After the initial air strikes, Taiwan would most likely have to fight a massive wave of special forces troops dropping in via parachute and helicopter. Repulsing later amphibious operations (probably involving huge civilian roll-on-roll-off ferries and floating piers) would depend on how well this first wave is neutralized.
In a recent article, seasoned China analyst Lyle Goldstein made a strong case for why military strategists need to stop fixating on China’s growing navy and its still small fleet of landing craft. Goldstein says that China has invested heavily in training paratroopers and helicopter-borne troops, and he assumes that the first phase of a Chinese invasion would be an overwhelming missile barrage: “In the first phase of an attack, Taiwan would be pulverized by thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles (not even counting lethal rocket artillery), eliminating its air defenses, hitting runways, and knocking out key communications nodes.”
While it is hoped that Taiwan can keep the coordinates of many of its air defense units secret enough to survive the initial missile barrage, Goldstein believe that won’t be the case, theorizing that Chinese bombers and attack jets would have complete control of the skies over parts of Taiwan. After all air defenses had been neutralized over certain pre-designated areas, the PLA could then send in waves of hundreds of planes and helicopters that would drop as many as 50,000 highly trained troops in the first wave alone, and more than 100,000 in the first 24 hours. “It is worth noting that Chinese strategists are acutely aware that these first assault waves will suffer very high casualties, but they consider this a necessary cost to obtain victory.”
If this scenario is correct, Taiwan’s military would have to depend on its core units to fight an internal war against special forces units, while also needing to protect what remains of its anti-ship missile units, as well as protecting its coastal areas from mass landings that are certain to come next. To fight on all these fronts, Taiwan’s military would be forced to call up all its reserves, while also depending on patriotic civilians to help pin down roving bands of PLA special forces.
For this reason it would be wise for Taiwan to train a civilian force in the ins and outs of accurate shooting, urban warfare, how to safely use assault rifles when moving in groups, and how to use anti-armor and anti-aircraft missiles.
Therefore it might be wise not to give too much weight to the fact that China’s amphibious assault fleet is currently too small to transport and deliver an effective invasion force. It could be that Beijing is calculating that its initial missile strikes and bomber attacks would give it complete air security over large corridors — which would in turn allow the PLA to drop hundreds of thousands of troops via planes and helicopters.
If such a force could be let loose on the interior, some of these troops could attack beach-protecting forces from the rear, thereby greatly weakening beach-protection capabilities. In such a scenario it would be conceivable that China might envision using large civilian roll-on-roll-off (RORO) ferries to sail right up to Taiwan’s coastline and deliver large numbers of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and troops.
And China has been practicing to do just that. In its research document called “China Maritime Report” the China Maritime Study Institute (CMSI) looked at multiple developments in China’s ability to effect airborne and seaborne invasion tactics. In a chapter called “Chinese Ferry Tales: The PLA’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Support of Over-the-Shore Logistics,” the report focuses on PLA Navy invasion exercises that incorporated large RORO ferries, cargo ships, floating piers and floating cranes.
The CMSI report uses satellite images to show China is developing plans to transport large sections of floating piers to Taiwanese beaches. Some of these pier sections seem to have their own propulsion units, while other sections are towed and put into position by a large number of civilian tugs. A semi-submersible platform is then used to anchor the assembled pier on the ocean side, while the other side is anchored on the beach itself. Images show a Chinese civilian RORO ferry simply docking to the anchoring platform and disgorging dozens of tanks and other military hardware. The tanks can then drive over the causeway on to the beach, where combat engineers have unrolled a huge steel mat to act as a road over the sandy part of the beach. The satellite images show that the PLA Navy is also practicing how to unload cargo ships onto floating barge-like platforms with large floating cranes, before the platforms are pushed to shore by tugboats.
The report concludes that “as of 2021, the PLA and its reserve civilian merchant fleet are probably unable to provide the maritime logistics in austere or challenging environments necessary to support a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan.” It goes on to state: “Clearly, the PLA has started to work through what may be required to support an invasion of Taiwan and how exactly that will be done. The Chinese Communist Party can leverage a national mobilization of maritime shipping on a massive scale and the PLA clearly intends to exploit that capability. Such a mobilization of civilian shipping to support cross-strait operations may be very high risk and could involve extremely high losses. However, there is a certain ‘quality in quantity.’ There are few challenges related to efficiency and attrition that the Chinese military could not simply address with overwhelming mass and a tolerance for loss. Future exercises like those explored in this report merit close scrutiny to provide indications of the trajectory of PLA amphibious and logistics capabilities.”
Image: 野生灰熊 Wikimedia
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