each other during the transfer of the fishing vessel Yin Yuan in the North Pacific Ocean June 3, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau)

 Japan’s Coast Guard Reforms

Among the first countries to explicitly recognize the threat presented by China’s gray zone activities, Japan’s government has faced the extraordinary challenge of defending its territory from China’s sovereignty claims for decades.8 At the forefront of countering CCG maritime gray zone activities, Japan’s Coast Guard has had to grow both qualitatively and quantitatively. Between 2012 and 2020, the JCG fleet of large patrol vessels grew from 51 to 66, with an additional 6,000-ton vessel set to enter service in 2023 and another four recently announced by Prime Minister Kishida to join the fleet in the near-term.9 Patrol vessels have not only grown in size, but more are now capable of operating on the open ocean rather than only near Japan’s coastlines.11 Since 2012, the JCG budget and personnel have seen annual increases and the Kishida administration intends to more than double the budget by 2027.11

The nexus of CCG sovereignty operations focuses on the disputed Senkaku Islands. After facing multiple altercations in the area that could have easily spiraled into open armed conflict, in 2016 the JCG established a 12-ship Senkaku Territorial Waters Guard Unit and upgraded the Miyako Coast Guard Station to an office, doubling its patrol staff and adding eight new patrol vessels.12 In addition, in 2015 the JCG and JMSDF held a rare joint exercise, the first to be exclusively focused on gray zone activities.13 Two more of these exercises have been held since, one in 2021 and another this year, underscoring the accelerating pressure Japan is under to shore up its own domestic defense capabilities.

Japan Coast Guard Mizuho-class patrol vessel PLH 21 Fuso. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

While reforms over the past decade all significantly enhanced JCG ability to respond to maritime gray zone activities, changes made in recent months and announcements for future reforms scheduled to take place over the next couple of years will exponentially improve JCG capacity to independently, jointly, and in a combined fashion with the USCG, respond to gray zone coercion. Importantly, these reforms seek to overcome remaining obstacles that have long been identified as impeding Japan’s ability to confront CCG maritime gray zone coercion most effectively.14

First, before the end of the fiscal year, the JCG and JMSDF plan to conduct the first-ever joint exercise to simulate an armed attack on the Senkakus.15 Such JMSDF-JCG cooperation is being made increasingly possible due to logistical and legal innovations and reforms. JCG intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities grew significantly with the recent commissioning of SeaGuardian UAVs in October 2022.16 Coinciding with this upgrade, JMSDF and JCG announced plans to transition to real-time data sharing from FY23.17 Moreover, soon after this announcement, the United States and Japan launched an intel-sharing unit that will “share, analyze and process information gathered from their assets, including drones and vessels,” in real-time. Considering future plans to streamline JCG-JMSDF intelligence-sharing, it is logical to assume that JCG intelligence will also be incorporated into the new U.S.-Japan intel unit as well.

Furthermore, it bears note that the SeaGuardian drones now being fielded by the JCG also have strike functions useful in anti-submarine warfare.18 This capability bears mentioning as JCG’s ability to take part in military actions has thus far been heavily constrained by Japan’s stringent legal framework which circumscribes the service as a purely civilian actor. While too soon to foretell any major legal reinterpretations of JCG scope in responding to armed conflicts, the GOJ recently reported plans to establish a framework for JCG-JMSDF cooperation.19

Japan’s newly released strategic documents also include a Joint Command Headquarters overseen by a joint commander, a position that will report directly to Japan’s defense minister.20 Japan’s general thrust toward greater jointness and interoperability portends opportunities for the JCG to be incorporated into such reforms. Indeed, the role of the JCG features prominently in Japan’s new strategic documents. In a significant organizational reform, the new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy explicitly state that under situations of armed attack, JCG operational authority will move to the Minister of Defense, aligning with U.S.-style chain of command in contingency scenarios.21

Finally, with the Kishida administration’s plan to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by FY27, budgetary calculations will now include expenditures on Japan’s Coast Guard as a defense budget line item. Unlike NATO countries, Japan has historically not classified JCG spending as a defense expenditure.22 While this reform may seem entirely bureaucratic in nature, Japan is the textbook example of how seemingly esoteric organizational reforms can have remarkable impacts on foreign and security policy.23 By including JCG spending in the defense budget, the government is opening itself up to criticism and pressure to strengthen the coast guard’s role in Japan’s national security and national defense strategies.

