Tag Archives: Taiwan Strait

A Question of Time: Improving Taiwan’s Maritime Deterrence Posture

The following essay is adapted from a report published by George Mason University’s Center for Security Policy Studies: A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture

By Joe Petrucelli

Just last month two U.S. Navy warships conducted a transit of the Taiwan Strait, reminding the world that the status of Taiwan remains contested and unresolved. Although China prefers to use peaceful means to achieve unification, it has not taken the possibility of force off the table. Accordingly, Taiwan remains one of the few states to endure the plausible risk of military invasion.

After visiting Taiwan to study this problem, a team of researchers, including the author, recently released a report advocating for a dramatic shift in Taiwan’s conventional deterrence posture. Among our recommendations, we call for Taiwan’s navy to change its current acquisition priorities and embrace an unconventional-asymmetric doctrine of sea denial.

We suggest this shift in maritime strategy because of what we termed Taiwan’s deterrence trilemma. At a strategic level, Taiwan must simultaneously accomplish three goals that exist in tension with each other:  

  • It must counter China’s grey zone challenges, which means Taiwan must project symbolic strength across its airspace and territorial waters;
  • It must raise the costs of invasion, which means it needs forces that can prolong any conflict and inflict unacceptable losses on the invaders; and
  • It must do both of these things in a resource-constrained environment defined by a general unwillingness to significantly increase defense spending

At least in the near term, a military invasion remains unlikely since the PLA faces a number of obstacles that complicate its ability to mount a successful invasion. Nonetheless, time is on China’s side and Taiwan’s naval doctrine and force posture remain misaligned. Although Taiwan has revised its strategy to emphasize multi-domain, asymmetric deterrence, it remains focused on purchasing high-end, high-capability systems such as the F-35B fighter, Aegis-like destroyers and diesel submarines, the “darlings of their service chiefs.” 

We argue that Taiwan should enhance its deterrence posture by adopting a more coherent and holistic approach. Specifically, we recommend that it adopt an elastic denial-in-defense strategy, which will consist of three core elements:

  • Accept risk in the grey zone. Grey zone aggression does not constitute an existential threat allowing Taiwan to rebalance its force to maintain “just enough” capability to push back against grey zone challenges, such sufficient naval strength to prevent and intercept unwanted excursions into Taiwanese waters;
  • Prioritize denial operations. Specifically, divest as many costly, high-tech platforms as possible so as to invest in large numbers of relatively low-cost, counter-invasion capabilities. This would raise the cost associated with bringing a hostile force close to Taiwan’s shores; and
  • Invest in popular resistance. The prospect of waging a prolonged insurgency will likely deter China’s leadership far more than the threat of fighting a relatively small, conventional force.

We are not the first to propose shifting to an asymmetric maritime force to deny China use of the seas as an invasion corridor. Numerous reports and analyses have suggested specific maritime platforms Taiwan should acquire to execute a sea denial strategy, such as fast missile boats, semi-submersibles, mini-submarines, mines, and coastal defense cruise missiles. We entirely agree with these recommendations and note that to date, despite talk of an asymmetric strategy, Taiwan has made only marginal changes. For example, while it has modestly increased its inventory of missile boats and anti-ship cruise missiles, Taiwan’s navy remains anchored around a relatively small and therefore vulnerable inventory of high-end platforms. 

The political reality is that Taiwan’s navy faces major resource constraints and so must make difficult choices. Accordingly, Taiwan should defer its high-profile procurement priorities, especially the Aegis-like destroyer and the Indigenous Diesel Submarine (IDS). These are technically challenging programs, especially given Taiwan’s lack of experience building similar platforms. Additionally, they are expensive enough that Taiwan will not be able to field them in large numbers and ultimately remain vulnerable to Chinese long-range strike and anti-access weapons systems. Taiwan’s current naval fleet, although aged, is sufficient to “show the flag” and resist grey-zone aggression for the near future. Instead of these planned procurements, Taiwan should significantly increase the numbers of low-cost, lethal platforms, even at the expense of other planned procurements.

