WASHINGTON — In the first three weeks after invading Taiwan, China sank two billion-dollar US aircraft carriers, attacked US bases across Japan and on Guam, and destroyed hundreds of modern US jet fighters.
China’s situation was, if anything, even worse. It landed troops on Taiwan and captured the southern third of the island, but its amphibious fleet was decimated by relentless US and Japanese missile and submarine attacks, and it was unable to bolster its own forces. The capital, Taipei, was securely in Taiwanese hands, and Beijing was running low on long-range ballistic missiles to counter America’s still-potent air and sea power.
This complex, all-day war game, played out at a Washington think tank late last week, demonstrated how destructive any Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan across the Indo-Pacific could be – and what a daunting challenge the island would pose to Beijing’s forces.
The exercise — featuring “red” and “blue” teams, cards, 20-sided dice, and complex computer calculations — felt less like a simulation and more like a preview of a possible future. In the real world, China launched missiles around Taiwan and near Japan as the game progressed, part of a massive display of military might to protest House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
The war game involved complex computer calculations and dice – to introduce an element of randomness.
A tactical map of Taiwan showed Chinese forces in red controlling the southern third of the island, but the cost would be high for all sides.
“Nobody thought that was realistic until the last few years,” said the retired Air Force Brig. General Paula Thornhill, one of the participants. In the past, she said, war players have sometimes been accused of being “warmongers,” but since then China has ramped up both its military capabilities and aspirations.
China has pledged to reunite Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province, with the mainland and has not ruled out the use of military force. Russia’s unexpected early setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine could give Chinese President Xi Jinping pause, some analysts say. Others fear Mr. Xi has learned the opposite lesson: use maximum force and hit Taiwan’s leadership from the start.
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The 7-hour war game, simulating a three-week battle, illustrated what a daunting task it would be for China to launch an amphibious invasion across the 100-mile Straits from Taiwan, despite its military advances in recent years.
“Probably the biggest [takeaway] Under most assumptions, the United States and Taiwan can successfully defend the island. That’s different from what many people think,” said Mark Cancian, a senior advisor to the Think Tanks Center for Strategic and International Studies, which hosted the game at its Washington offices.
But the cost would be high: Taiwan’s economy would be rocked and the US military so battered that it would take years to rebuild, with repercussions for America’s world power.
The simulation, held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, aims to test how the Chinese and US-led sides react to each other’s moves.
Some US military commanders have put 2027, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army of China, as a possible invasion date.
Becca Wasser, another game participant, said 2036 is a more likely timeframe. “In 2027, China is unlikely to be able to successfully launch an amphibious invasion of Taiwan,” said Ms. Wasser, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security Think Tank. If so, she said, “that suggests they’re going to take a different approach.”
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Many specialists say the large-scale live-fire drills China is conducting after Ms Pelosi’s visit suggest a strategy of blockading Taiwan and crushing it into submission rather than flattening it.
The war games, which experts said are similar to the Pentagon’s secret games, were designed to test how different scenarios play out and how the Chinese and US-led sides respond to each other’s movements and impact of their weapon stocks react .
The imaginary conflict is set in 2026, and each side is limited to military skills demonstrated in real life. Opposing teams take turns on maps of the Pacific region populated with tokens indicating military dispositions and confer strategy. They then move to a detailed map of Taiwan. Computers calculate everything from the size of runways to the time it takes submarines to rearm. The dice introduce an element of randomness.
Videos from Chinese state media and a map of live fire drills across Taiwan have revealed Beijing’s strategy of imposing an air and sea blockade on the island. In the event of a military conflict, China could threaten both Taiwan and world trade. Figure: video surveillance
“This is the only such game in the public domain,” said Mr. Cancian, who spent two years developing the game with experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Naval War College. The game’s makers, he said, wanted to be able to share the results with a wider audience than secret ones can.
The wargame scenario assumes that China has decided to attack Taiwan and that the US – which officially has a policy of “strategic ambiguity” about whether it would defend the island militarily – comes to Taipei’s aid. The game did not include the potential role of nuclear weapons.
Today’s game, 17th in a row of 22, began with pessimistic assumptions for the US: distracted by a separate crisis in Europe, it will slow its troop flow to the Pacific. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s responsiveness has been hampered by Chinese intelligence operations and sabotage.
China, played by the red team, is attacking aggressively, hoping to subjugate Taiwan as quickly as possible while fending off an expected American response.
The Chinese military fires ballistic missiles at US air bases in Japan and an aircraft carrier strike group in the Pacific, destroying several squadrons of jet fighters and sinking the carrier and other US ships. It deploys a defensive line of surface ships along Taiwan’s east coast and bombards the island’s infrastructure to disrupt Taiwan’s movement of ground forces. Eventually, China lands 22,000 troops on Taiwan’s southeast coast and slowly pushes north, hoping to capture a port or airfield while avoiding cities and the urban warfare that comes with them.
In last week’s war game, China is aggressively attacking, landing 22,000 troops on Taiwan’s southeast coast. The imaginary conflict is set in 2026, and each side is limited to military skills demonstrated in real life.
But as the days go by, momentum is shifting to the US and Japan. Despite horrendous losses in ships, aircraft and personnel, American forces are bombing Chinese ports, clearing ship pickets and successfully attacking Beijing’s weak point – the amphibious ships it needs to ferry troops and supplies to Taiwan.
A Red Team player studying a map of Taiwan’s daunting geography ponders a different strategy: “In real life, we’d have to attempt a decapitation strike on the island’s leaders.”
Ms Wasser, who was also on the red team, said: “Rather than a tie, it’s more of a feeling of – well nobody won, but nobody lost either.”
write to Warren P. Strobel at [email protected]
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