Taken together, these reforms will lead to significant improvements in interoperability both at the joint JCG-JMSDF level and more broadly within the scope of the U.S.-Japan alliance between the JCG and USCG and the JMSDF and USCG, perhaps even with all three forces working together trilaterally in the future. Yet the USCG still has far to go in order to capitalize on these potential areas of cooperation.

The USCG-JCG Partnership

Over the past half a decade, the USCG has gradually awakened to the challenges presented by the PRC’s gray zone activities in the Indo-Pacific. This realization is reflected in the 2020 tri-service strategy “Advantage at Sea” which sets the seapower services’ objectives over the next 10 years.24 The strategy emphasizes five objectives to effectively compete with China: integrated all-domain naval power; strengthened alliances and partnerships; operating more assertively to prevail in day-to-day competition; if conflict escalates, denying and defeating the enemy; and modernizing the force. The third objective explicitly highlights the Navy’s, Marines’, and Coast Guard’s role in countering maritime gray zone coercion (aka “day-to-day competition”). Moreover, the strategy document identifies the Coast Guard as the preferred maritime security partner for many nations vulnerable to this kind of coercion. Finally, it recognizes the Coast Guard as the singular force able to provide additional tools for crisis management through capabilities that can de-escalate maritime standoffs non-lethally. This is a role especially critical to managing conflict with the CCG.

Japan is home to one of only two overseas U.S. Coast Guard commands.25 Commander of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area, Vice Adm. Michael McAllister, described the USCG-JCG relationship as “amongst its most valued partnerships.”26 And indeed, over recent months, the relationship has seen significant upgrades and could well be the USCG’s most important partnership. In May 2022, the two countries expanded formalized cooperation at what was dubbed a “historic document signing.”27 Building off an already 12-year-old partnership, Operation SAPPHIRE22 institutionalized standard operating procedures for combined operations, training and capacity building, and information sharing, with the aim of increasing USCG-JCG interactions over time. Taken together, these improvements will all greatly enhance USCG-JCG interoperability.

U.S. and Japanese Coast Guard assets operating together during exercise SAPHIRE22. (Japan Coast Guard photo)

A few months into SAPPHIRE22, it appears quite clear what underlying motivations and goals fuel this mission. USCG and JCG have already conducted joint training and capacity-building activities with the Philippines Coast Guard twice since the memorandum of understanding was signed. JCG press releases of these activities explicitly link them to Japan’s strategy to realize a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”28 USCG’s relationship with Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces has seen recent upgrades as well. Last year, the Japan-U.S. ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) was applied to the USCG for the first time to enable a JMSDF supply shop to replenish a USCG patrol vessel.29

These upgrades evidence the recognition of both countries that effectively competing with China will require updates to alliance cooperation at the technical, operational, and strategic levels. On the part of Japan, such recognition has played out in particularly pronounced ways. The government of Japan’s recent overhaul of the country’s strategic documents will likely produce historic evolutions in Japan’s defense orientation and security role within both the U.S.-Japan alliance and in the Indo-Pacific region more broadly. These changes are equally likely to create new possibilities for USCG cooperation with both the JCG and the JMSDF. But the burden will lie on the United States Coast Guard to implement reforms of its own in order to best take advantage of these new opportunities.

A Model for USCG Reforms

As stated earlier, there is increasing awareness in the White House and in the force itself that the U.S. Coast Guard’s role in the Indo-Pacific to counter maritime gray zone coercion needs to be strengthened. As Edgard Kagan, senior director for East Asia and Oceania on the National Security Council, recently made clear,

“The Coast Guard is an extraordinarily important tool, one that we are looking to see if there’s ways of expanding the presence and the level of engagement, because the issues that really matter to countries in the Pacific in many cases are much more aligned.”

There is much that could be done to broaden and strengthen this USCG role, specifically within the U.S.-Japan Alliance.