These lower cost platforms, by the larger numbers procured, complicate adversary targeting and improve their force-level survivability against PLA strike capabilities. Taiwan should start by fielding a larger fleet than currently envisioned of its stealthy Tuo Jiang missile corvette and build on the lessons learned from these small corvettes to field a future small frigate. Both can fulfill peacetime missions but be built in large enough numbers to possibly survive in a wartime environment. By delaying the more ambitious destroyer and IDS programs and starting with smaller, less expensive projects, Taiwan can best prioritize limited resources.

This incremental approach also helps develop relevant technical capability, so that potential future submarine and large surface combatant programs are less technically risky when it becomes fiscally and strategically appropriate to build them. The immediate savings from delaying the destroyer and IDS programs can be diverted into the sea denial platforms that Taiwan needs now, ranging from the small frigate discussed above to even smaller missile boats, mini-subs and mobile anti-ship cruise missiles.

Moreover, Taiwan should eliminate its entire amphibious force. Bluntly speaking, Taiwan’s amphibious assault ships are strategically unnecessary as they are not immediately useful for confronting limited challenges to Taiwan’s territorial sovereignty or other “grey zone” aggression. They also have no ability to counter a cross-strait invasion. Rather than procure expensive amphibious assault ships and maintain aging landing craft, which generate sizable sustainment costs, Taiwan should retire this entire force. It can then shift these savings into further investments in counter-invasion capabilities.

Because Taiwan’s Marine Corps would be losing its sealift, it should be rebranded as Taiwan’s premier counter-amphibious force so as to fill a gap between the navy’s sea denial role and the army’s ground denial mission. Specifically, it would specialize in defending possible landing zones with mines and spread out hard points in addition to engaging landing craft with dispersed, near-shore weapons such as anti-tank guided missiles.

These proposals to transform Taiwan’s naval strategy and procurement plans would produce a force capable of waging a sea denial campaign against a conventionally superior opponent, tailored to the specific threat of a cross-Strait invasion. The changes in naval force structure would be mirrored throughout Taiwan’s armed forces, to include a reduction in army ground strength, the termination of plans to procure F-35B fighters, and accelerated procurement of similar asymmetric capabilities. To invest in popular resistance, we recommend transforming Taiwan’s two-million-man Reserve Force into a Territorial Defense Force prepared to conduct a lengthy insurgency campaign. By abandoning plans for a decisive battle and shifting to a posture that increases invasion costs and prevents a quick victory, Taiwan can better deter China.

Read about these recommendations and more in the full report: A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture.

Joe Petrucelli is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and a currently mobilized U.S. Navy reserve officer. The analysis and opinions expressed here are his alone and they do not represent those of the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Tuo Jiang-class missile boat in service with the Taiwanese Navy. (Defense Ministry of Taiwan)

The Other Deep-Water Battleground

This article originally featured on Reuters and was republished with the author’s permission. Read it in its original form here

By Peter Marino 

A floating dock of the Indian navy is pictured at the naval base at Port Blair in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, July 1, 2015. REUTERS/Sanjeev Miglani

The Indian Ocean may be the only ocean named for a country, but it’ s still heavily contested territory. Both China and India, who have major strategic interests there, are suspicious of each other. Their struggle for leadership in the “emerging world” will play out for decades and all around the globe, but today the Indian Ocean is Ground Zero.

The South China Sea is home to overlapping claims by China, the Philippines, and other countries in the region. And the Arctic Ocean, increasingly, has seen a build-up of U.S. and Russian troops, lured by the possibility of billions of barrels of untapped oil. The Indian Ocean is significant because of its strategically important sea lanes — particularly for India and China, two of the world’s largest importers.

China imports most of its oil by sea, and 80 percent of it crosses the Indian Ocean before it passes through the Straits of Malacca, on its way to the Chinese market. Beijing is very concerned about its dependency on a waterway it does not control, and is using diplomacy, both carrots and sticks, to ensure that it can continue to access the sea lanes. As part of this effort, Xi Jinping’s “maritime silk road” program will offer cheap Chinese financing to cash-strapped governments for trade and industrial infrastructure along such routes.

