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 a theoretical invasion of Taiwan.
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. 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. Together with paratrooper-dropping transport planes, these helicopters could drop as many as 50,000 highly trained troops in the first wave alone, and more than 100,000 in the first 24 hours, according to Goldstein. 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.”
Russia tried a similar strategy on the first day of its invasion of Ukraine, when it sent hundreds of attack and transport helicopters to drop a large force of well-trained troops on the sprawling grounds of Antonov Airport near Kyiv. That airborne insertion went relatively well, but the entire Russian force was eventually destroyed by determined Ukrainian resistance.
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. Recent satellite images reveal that the PLA is now actively planning to use civilian roll-on-roll-off ferries and floating piers to deliver troops and armor to Taiwan’s beaches.
For all these reasons it is extremely important for Taiwan to formulate a plan to stop a massive airborne assault in its tracks. If Taiwan can do that, it would have an excellent chance of throwing China’s amphibious forces back into the sea. To do this, Taiwan would need to hide its air-defense and sea-defense systems as well as possible. Extra care needs to be taken to counter China’s extensive network of spies that operate on Taiwanese soil. However, given how hard it would be to ensure secrecy, on top of how hard it is to hide radar stations and missile batteries from spy satellites, it is clear that Taiwan would need a Plan B.
That Plan B was illustrated by Ukraine’s military when it used portable, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles like Stingers to shoot down a large number of Russian helicopters and airplanes. It was also the threat of these highly mobile, easily hidden weapons that forced Russia to abandon its plans to send in large transport planes to relieve its helicopter-inserted troops during the battle of Antonov Airport. The fact that these Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) are so easy to conceal, meant that Russian troops would have to control many square miles of land to ensure that the land did not contain any Ukrainians with Stingers in the basement.
As it is of fundamental importance for Taiwan to have the ability to shoot down aircraft once the initial missile barrage has subsided, and as it is very hard for Taiwan to hide large anti-aircraft weapons, it becomes increasingly clear that Taipei would have to acquire a large number of these easily hidden MANPADS.
Once they’re widely dispersed all over Taiwan, these missiles would have a much better chance of surviving the initial missile barrage, giving Taiwanese soldiers the chance to come out of hiding and shoot down a large number of Chinese attack planes. If enough of these planes are shot down, it would significantly increase the survival rate of Taiwan’s remaining defensive installations, and it would probably force China to abort the massive airborne assault.
Even if the airborne assault goes ahead, these shoulder-fired missiles would destroy a large number of helicopters and the troops they carry, making it much easier for Taiwan’s ground forces to eliminate the few troops that managed to survive the ride in.
Of course, apart from acquiring the missiles, Taiwan will also need time to train its MANPADS teams and to develop a plan to disperse these teams as widely as possible. To ensure team survival in a spy-filled environment, it might be best to assign each team to a certain area, but then instruct each team to select their exact hiding positions and firing positions by themselves.
In conclusion, if Taiwan could field an effective MANPADS response in any invasion scenario, it would blunt China’s aerial bombing phase and turn an aerial assault into mass suicide. This would force China to either abort the invasion, or bring out its navy and take its chances with the remainder of Taiwan’s anti-ship systems.
Image: U.S. Navy