Model JMSDF-JCG Gray Zone Response Exercises

First, the USCG and the U.S. Navy should observe the gray zone exercises being conducted by the JCG and JMSDF and develop their own operational concepts for joint responses to gray zone activities. This would enhance the abilities of current and future USCG cutters home-ported in the Indo-Pacific to jointly respond with the Navy to gray zone activities throughout the region. But more importantly, it would enable both the Navy and the USCG to incorporate specifically targeted gray zone response activities as part of regular exercise and training deployments with regional partners, including Japan.

Strengthen Multilateral Coast Guard and Navy Cooperation

Second, beyond USCG training and capacity building deployments to the region (which are already strained by over-stretched resources), the U.S. Coast Guard should place a greater emphasis on coordinating to bring regional coast guards to Hawaii to train. One specific opportunity for this could be first to institutionalize regular USCG participation in multilateral naval exercises, such as RIMPAC, and then gradually expand to incorporate regional coast guard participation starting with Japan. RIMPAC has hosted USCG participation on the rare occasion, most recently last year. USCG participation in RIMPAC22 gave rise to several firsts. The coast guard participated in anti-submarine warfare exercises for the first time, and a national security cutter was the first ever to be equipped with the Link 16 tactical network system which enabled operational integration with the U.S. Navy.30 Traditionally, coast guard ships are not outfitted with the same network and communications platforms used by the military.31 Including both USCG and JCG in RIMPAC will enhance inter-service cooperation in addition to facilitating trust-building and cooperation between partnered and allied coast guards and navies. This will also add to overall regional deterrence by building important security linkages between partner and allied forces.

Enhance USCG-USN Interoperability to Expand Capacity for Combined Operations with Japan 

Third and finally, modeling recent reforms to JCG-JMSDF interoperability, USCG platforms should be integrated with U.S. military network and communications platforms to enable more seamless real-time intelligence sharing and interoperability. To be best equipped for joint responses to gray zone escalation in the Indo-Pacific and to most effectively operate with Japanese forces, the Coast Guard and Navy cannot afford to maintain this current stove-piped system of communications.


Japan’s coast guard reforms and innovations offer several lessons for how the USCG can more effectively counter gray zone activities and best take advantage of the quickly growing partnership between the two forces as well as between the USCG and the JMSDF. By modeling USCG-USN gray zone exercises from JCG-JMSDF ones, the U.S.-Japan alliance can better prepare for joint responses to gray zone escalation in the region. Moreover, both the USCG and the Navy can incorporate these gray zone exercises and trainings into their own partnerships with regional coast guards. Institutionalizing USCG participation and including Japan’s Coast Guard in RIMPAC would maximize resource efficiency, enhance USCG-Navy interoperability, and strengthen regional coast guard and navy partnerships. Connecting USCG and Navy networks and communication platforms would enable both forces and the alliance to get the most out of the above reforms. Taken together, modeling USCG reforms on JCG operational and organizational innovations will enhance the U.S.-Japan alliance’s ability to counter CCP maritime gray zone coercion through an allied coast guard approach.

Jada Fraser is currently pursuing her Master’s in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service where she serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs. Jada has previously worked as a Policy Research Fellow for the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS and as a Research Assistant with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She is a Pacific Forum Young Leader and a member of Pacific Forum’s inaugural cohort of the U.S.-Japan Next Generation Leaders initiative. Her work has been published by outlets such as Nikkei Asia, the Lowy Institute, and Australian Strategic Policy Institute.


1. Michael Green, Kathleen Hicks, Zack Cooper, John Schaus, and Jake Douglas, “Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia,” (CSIS, 2017).

2. Ibid.

3. Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Other Army: The People’s Armed Police in an Era of Reform,” Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, April 2019,

4. Bonny, Lin, Cristina L. Garafola, Bruce McClintock, Jonah Blank, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Karen Schwindt, Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Paul Orner, Dennis Borrman, Sarah W. Denton, and Jason Chambers, “Competition in the Gray Zone: Countering China’s Coercion Against U.S. Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022, 

5. Tsukasa Hadano, “China Packs Coast Guard with Navy Personnel,” Nikkei Asia, September 25, 2019; Ying Yu Lin, “Changes in China’s Coast Guard,” The Diplomat, January 30, 2019,

6. “People’s Republic of China Coast Guard Law” [“中华人民共和国海警法”], January 22, 2021, Article 47.