China is using hard power as well. Through China’s longstanding alliance with the Pakistani government, it has funded improvements at the deepwater port of Gwadar, Pakistan, where a state-owned Chinese company now has a 40-year management contract. That agreement allowed the port to host ships owned by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, giving the Chinese a permanent, or at least semi-permanent, presence in the region.

China’s participation, since 2012, in the international anti-piracy coalition that mans the Gulf of Aden has also allowed it to operate in the Western Indian Ocean, where it is reported to be conducting studies of the sea depth, presumably to aid future submarine patrol missions.

Delhi has been paying close attention, and is mobilizing its own diplomatic and hard-power tools to shore up its influence in its home region. Indian foreign aid, while not yet on the scale of Chinese state investment, is being spread liberally to countries near the Indian Ocean, especially to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India’s proximity and cultural similarities give it some advantages over the Chinese efforts. Nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been notably active in this area, making the first trip by an Indian PM to Sri Lanka in 28 years as part of the push to improve bilateral relations.

Moreover, Delhi is aware of the gap between the strength of its own forces, and that of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which has been modernizing for 20 years. India is opening up its checkbook for better equipment, including a multi-billion-euro deal for advanced Rafale fighter jets from France to replace its aging Russian Sukhois. And it is becoming less shy about the idea that it is countering China at sea. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited Delhi in June this year, he signed early paperwork establishing a collaboration to develop India’s next generation of aircraft carriers. Because China had recently launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and was constructing two more, the motivation behind this proposed Indo-U.S. partnership was unmistakable.

Despite these conflicting interests, China and India could still have room to collaborate on several major global issues. As two of the world’s biggest importers of agricultural goods, minerals and energy, they share an interest in working with exporters to help smooth out price volatility in commodity cycles. And as countries that will be “great powers” while still relatively poor, they should work with each other to push through reforms at the United Nations, World Bank and other international groups that were set up by the rich world. Their shared interest in a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia should contribute to their joint participation in peaceful diplomacy there, too.

But for the moment, Delhi and Beijing are mostly in a mode of competition in the Indian Ocean, and the tendrils of their struggle extend even further, across the steppes of Central Asia, to the Western part of Africa, and into the Persian Gulf, as well. The Indian Ocean is the one major ocean not bounded by one of the existing great powers, which makes it the perfect locale in which the struggle for primacy in the “emerging world” can play out. What we are seeing now is only the beginning.

Peter Marino holds an MSc in Global Politics from The London School of Economics and is a graduate of Norwich University. He lived in Shanghai from 2003 to 2008 and served as head of China development for London-based Aurigon, Ltd. He founded and sold Quaternion, a political risk startup, and is currently establishing a new Think Tank for International Affairs aimed at promoting engagement with the “Millennial Generation.” He also produces Globalogues, a video blog with commentary on global politics and economics. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Deep Accommodation: The Best Option for Preventing War in the Taiwan Strait

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Eric Gomez

History has shown that emerging great powers and established or declining great powers are likely to fight major wars in order to determine the balance of power in the international system. There is considerable fear that the U.S. and China are heading towards great power conflict. As Christopher Layne argues, there are “several important — and unsettling — parallels between the Anglo-Germany relationship during the run-up to 1914 and the unfolding Sino-American relationship.” The headline-grabbing dispute in the South China Sea offers an excellent example of one of the several flashpoints that could spark a larger conflict between the U.S. and China. But the probability of great power conflict between the U.S. and China can be reduced if the two states can find ways to better manage interactions in flashpoint areas.

The oldest flashpoint, and the area most important for Chinese domestic politics, is the Taiwan Strait. In 1972, the Shanghai Communique stated that the so-called Taiwan question was the most important issue blocking the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China. This question has yet to be solved, mostly because Taiwan has been able to deter attack through a strong indigenous defense capability backed up by American commitment.

Military Balance in the Taiwan Strait, Forbes.
Military Balance in the Taiwan Strait, Forbes.

