Many of Taiwan’s most strategic airports and installations are close to its coastline, making them tempting targets for specialized troops that infiltrate from beneath the ocean’s surface
Last Thursday, Domino Theory reported on why a Chinese airborne-troop assault on Taipei’s main airport could easily turn into the same disaster as Russia’s airborne-troop assault on Ukraine’s Hostomel Airport that started on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — February 24, 2022.
However, a close look at Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport (TIA) shows that it is situated only 2 kilometers from a long beach that links Taiwan to the waters of the Taiwan Strait. The large airport complex is also ringed by canals and rivers that mouth into the nearby ocean. Add to that the fact that this very strategic airport is situated on a part of Taiwan that is closest to China, then it becomes obvious that seizing it would be a very tempting idea for Chinese military planners.
Because it is so very close to Taiwan’s coastline and its capital city Taipei — and because it represents an ideal staging area that can quickly receive reinforcements arriving by cargo plane — the airport is thus likely to be a prime target for China’s naval special-operation forces (SOFs). Like the U.S. Navy’s SEAL teams, these SOF troops are trained to use underwater delivery systems like submarines and mini-subs to stay hidden under water until they reach a targeted beach, where they would exchange the cover of water for the cover of night to quickly move from the beach to the cover of coastal vegetation. Whereas an airborne assault would be seen coming from miles away, an underwater infiltration has the advantage of being much harder to detect.
For this reason, it would be an unenviable job to be one of the defenders tasked with guarding this very tempting stretch of land between the ocean and the best beachhead that an invader can ask for. To be such a guard, you would have to sleep with one eye open. Actually, you would have to master the art of sleeping well so you could be very alert when it’s your turn to stand guard, knowing that every shadow could be hiding slithering slaughterers who are trained to kill you quietly.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) started forming its first special-operation forces in 1988, as part of a wider effort to field smaller forces that were more professional and better equipped than the large but untrained “human-wave” forces that failed so miserably in China’s 1979 war with Vietnam. The PLA’s SOF units gradually grew into a seemingly professional force that utilized similar tactics and technologies used by the SOFs of the world’s most mature militaries. Today, China fields one SOF unit of between 1,000 to 2,000 troops in each of its seven military regions, for a total of between 7,000 and 14,000 troops.
While most of these SOF operators specialize in land-based and airborne assaults, a small percentage specialize in the unique and demanding arts of underwater and ocean-surface assaults. These underwater SOFs also field the most advanced equipment in the PLA’s arsenal — the kind of specialized gadgets required for clandestine maritime operations. According to the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) of the U.S.’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies, these gadgets include undersea sensors, diver propulsion vehicles, and undersea personnel delivery systems like mini subs. However, because the activities of these naval SOFs are veiled in secrecy, little is known about the deployment and operational status of this equipment.
In a report released in January 2022, the CMSI revealed that undated screengrabs of an official “Military Report” episode on China’s government television broadcaster, CCTV, showed PLA frogmen training with diver propulsion systems and a larger diver delivery submersible. In 2015, an unofficial source also posted pictures of PLA Navy frogmen using small diver propulsion vehicles while training to exit a submarine via torpedo tubes.
The CMSI report added that Chinese researchers have developed diver navigation aids, radios, and handheld direction-finding sonars for special operations in low-visibility underwater environments. The institute says that such equipment would be critical in both reconnaissance and sabotage operations in the initial phases of a landing operation on an island like Taiwan.
A look at a map of Taiwan shows that the country has quite a few military and civilian airports and other strategic locations that are very close to the ocean. These would all be possible targets for assaults by the PLA’s underwater SOF teams, if China does decide to invade Taiwan. These teams could be as small as one or two operators who could try to infiltrate defenses and neutralize guards before calling for larger teams to advance. Alternatively, such teams could be used to infiltrate uninhabited countryside to gather reconnaissance data that they would then feed back to commanders in coded messages via high-tech transmission devices.
In the case of Taipei’s big airport complex, a look at Google Maps’ Street View function shows that Taiwan did build a sturdy wall topped with barbed wire around the entire complex, and it can be assumed that sophisticated underwater listening devices and alarm systems have been placed in the canals and rivers around the airport, as well as in the ocean near the beaches. It can also be assumed that military guard units are actively monitoring such early-warning devices while also constantly scanning all possible infiltration routes from well-hidden locations.
The fact that Taiwan’s military is sure to be expecting such an underwater infiltration, makes an already dangerous infiltration mission a lot more dangerous, so it is possible that PLA planners would not send underwater operators in before hostilities are announced. It is plausible that the PLA would start hostilities with a massive missile bombardment that would be aimed at destroying as many as possible of Taiwan’s defensive missile installations, while also using such missiles to target military bases and suspected guard positions. The plan might be to first soften up such guard positions before sending in underwater assault troops.
Whether a theoretical invasion would be started by frogmen or by a missile strike, it is expected that a massive airborne-troop assault will be one more attack wave that Taiwan’s defenders would have to deal with in the opening hours of such an invasion. A recent article by China analyst Lyle Goldstein showed why it’s very possible that China’s massive navy would stay out of the initial stages of an invasion to see how a huge helicopter assault would pan out.
Taiwan has over the last few years invested heavily in hundreds of potent anti-ship missiles that would destroy a large number of Chinese ships, if China ever invaded the island. The U.S. is also currently building up its stockpile of long-range anti-ship missiles that could be launched from far away to join Taiwan’s missiles above the Taiwan Strait. Goldstein argues that this situation makes it more likely that China would hold most of its warships back to see how a massive airborne troop assault would pan out.
Goldstein agrees with most other analysts that any Chinese invasion would be initiated by a sudden and massive missile barrage. He believes such a barrage would knock out Taiwan’s air defenses, runways and key communication nodes. After this, he says the PLA Air Force would be able to use ground-attack jets and bombers to attack any remaining Taiwanese air defenses and troop concentrations. The analyst predicts these bombing runs would probably be aimed at creating at least one corridor that has been cleared of significant anti-aircraft capabilities.
The next step for China would be to send hundreds of attack helicopters and troop-carrying transport helicopters into these cleared corridors. Goldstein says that, together with paratrooper-dropping transport planes, these aircraft could drop as many as 50,000 troops in the first wave alone, and more than 100,000 in the first 24 hours. These waves would most likely contain the large percentage of SOF troops that won’t be used in beach infiltrations. He added that “it’s 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.”
Goldstein says China would hope that its airborne troops would meet minimal resistance on insertion, thereafter grouping up to sabotage Taiwan’s military and attack its coastal defenses from the rear. If that went to plan, the next step would be for the PLA Navy to bring in its warships and landing craft.
In the end, a lot would depend on the Taiwan military’s ability to detect and intercept underwater infiltrators before or after hostilities had begun. A lot would also depend on Taiwan’s ability to keep the location of its defensive missiles secret, and to deploy these missiles effectively before they can be destroyed. If Taiwan’s anti-air missiles can intercept enough incoming missiles and jets, that alone could deny the PLA the ability to create a corridor devoid of anti-air defenses. Also, if Taiwan can deploy enough soldiers armed with shoulder-fired anti-air missiles like the Stinger — and if enough of these soldiers can survive an initial assault by hiding in forests and Taiwan’s dense urban landscapes — then these missiles can combine with surviving anti-air batteries to destroy so many helicopters that the airborne assault would quickly turn into a military disaster.