7. State Council Information Office, China’s National Defense in the New Era (2019), 3-15; Morris, Lyle J. (2017) “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 70 : No. 2 , Article 5,

8. Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines has identified “gray-zone situations” as a core security challenge since FY2011. Ian Bowers and Swee Koh, Grey and White Hulls: An International Analysis of the Navy-Coastguard Nexus, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

9. Saito Katsuhisa, “The Senkaku Confrontation: Japan’s Coast Guard Faces Chinese ‘Patrol Ships,’” Nippon, April 26, 2021,; “MHI Launches 2nd 6000-Ton Patrol Vessel For Japanese Coast Guard,” Naval News, July 1, 2022,; “Deployment status of large patrol vessels,” Japan Coast Guard Organization,; “Japan to up coast guard budget 1.4-fold as Senkaku tensions rise,” Kyodo News, December 16, 2022,

10. Bonny Lin, et al., “Competition in the Gray Zone: Countering China’s Coercion Against U.S. Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022,

11. “Japan to up coast guard budget 1.4-fold as Senkaku tensions rise,” Kyodo News, December 16, 2022,

12. Ibid.

13. Céline Pajon, “Japan’s Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force: Cooperation among Siblings,” National Bureau of Asian Research, December 1, 2016,

14. Scott W. Harold, et al., “The U.S.-Japan Alliance and Deterring Gray Zone Coercion in the Maritime, Cyber, and Space Domains,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017, 

Céline Pajon, “Japan’s Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force in the East China Sea: Can a Black-and White System Adapt to a Gray-Zone Reality?” Asia Policy 23 (January 2017), 129; Ian Bowers and Swee Koh, Grey and White Hulls: An International Analysis of the Navy-Coastguard Nexus, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

15. “MSDF, JCG to hold drill simulating armed attack on Senkakus,” Yomiuri Shimbun, November 9, 2022,

16. Mike Yeo, “Japan starts operations with SeaGuardian drone, receives two Hawkeyes,” Defense News, October 20, 2022,

17. “Japan Coast Guard to share real-time surveillance info with navy,” Kyodo News, November 7, 2022,

18. “Japan puts modern drone into operation to enhance maritime security,” Radio Free Asia, October 26, 2022,

19. “MSDF, JCG to hold drill simulating armed attack on Senkakus,” Yomiuri Shimbun, November 9, 2022,

20. “Japan plans new joint command to manage armed forces, Nikkei reports,” Reuters, October 29, 2022,

21. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “National Security Strategy of Japan,” December 16, 2022,

22. “Japan mulls adding coast guard costs to defense budget,” Stars and Stripes, September 10, 2022,

23. Michael J. Green, Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo, New York: Columbia University Press, 2022, pp. 183-184.

24. “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power,” Department of Defense, December 2020,

25. Christopher Woody, “On the front lines against China, the US Coast Guard is taking on missions the US Navy can’t do,” Business Insider, January 11, 2022,

26. Dzirhan Mahadzir, ” U.S. Coast Guard Continues to Expand Presence in the Western Pacific,” USNI News, September 3, 2021,

27. Fatima Bahtić, “US, Japan coast guards expand cooperation, establish new operation Sapphire,” Naval Today, May 20, 2022, 

28. “SAPPHIRE22 US-Japan Joint Training for the Philippine Coast Guard (Summary of results) – Promoting the joint USCG-JCG efforts toward the realization of a Free & Open Indo-Pacific,” Japan Coast Guard, November 7, 2022,

29. “JS OUMI conducted bilateral exercise with U.S. Coast Guard,” Japan Ministry of Defense, August 26, 2021,

30. Sean Carberry, “SPECIAL REPORT: Coast Guard Packs a Punch at RIMPAC,” National Defense Magazine, August 17, 2022,

31. Ibid.

Featured Image: Ships from the U.S. Coast Guard and Japan Coast Guard conducted exercises near the Ogasawara Islands of Japan, Feb. 21, 2021. (U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of the Coast Guard Cutter Kimball/Released)

China’s Lessons from the Pacific War and Implications for Future Warfighting

The following article is adapted from a new report by Dr. Toshi Yoshihara at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Chinese Lessons from the Pacific War: Implications for PLA Warfighting.