The status quo in the Taiwan Strait will be unsustainable as China continues to improve its military capabilities and adopt more aggressive military strategies. If the U.S. wants to avert a war with China in the Taiwan Strait, it must start looking for an alternative to the status quo. Taiwan’s strategy of economic accommodation with China under the Ma Ying-jeou administration has brought about benefits. The U.S. should encourage Taiwan to deepen its military and political accommodation with China. This would be a difficult pill for Taiwan to swallow, but it could offer the most sustainable deterrent to armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

For years, Taiwan’s de facto independence from China has relied on a qualitatively superior, defense-focused military that could prevent the landing of a large Chinese force on the island. The growing power of the Chinese military, especially its naval and missile forces, has begun eroding this qualitative advantage. Indeed, some observers have already concluded that “the days when [Taiwan] forces had a quantitative and qualitative advantage over [China] are over.” Taiwan still possesses a formidable military and could inflict high costs on an attacking Chinese force, but ultimately American intervention would likely be necessary to save Taiwan from a determined Chinese attack.

Military intervention by the U.S. on the behalf of Taiwan would be met with formidable Chinese resistance. China’s anti-access/area denial strategy complicates the U.S.’s ability to project power in the Taiwan Strait.  China’s latest maritime strategy document, released in May of this year, states that China’s navy will start shifting its focus further offshore to include open seas protection missions. Such a shift implies an aspirational capability to keep intervening American forces away from Taiwan. American political leaders have not given up on Taiwan, and the 2015 U.S. National Military Strategy places a premium on reassuring allies of America’s commitments. However, the fact that China’s improving military capabilities will make an American military intervention on behalf of Taiwan more and more costly must not be ignored.

Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping, Xinhua News Photo.
Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping, Xinhua News Photo.

The best option for preventing a war in the Taiwan Strait is deepening the strategy of accommodation that Beijing and Taipei have already started. According to Baohui  Zhang, accommodation “relies on expanding common interests, institutionalizing dialogues, promoting security confidence-building and offering assurances to establish mutual trust.” The Ma Ying-jeou administration in Taiwan has tried to use accommodation as a way to lock in the status quo and avoid conflict, but their efforts have been met with more and more popular backlash in Taiwan. China’s military strategy document does acknowledge that “cross-Taiwan Straits relations have sustained a sound momentum of peaceful development, but the root cause of instability has not yet been removed.”

If Taiwan is serious about accommodation as a means of deterring military conflict, then it should cease purchasing military equipment from the U.S. Stopping the arms purchases would send a clear message to Beijing that Taiwan is interested in deeper accommodation. A halt in arms sales would also benefit U.S.-Chinese relations by removing a “major stumbling block for developing bilateral military-to-military ties.” This is certainly a very controversial proposal, and would likely be very difficult to sell to the Taiwanese people, but as I’ve already explained the status quo is becoming more and more untenable.

Getty Images
Getty Images

There are two important things to keep in mind about this proposal which mitigate fears that this is some kind of appeasement to China. First, halting U.S. arms sales does not mean that Taiwan’s self-defense forces would cease to exist. China may be gaining ground on Taiwan militarily, but the pain that Taiwan could inflict on an attacking force is still high. China may be able to defeat Taiwan in a conflict, but the losses its military would take to seize the island would significantly hamper its ability to use its military while it recovers from attacking Taiwan.

Second, there is an easily identifiable off-ramp that can be used by Taiwan if the policy is not successful. Stopping arms purchases is meant to be a way of testing the water. If the Chinese respond positively to the decision by offering greater military cooperation with Taiwan or some form of political concessions then Beijing signals its commitment to the accommodation process. On the other hand, if the Chinese refuse to follow through and meet Taiwan halfway then Beijing signals that it is not actually committed to accommodation. Taiwan would then resume purchasing American weapons with the knowledge that it must find some other way to prevent conflict.

Accommodation by giving up American arms sales is a tough pill for Taiwan to swallow, but it simply does not have many other viable alternatives to preventing conflict. Taiwan could pursue acquiring nuclear weapons, but this would be met by American opposition and would likely trigger a pre-emptive attack by China if the weapons program were discovered. Taiwan could try to avert conflict by increasing military spending to forestall, but this would be difficult to sustain so long as China’s economy and military spending is also growing. Analysts at CSBA have argued for deterrence through protraction, which advocates employing asymmetric guerrilla-style tactics to prevent China from achieving air and sea dominance. This has the highest likelihood of success of the three alternatives mentioned in this paragraph, but it still relies on intervention by outside powers to ultimately save the day.

