December 16, 2000
China and the Forgotten Anniversary; A rather momentous fifty year anniversary went largely unnoticed this year. On September 15th, 1950, US Marines stormed ashore at Inchon, Korea. Just another successful marine amphibious assault? Yes, but also the last one of the 20th century. Indeed, nearly all the major opposed landings of the 20th century took place between 1942 and 1950. Not much before, nothing since.
Sending troops ashore in enemy territory is nothing new, but having them hit the beaches against a foe on the spot to resist was rare. The guys on land have an enormous advantage that, until the 1930s, no one had figured out how to overcome. The British and US Marines did figure it out, developing new ships (that could run up on the beach and immediately unload infantry and tanks) and tactics (how to organize the operation) to make it happen. Much to the surprise of the Japanese and Germans, the new techniques worked. It was a bloody business, and required the attacker to have considerable advantages. You had to have control of the air, lots of firepower and the ability to put a lot of troops ashore before the enemy could rush in reinforcements. When US Army troops came ashore at Anzio (Italy) in 1943 and the British at Gallipoli (Turkey) in 1915, the opposition rushed in enough troops to stop the invaders.
Which brings us to the Taiwan straits sometime in the near future. China has been openly threatening to invade Taiwan if the Taiwanese don't agree to become part of China. Brave words, especially when you consider what a prodigious undertaking an amphibious invasion of Taiwan would be. The Taiwanese have been planning how to oppose such an invasion for over half a century. They've had plenty of advice from experienced American officers.
Consider what the Chinese are up against. Obtaining air superiority requires more aircraft, better aircraft, more skillful pilots, well equipped ground crews and plenty of nearby airfields. The Chinese have more aircraft, but that's about it. They are buying modern warplanes from the Russians and are allowing their pilots more time in the air. But with a booming economy attracting all the bright young lads, they have indifferent ground crews. And then there are all those airfields to be built. If the Chinese went after Taiwan now with their thousands of 1950s era aircraft, they would simply provide a lot of easy kills for Taiwanese pilots. In ten years, it might be different, but even that's not a sure thing.
OK, say the Chinese get air superiority, and their invasion fleet steams for Taiwan. The island is only a hundred miles away. It would take half a day to get there. First problem is that the Chinese have only enough amphibious shipping for about 15,000 troops. The Taiwanese coast facing them is about 300 miles long, but only about 60 miles of that can be landed on. You still need beaches. And you have to get past Taiwanese aircraft, submarines, anti-ship missiles and naval mines. Waiting on the island are, when reservists are fully mobilized, 1.5 million troops. Of course, China can bring in a lot more troops by regular ship, but they need a port to unload them. In theory, you can unload troops from passenger ships using smaller boats that can run up on the beach. But first you have to conquer a beach. And that's where China runs into those historical problems. Putting 15,000 troops onto a beach that can be quickly reached by ten times as many enemy troops will not work.
The Chinese are aware of these basic problems, and the thinking is (backed up by some vague comments out of China) that "special weapons" would be used. Agents on Taiwan can commit sabotage and provide other aid. China can use several thousand paratroopers, if their transports don't get shot down. China has missiles, but these are not very accurate (half will fall within a 300 meter diameter aiming circle.) And the most likely targets, Taiwan's dozen main military airfields, sprawl all over the place. OK, how about "special warheads?" Poison gas does not have to be as precise as high explosives. But the political backlash would be great. And the Taiwanese have made preparations for chemical weapons, so the impact would not be great enough to assure victory. OK, how about nuclear warheads? Again, political repercussions. And using nukes, even small ones, would destroy much of what the Chinese are trying to take. Nukes might, not certainly, but might do the trick. If they didn't, if the Taiwanese fought on anyway, China would not just have a failed invasion, but would be an international pariah.
And let us no for get the American navy. Every time China makes noises about invading Taiwan, U.S. warships show up. If America enters the fight, the Chinese problems increase. The American fleet also travels with nuclear weapons.
China cannot improve their prospects just by buying new warplanes and amphibious shipping. They have to increase training to existing troops, and recruit better ones. One downside of the vibrant economy is that the best people go for civilian careers instead of military ones. And then there is corruption in the military. The air force is notorious for squandering billions over the last four decades. None of these issues have been resolved yet.
So the next time some desperate news show try's to scare you with a Taiwan invasion story, do the math and relax.