By Toshi Yoshihara

Like all militaries, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) studies other nations’ wars to understand the changing character of warfare. The PLA has dissected the Falklands War, the First Gulf War, the air campaign over Kosovo, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and much else. It is no doubt scrutinizing the conflict in Ukraine. The PLA has drawn many lessons from these operations to improve its ability to fight and win future conflicts. Chinese writings about those lessons have, in turn, helped Western observers take better measure of the PLA’s priorities and preferences.

The PLA has even reached back more than eight decades to the Pacific War. Chinese military strategists have examined the origins, conduct, and termination of the ocean-spanning struggle between Imperial Japan and the United States. They have pored over the great battles at sea, rendering numerous judgments about what those engagements mean for the future of PLA warfighting. Chinese lessons from the Pacific War thus offer policymakers valuable insights about the PLA’s thinking and strategy.

The Pacific War’s Appeal to the PLA

In the past, the lopsided conflicts of the unipolar era in which American military might steamrolled third-rate opponents resonated with the PLA. Then, Chinese planners assumed that China would have to fight from a severely disadvantaged position against the United States. However, as the PLA continues its remarkable ascent, it expects to compete and fight with the U.S. armed forces on an equal footing. As such, the lessons from the Pacific War, which featured intense high-end combat between two peer militaries across an oceanic expanse, are increasingly salient to the PLA.

Moreover, the Pacific War stands out for its resemblance to a putative Sino-American conflict. Imperial Japan and the United States fought over an area where the PLA would likely collide with the U.S. military. Just as Japan sought to hold off its opponent in distant waters, the PLA would be attempting to keep its adversary at arm’s length from the mainland. In addition to its large fleet, Japan employed shore-based airpower to conduct maritime strikes. Now, China possesses an arsenal of land-based missiles and aircraft to hold surface combatants at risk, as well as modern fighting ships with increasing reach. 

For U.S. policymakers, Chinese histories of the Pacific War—and the lessons they impart— reveal much about the PLA’s views of strategy and war. These retrospectives offer tantalizing hints of the PLA’s mindset, beliefs, assumptions, and proclivities. By assessing mainland writings about the war at sea and its implications, the policy community can catch glimpses of the Chinese military’s thinking about how it might fight a future great power war.

Drawing from extensive Chinese sources on the great battles at Midway, Guadalcanal, and Okinawa, this analysis reviews three recurring themes that emerge from the literature. Although Chinese analysts offer diverse findings from these campaigns, the following focuses on shore-based airpower, expeditionary logistics, and industrial strength and their corresponding parallels to Chinese strategy, Beijing’s ambitions, and the challenges ahead for the United States. 

Lesson One: Shore-Based Airpower

Chinese analysts have paid special attention to the role of shore-based airpower at Midway, Guadalcanal, and Okinawa. They note that less capable and older aircraft on Midway performed critical duties that contributed to the American success. Long-range reconnaissance by flying boats and bombers provided an early warning screen and detected the incoming enemy fleet, buying precious time for the defenders to respond. Although the aircraft launched from Midway were tactically ineffective against the Japanese carriers, they knocked the attacking fleet sufficiently off balance to pry open the chance to deliver a decisive blow by carrier aviation.

Chinese commentators concur that the American seizure and successful defense of Henderson airfield were crucial to victory at Guadalcanal. The contest for control of the airfield became the focal point of the island campaign and the object over which the Japanese army suffered mounting and eventually unsustainable losses. American aircraft launched from the airfield provided close-air support to ground operations, blunted Japanese air offensives, interdicted enemy resupply, and kept Japan’s flattops at bay. By contrast, owing to the distance separating the airbase at Rabaul from the scene of action, Japanese aircraft were unable to stay aloft long enough to influence the course of the conflict.