Taiwan’s military deterrent will not be able to prevent a Chinese attempt to change the status quo by force for much longer. Any conflict in the Taiwan Strait would likely involve a commitment of U.S. forces and could lead to a major war between the U.S. and China. Accommodation could be the best worst option that Taiwan, and the U.S., has for preventing a war with China. Announcing an end to American weapons purchases could bring Taiwan progress on negotiations with China if successful while still providing off-ramps that Taiwan could take if unsuccessful. I admit, the idea of accommodation does have its flaws, and more work needs to be done to flesh out this idea. I hope that this idea of deep accommodation will add to the discussion about the management of the Taiwan Strait issue. The status quo won’t last forever, and a vigorous debate will be needed to arrive at the best possible solution. 

Eric Gomez is an independent analyst and recent Master’s graduate of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He is working to develop expertise in regional security issues and U.S. military strategy in East Asia, with a focus on China. He can be reached at gomez.wellesreport@gmail.com.

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No Strait for Aircraft Carriers

Earlier this year, United States Naval Academy Museum hosted a debate on the future of aircraft carriers (with parallel debate on twitter under #carrierdebate). It is a timely debate as the utility of aircraft carriers is under review in the face of the proliferation of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) systems. Critics argue that current aircraft carriers are too vulnerable in highly contested environments and too crucial to lose. Indeed, ever more precise, maneuverable, and swift anti-ship missiles (ASM) and silent submarines make certain types of environments overly prohibitive for aircraft carriers. However, this is not an entirely new situation. In fact, sending aircraft carriers close to coastlines and into the littorals has always been dangerous and against their designed purpose.

Ever since the commissioning of the ex-Varyag into the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as the Liaoning (CV-16), speculations have taken place as to its tactical, operational, and strategic implications. With Taiwan classified as one of China’s “core interests”, and due to the protection (however ambiguous) offered by the US under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Taiwan remains a prime hotspots with the potential to escalate into an all-out great power war. Thus, various analysts have engaged in discussions on the Liaoning’s role in a potential crisis over Taiwan. However, in doing so, it is better not to fall for the allure of focusing on the hardware capability over doctrine, tactics and the nature of the specific theater.

Harpoon anti-ship missile is launched from the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67) during a live-fire exercise. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.
Harpoon anti-ship missile is launched from the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67) during a live-fire exercise. Shilih is part of Japan-based Carrier Strike Group Five. Taiwan and Japan also posses Harpoon ASMs. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.

An examination of tactical and operational situations encountered by Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) through the Taiwan Strait reveals that adding a hypothetical Chinese carrier group’s presence does not augment existing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s strategy. Instead PLAN doctrine relies on assets in the form of saturation missile attacks, submarines, fast missile boats and other Chinese A2AD elements. It is worth mentioning that these capabilities were already present in the the Taiwan Strait during the 1995-96 missile crisis. Being close to an enemy’s land-based assets poses a severe risk to the CSG’s survivability. Its combat effectiveness, is significantly diminished in the narrow waters of Taiwan Strait during high intensity combat conditions. In essence, the PLAN already had sufficient capabilities in place in 1996 such that sending a CSG into the Taiwan Strait would be a suicidal endeavor. The situation has only become more challenging for the US Navy in recent years not because the PLAN has acquired an aircraft carrier of its own, but rather due to the fact that China has greatly enhanced and modernized its existing A2AD capabilities.

