As China ended its three-day spike in military activity around Taiwan, Senator Lindsey Graham called for the U.S. to replace conventional cruise missiles on U.S. attack submarines with nuclear-tipped versions. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Philippines launched their largest-ever joint military drills
As everyone knows by now, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen met with a group of U.S. lawmakers led by Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy during a stopover in Los Angeles on Wednesday last week. At that stage, China’s predictably aggressive response was relatively muted and limited to mostly verbal threats — most likely because China was hosting French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the time.
Ko Cheng-heng (柯承亨), deputy head of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, told lawmakers last Thursday that China’s then-subdued reaction was partly because of Macron’s visit and its link to a possible Ukraine peace plan. Ko added that China was therefore also trying to show a more diplomatic face to the world, “so at the moment they are continuing to put on a more peaceful, great power image.”
Shortly after Macron left China, Beijing suddenly stopped projecting the image of a “peaceful great power” and launched a large-scale military exercise simulating a combined operation of ground-based ballistic missile, naval and aerial units to attack targets in Taiwan and “seal off Taiwan” from all sides. Although the military exercises were nothing new, they did see a larger number of Chinese warplanes flying near Taiwan than ever before, with 92 warplane sorties recorded between Sunday 6 a.m. and Monday 6 a.m. local time. The drills also saw the first time that such an exercise incorporated one of China’s two active aircraft carriers, the Shandong, which launched fighter jets and helicopters from the Philippine Sea, east of Taiwan.
During the drills, the waters of the Philippine Sea east of Taiwan also saw relatively close encounters between Taiwanese coast guard ships and Chinese warships.
Of course, the problem with China’s two active aircraft carriers — the Liaoning and the Shandong — is that they are based on the old Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier, and they lack the sophisticated catapult launch systems required to shoot heavy jets into the air. For this reason, the attack jets launched by the Shandong this weekend would have been launched with reduced fuel and weapons loads, which means they would not have been able to carry heavy bombs or large cruise missiles to attack hardened ground targets. The lack of launch systems also means the Shandong can not launch heavier planes like aerial tankers, airborne early warning aircraft, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) planes, and transport aircraft. It also means a slower sortie rate because of a slower landing and takeoff rate.
Until China can get its much more sophisticated third carrier, the Fujian, to work efficiently, Chinese carrier operations simulating the cutting off of U.S. forces from reaching Taiwan from the east would be largely symbolic of what could be achieved once the third carrier enters service. The Fujian is currently being fitted out and is expected to start doing its sea trials later this year. The initial trials would probably last around three to seven days and these would be the first steps in a series of trials that would take around 18 months to complete, which could see the Fujian become operational by October 2024. However, some analysts estimate the fitting out could take the rest of this year, pushing back the operational date to mid 2025.
In short, while China currently lacks the advanced carrier capabilities to effectively deter U.S. intervention, it did use the Tsai meeting as an excuse to practice the technical complexities of the first stages of a combined operation aimed at striking targets on Taiwanese soil, in Taiwanese airspace and in the waters around Taiwan.
Coincidentally, the U.S. launched its largest-ever joint military exercise with the Philippines today, Tuesday 11 April. The U.S.-Philippines drills were announced earlier in the year and follow a very significant agreement that allows the U.S. to establish four new military bases in the Philippines. In theory, if U.S. forces were in position on the Philippines’ northernmost islands during a theoretical conflict, they could join U.S. forces on Japan’s westernmost islands and use anti-ship missiles to keep Chinese warships from rounding Taiwan and reaching Taiwan’s entire eastern flank. They could then also use anti-air missiles to restrict Chinese warplanes’ ability to operate in Taiwan’s south and north.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News on Sunday that he sees the Chinese drills around Taiwan as a sign that China is “setting the stage” for possibly blockading Taiwan and that the CCP intends to “dramatically test” the U.S. “this year and next year before the election.” Graham said that the U.S. needs to increase its military forces in the region in order to deter such actions.
Fox News Sunday anchor Shannon Bream asked Graham if he would authorize force in Taiwan if Taiwan-China tensions keep increasing. Graham indicated the answer to that question revolves around the U.S. Congress debating whether the U.S. should have a defense agreement with Taiwan. “So the question for the Congress … should we have a defense agreement with the island of Taiwan? We don’t … should we have one?” he said. “But yes, I’d be very much open to using U.S. forces to defend Taiwan, because it’s in our national security interest to do so.”
Senator Graham said the U.S. and Taiwan need to increase their ability to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan. “I would up our game. If you don’t up your game now, you are going to have a war.”
“I would increase training and get the F-16s they need in Taiwan,” Graham added. “There’s a backlog. I would solve that backlog. I would move war forces to South Korea and Japan. I would put nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on all of our submarines all over the world.”
The U.S. Navy currently fields 71 nuclear-powered submarines, but only 14 of the larger Ohio-class submarines (designated as SSBNs) are armed with huge Trident D-5 ballistic nuclear missiles. These 14 submarines are tasked with staying far from any conflict and only launch their missiles if a global war spirals out of control. The remaining 57 U.S. submarines are “attack” subs (SSNs) that are armed with smaller cruise missiles with conventional warheads designed to destroy smaller high-value targets. These cruise missiles could be replaced with similar missiles that have relatively small nuclear warheads, which can each destroy hardened bunkers, large troop formations and multiple armored vehicles spread out over larger distances. Such missiles could also be used against urban targets.
Image: U.S. Navy Photo, Public Domain