Chinese analysts have documented the interactive impact of shore-based airpower during the struggle over Okinawa. Once the American fleet fell within range of Japanese aircraft, including the kamikazes, on Kyushu, the Ryukyus, and Taiwan, it came under unrelenting and deadly air assaults. Moreover, U.S. forces were unable to knock out the many airfields on Kyushu, exposing the fleet to a persistent air threat. Naval historian Zhao Zhenyu observes that Japan’s resilient land-based airpower fixed U.S. carriers in their places to defend the airspace around Okinawa.1 Conversely, the American capture of two airfields on Okinawa enabled U.S. airpower to provide close air support, fight off enemy air raids, and conduct deep sweeps against airbases on Kyushu, forcing the Japanese to relocate their aircraft beyond the range of American fighters.

The logic of shore-based airpower during the Pacific War is discernible today. In a major conventional war against the United States, the PLA would employ shore-based firepower—in the form of aircraft and precision-strike missiles launched from the mainland—to degrade or cripple American airpower at sea and ashore. It would hold at risk American carriers and their air wings operating within the range of its land-based firepower, just as Imperial Japanese air forces did to the U.S. Navy at Okinawa. Chinese missile attacks against Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the hub of American airpower in Asia, could shut down the airfield for weeks or longer. Such an outcome would be analogous to Japan’s loss of shore-based airpower on Guadalcanal and its cascading consequences for Japanese air, naval, and land operations.  

A H-6 strategic bomber attached to a bomber regiment of the naval aviation force under the PLA Southern Theater Command takes off for a flight training exercise. ( by Gao Hongwei)

Imagine a scenario in which China knocks out U.S. regional airbases while it keeps American carriers at arm’s length. Should it become too risky for land- and carrier-based airpower to launch sorties from offshore areas of the Chinese mainland, the United States would have to count on aircraft from more distant bases, including those in Guam and Hawaii. China’s deployment of the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile suggests that even Guam may no longer enjoy its sanctuary status. If American airpower were pushed farther away from Chinese shores, the U.S. military’s predicament would echo the dilemma that plagued Japanese airpower on Rabaul during the Guadalcanal campaign.

Lesson Two: Logistics

Chinese writings express profound admiration for superior American logistics during the Pacific War. At Guadalcanal, U.S. forward basing, convoying, and sea lane defense allowed for the constant flow of materiel and troops to the island. The Japanese, by contrast, were ill-equipped to resupply their forces on Guadalcanal while American interdiction worsened Japan’s logistical predicament. Dwindling supplies and reinforcements sapped the Japanese army, leaving soldiers without food and ammunition in the campaign’s closing months. Chinese analysts also criticize the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) for failing to attack vulnerable American resupply efforts and exposed supply dumps on the island during the battle’s early stages. In reference to the U.S. logistics vessels that escaped destruction at Guadalcanal, naval analyst Liu Yi argues:

“Those unremarkable transports determined the war’s trajectory after the attritional campaign over Guadalcanal. The war was not to be dictated exclusively by the gains and losses of warships or islands. Rather, the war was about the ability to continue developing a nation’s industrial potential and to convert that potential into the energy that could sustain frontline combat power in a long-term struggle.”2

Chinese commentators extol America’s overwhelming logistical power during the conquest of Okinawa. They are uniformly impressed by the forward basing at the Kerama Islands, the entire logistical infrastructure across the Pacific, including the great anchorage at Ulithi, the at-sea replenishment fleet, the massive amphibious assault force, and the follow-on resupply efforts to keep the ground offensives going. The administrative and logistical systems needed to sustain the supply chain that stretched from the West Coast through various intermediary bases all the way to Okinawa are awe-inspiring to them.

Today, the PLA appreciates that logistical prowess—of the kind the United States demonstrated in the Pacific War—is essential to its global ambitions. The PLA will need to establish forward bases, field transport and logistical ships, and set up various support facilities at home and abroad. It must not only deploy forces that can credibly engage in sea lane defense and interdict enemy supply lines, but it must also demonstrate those skills through peacetime exercises and training. Chinese strategists concur that the infrastructure necessary to support distant missions must align with the sinews of China’s national power to avoid Imperial Japan’s fate at Guadalcanal.