The common reference to the 1996 deployment of aircraft carriers during the Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis as an indication of what could happen should the situation between China and Taiwan escalate into a shooting war suggests that there are two common misconceptions about the 1995-96 crisis. In late December’s piece for The Diplomat, Vasilis Trigkas presented interesting argument on the presence of aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait. In particular, he notes: 

Memories from 1996 – when Chinese missile tests in the strait prompted U.S. President Bill Clinton to order two fully armed carrier battle groups to pass through the Taiwan Strait – have shaped the strategic operational codes of the Chinese military and the Central Politburo. While China might have had the military resources to sink U.S. naval forces in its close periphery (quantity has a quality of its own) the strategic escalation that an attack against a U.S. carrier would trigger led Beijing to de-escalate. Since the importance of Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland remains an indispensible argument in the PRC’s rhetoric on the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, China’s officials have long strategized about how to neutralize U.S. operational superiority in the event of a new strait crisis. The 2008 acquisition of an old Soviet aircraft carrier from Ukraine should be seen as an extension of this goal. This carrier is the missing piece in China’s strategic puzzle in its first island chain and adds new strategic variables to a Sino-U.S. clash over Taiwan.

First, contrary to popular belief, in March 1996 neither of the two deployed CSGs (Carrier Group Seven headed by CVN-68 Nimitz and Carrier Group Five centered around CV-62 Independence) entered Taiwan Strait (p. 110). Nimitz was deployed in the Philippine Sea ready to assist the Independence Battle Group deployed to the east of Taiwan. Indeed, earlier in December 1995 the Nimitz battle group did pass through the Taiwan Strait, but it was several months after Chinese first missile tests close to Taiwan in July 1995. Moreover, US officials back then believed that the passage went unnoticed by Beijing (p. 104).

Second, in 1995 and 1996, the issue at stake was Beijing displeasure with Taiwan’s effort to establish itself as a new democracy, demonstrated by then President Lee’s visit to Cornell University and the island’s first free presidential election in 1996. Beijing did not de-escalate because of the presence of the two CSGs but because it had made its point. However displeased the Chinese leadership was back then, no one has seriously contemplated further escalation. Moreover, China could very well have another motivation, testing the limits of US strategic ambiguity across the strait as they had tested the 1954 Taiwan-US defense alliance during the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis. In that sense, deployment of two CSGs gave Beijing the indication that the US would indeed intervene should the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decide to use deadly force against Taiwan.

Thus, the presence of the Nimitz and Independence CSGs in Taiwan’s proximity in 1996 should be understood as a symbolic gesture of the US commitment to the peaceful solution of cross-strait relations. It is doubtful that the acquisition of the Liaoning would deter Washington should it decide to demonstrate its resolve again. With the other assets that the PLA has been busy deploying in a meantime, now, that is all different story.

Trigkas argues that in 1996 the Chinese backed off because targeting US aircraft carriers would escalate the conflict out of proportion. Having an aircraft carrier and deploying it in advance of an intervening USN CSG would push the escalation ball to the US’ corner. Henceforth, it would be the US who would have to take the first shot because the Chinese CSG would block its way. Given that in 1996 the use of force was off the table and the crisis was all about making a political stance without intention to escalate, would a Chinese aircraft carrier prevent future US intervention by making itself too (politically) valuable to be attacked?

Not since World War II has the world seen any significant battle fought between rival carrier groups, and just as the carrier replaced the battleship through asymmetric means (the range of the onboard aircraft negated the firepower, speed and armor of a conventional battleship.), the effective counter to a CSG is unlikely another CSG, but instead a whole range of asymmetrical means such as strikes against its rear-echelon fast combat support ships (AOEs), land-based airpower or submarine warfare. Moreover, one need not send the aircraft carrier to the bottom, resulting in massive loss of lives of those on board, to neutralize the combat effectiveness of a CSG.

Tuo Jiang class missile corvette deployed by Taiwan could become major threat for PLAN's aircraft carriers. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 Larry41028/Wikimedia Commons.
Tuo Jiang class missile corvette deployed by Taiwan could become major threat for PLAN’s aircraft carriers. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 Larry41028/Wikimedia Commons.

Even if Chinese aircraft carriers were to become targets of the USN’s CSG, it would still be an unequal encounter for the PLAN, facing much more experienced USN CSGs with superior sortie rate and integrated defense. In such an encounter, the US Navy could inflict sufficient damage to incapacitate a Chinese aircraft carrier without actually sinking it. The best way to render an aircraft carrier useless is to limit the effectiveness of its air wing. Liaoning’s air wing is in this respect very modest totaling 30 J-15s fighter jets with compromised range, endurance and armament resulting from a lack of catapult launch systems. This number will most likely be higher for Liaoning’s successors, but the sortie generation rate accumulated through operational experience will take a lot longer to equalize. In comparison, Nimitz and Ford-class supercarriers typically carry 70-80 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters and their designs are much more flexible to accommodate various mission requirements.

Furthermore, the employment of a CSG in an open confrontation would run contrary to the tactics and culture consistently displayed by a sea-denial mindset influenced by the tradition of people’s war that informs so much of the CCP’s naval strategy (p. 37), prominently displayed during the Battle of Dongshan on 6 Aug 1965, where 11 PLAN torpedo boats and 4 patrol boats sunk 2 Taiwanese capital ships in 3 consecutive waves, resulting in 171 missing and 31 deaths, including the commander of the ROCN Second Fleet. The PLAN’s efforts towards becoming a Blue-Water Navy have undoubtedly changed its tactical mindset, but even then deployment of a Chinese aircraft carrier against Taiwan (and presumably against the USN) does not offer advantages that would outweigh the potential costs. If deployed outside of the A2AD protective cover, a Chinese CSG would be too weak to counter its US counterpart, and when deployed within A2AD cover, its capabilities are largely redundant.

Moreover, while the debate focuses on the political significance of sinking a US aircraft carrier, Beijing itself could ill-afford the political consequences of its CSG rendered impotent during combat in or close to the Taiwan Strait where potential adversaries such as Taiwan’s recently introduced Tuo Jiang class missile corvette could fully exploit its weaknesses. Indeed, should China deploy its CSG near Taiwan as a part of combat operations, USN would not need to fire a single shot and China’s capital ship could still end-up incapacitated or sunk. Taiwan’s sea and land-based anti-ship missiles represent a reverse A2AD significant challenge for China. 

Hence it is reasonable to conclude that the Chinese acquisition of the Liaoning and the further expansion of the Chinese aircraft carrier fleet, while significant, has very little direct impact on a potential crisis deployment in the Taiwan Strait. Instead one should look toward the prestige factor of presenting itself as a Blue Water Navy and a CSG’s value in prosecuting the territorial ambitions displayed by the Chinese government in recent times, e.g. in the South China Sea or the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, where Chinese land-based airpower does not enjoy the same advantage as in the case of Taiwan-related contingency.

In a potential crisis across the Taiwan Strait, the PLAN’s goal would be better served through a deterrence formed by a combination of guided missiles destroyer-led surface action groups, land-based airpower utilizing supersonic ASMs coupled with over the horizon (OTH) targeting, and high-end attack submarines rivaling the low noise level of even US Seawolf-class SSNs. All of this could successfully prevent US reinforcements from accessing littoral regions of the theater (A2) and impede their movement along the First Island Chain (AD).

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), center-right, leads the George Washington Carrier Strike Group and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in tactical maneuver training during Annual Exercise (AnnualEx) 13. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.
The aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), center-right, leads the George Washington Carrier Strike Group and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in tactical maneuver training during Annual Exercise (AnnualEx) 13. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.

Aircraft carriers will maintain its role as a blue water force projector in the foreseeable future. Indeed, they are indispensable for a global sea-control navy tasked with missions to protect sea lines of communication. But the carrier battle groups were never meant to physically present itself in an environment similar to the Taiwan Strait. Granted, ASMs and submarines are problem on the open seas too but any potential opponents would be limited by the storage capacity of their onboard ordnance, with PLAN having limited ability of underway replenishment. In other words, open sea offers no advantage of a compressed engagement battlespace that littoral contestant such as China possesses against the limited range of present day CSG, bearing in mind that as China’s A2AD capabilities make it difficult for US Navy CSGs, PLAN’s own aircraft carrier faces the very same risk from the its neighbors, Taiwan included. 

Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, a member of The Center for International Maritime Security, an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim.

Liao Yen-Fan is Taipei-based defense analyst specializing in airpower and Taiwanese military. He can be reached for comment at charlie_1701@msn.com.