Naval ships assigned to flotillas with the navy under the PLA Eastern Theater Command steam in formation to conduct alongside and astern replenishment-at-sea during a comprehensive replenishment training exercise on February 10, 2023. ( by Zhang Weile)

The PLA understands that logistical weaknesses, like Imperial Japan’s, can be fatal. It recognizes that modern wars consume huge quantities of materiel, placing enormous strains on logistical systems. Disruptions to resupply could lead to the loss of battlefield initiative or worse. The PLA’s doctrine thus calls for attacks against the enemy’s lines of communications to undermine its warfighting capabilities. The theory is that an effective strike against the opponent’s supply chain would cut off the essentials needed to keep its frontline combat units fighting, much as American airpower did to Japanese defenders on Guadalcanal.

Lesson Three: Industrial Power

Chinese analysts acknowledge the importance of economic power and industrial strength in carrying out a protracted war at sea. To them, the mismatch between Imperial Japan’s economy and its ambitions led to severe overextension at Guadalcanal. The destruction of transports and ground forces there accelerated the consumption of scarce resources and compounded Japan’s overreach. The cumulative effects of attrition spilled over into Japanese campaign plans on the Asian continent, compelling Tokyo to call off offensives against Nationalist positions in southcentral China. Losses that Japan could ill afford thus sharpened its dilemma of fighting a two-front war on the mainland and in the Pacific.

Chinese observers have analyzed the interplay between industrial capacity and attrition of forces on the battlefield. They find that Japan’s lack of industrial depth and personnel to recover from combat losses was a critical factor in the conduct and the outcome of the war. Imperial Japan’s inability to rapidly reconstitute its forces had a particularly baneful impact on Japanese warfighting. The loss of irreplaceable pilots at Midway and Guadalcanal was a major contributing factor to Japan’s declining fortunes. To mainland analysts, Japan’s struggle with material and manpower shortfalls illustrates the importance of harnessing all elements of national strength in fighting protracted great power wars.

Marines assigned to a brigade of the Marine Corps under the PLA Navy check and prepare ammunition before loading prior to a recent live-fire training exercise. ( by Shang Wenbin)

Today, there are concerns about the U.S. Navy’s capacity to sustain and make up for its losses in a prolonged war. Armed with a large arsenal of missiles, the PLA would seek to land decisive blows against the approaching U.S. surface fleet, just as the IJN and the U.S. Navy inflicted heavy losses on each other in single encounters. The PLA’s ability to drive up attrition means that mass will be at a premium for the United States. Yet, decades of decline, neglect, and mismanagement have led to an atrophied defense-industrial base and an undersized, aging fleet. This resource quandary raises unsettling questions about whether the United States, in a naval war against China, might encounter material constraints like that of Imperial Japan.

Aiming High 

History lessons and historical analogies are not predictions. They hint at the shape of things to come. If the PLA’s interpretations of the Pacific War are any indication of its ambitions, then U.S. policymakers should take notice. Tellingly, Chinese strategists see the United States in the Pacific War as their surrogate for China in a future war. They depict the Imperial Japanese Navy’s failings as a cautionary tale while they show the U.S. Navy’s successes as a model for emulation. Their fascination, if not obsession, with America’s logistical prowess is just one sign of China’s aspirations. The literature conforms to Beijing’s expectation that the PLA must strive to become an equal to the U.S. military. Policymakers should thus treat Chinese lessons from the Pacific War as early warning signals of the PLA’s aims and plans.

Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). His latest book is Mao’s Army Goes to Sea: Island Campaigns and the Founding of China’s Navy (Georgetown University Press, 2022). 


1. Zhao Zhenyu, History of Sea Battles in the Pacific (Beijing: Haichao Press, 1997), pp. 643-644.

2. Liu Yi, The Combined Fleet (Wuhan: Wuhan University Press, 2010), p. 206.

Featured Image: Amphibious armored vehicles attached to a brigade of the PLA Navy Marine Corps head to shore in formation during a beach raid training exercise in the west of south China’s Guangdong Province on August 17, 2019. ( by Yan Jialuo and Yao Guanchen)