The latest round of leaks by US Air Force National Guardsman Jack Teixeira has revealed some major concerns about battlefields around the globe — with the air superiority situation over Taiwan raising serious concerns about the US and allied capacity to wrestle the skies back from China’s air force.
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It is the confrontation that the world and the Indo-Pacific, in particular, prays never happens, a direct and open conflict between the United States and its allies and China over the island democracy of Taiwan in the far-flung western Pacific.
Amid growing antagonism and sabre rattling from Beijing seeking to solve its “Taiwan problem”, which has been reinforced by growing speculation from leading US defence leaders like former Commander, US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Taiwan is clearly one of their [Beijing’s] ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
This ominous warning heralds a more concerning impact for the global order, should a conflict break out of Taiwan, with ADM Davidson further adding: “I worry that they’re [Beijing] accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order, which they’ve long said that they want to do that by 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer.”
Through the Cold War-era policy of “strategic ambiguity”, the United States has managed to keep the tensions across the Taiwan Strait from spiralling out control, in spite of various periods of flare up, such as the Taiwan Strait Crisis in the mid-90s, however now this strategy appears to be waning in its efficacy.
This is further compounded by the recent admission by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who, in the dying days of 2022, stated: “When it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine, if we were still in Afghanistan, it would have, I think, made much more complicated the support that we’ve been able to give and that others have been able to give Ukraine to resist and push back against the Russian aggression.”
Despite the long-held belief that any potential conflict would be a foregone conclusion given the utter multi-domain dominance of the post-Cold War world by the United States, it now appears as though any potential conflict would have a dramatically different outcome.
A recent revelation by a series of comprehensive wargames conducted by the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) into the determining factors and outcome of any potential conflict over Taiwan following a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan and a subsequent US-led, allied response shows startling and concerning results.
The “pyrrhic” outcome of these wargame results has recently been reinforced following a series of high-profile intelligence leaks by US Air Force National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, who has revealed startling information about the tactical and strategic circumstance on the ground across a number of key points, with some startling concerns about Taiwan.
Beijing quickly establishes air superiority
Since the first aircraft were fitted with weapons and sent into combat above the trenches of the Western Front, air combat has radically reshaped the tactical and strategic balance of power on the battlefield. As the failed attempts by Russia have demonstrated, air superiority remains essential for long-term tactical and strategic success across the multi-domain battlespace.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the First Gulf War, when the United States’ capacity to unquestionably establish and maintain air superiority meant it could enact its will across the battlefield, turning the tide of battle against a numerically superior enemy force.
Geography also impacts the capacity for nations to establish and maintain air superiority in the modern context and the potential battlefield of Taiwan is no exception.
According to recent US intelligence leaks by US Air Force National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) would quickly establish air superiority over the embattled island, giving the Chinese an immense tactical and strategic advantage over the Taiwanese defenders and any potential US-led allied response.
As part of this, similar to the wargames conducted by CSIS, the intelligence allegedly revealed that Beijing would conduct an overwhelming barrage of the island’s defences, leaving gaping holes in what little effective air defence capabilities remained, with serious questions raised about Taiwan’s capacity to detect and intercept ballistic missiles.
Detailing this, the Singapore-based The Strait Times explained, “The classified documents, allegedly leaked by a US national guardsman in the worst US security breach in a decade, reveal that Taiwan’s military leaders doubt their air defences can ‘accurately detect missile launches’, while only about half their aircraft are capable of effectively engaging the enemy.”
Going further, the The Strait Times added, “The intelligence reports said Taiwan fears it could take up to a week to move its aircraft to shelters, leaving them vulnerable to Chinese missile strikes. In addition, China’s use of civilian shipping, including passenger ferries, for military purposes has hampered the US intelligence community’s ability to predict when an invasion might be pending.”
Further expanding on these concerning points, the The Washington Post adds, “Another assessment takes aim at Taiwan’s military and civilian preparedness. It says the island’s current doctrine of firing two air defence missiles per target ‘would be strained under high-volume PLA fires’ from China’s short-range ballistic missile system, dispersed across multiple moving launch platforms. Taiwanese airmen train for shooting at single unmoving targets.”
All of this paints a rather concerning picture for the state of readiness of the Taiwanese military and its capacity to provide significant resistance to the People’s Liberation Army and raises questions about the capacity for allied success in defending the island democracy.
For reference, the CSIS analysis identified four necessary conditions to defeat any potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan:
- Taiwanese forces must hold the line: Given the volume of Chinese troops and the concentration of hostile fire, some beachheads will be successful, accordingly, Taiwanese ground forces must be capable of containing any beachhead that is established.
- There is no ‘Ukraine model’ for Taiwan: As highlighted recently by US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, the capacity of the US to directly support Ukraine with materiel would have been severely impacted had it still be engaged in Afghanistan — accordingly, the US must assist Taiwan in peacetime to build up the necessary capability to deter and hinder Chinese aggression.
- The US must be able to use key bases in Japan for combat operations: Key Japanese bases serve as a linchpin to any potential US response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan given their proximity to the combat zone, accordingly in order to guarantee persistent US combat capability, the bases must be open to US combat operations.
- The US must be able to strike the Chinese fleet rapidly and en masse from outside the Chinese defensive zone: In order to achieve the saturation of deployed Chinese defences, the US and allies need to recapitalise and modernise their existing missile stocks with a range of longer-range, smarter, and faster anti-ship cruise missiles as a top procurement priority.
Of key importance here is the first point, that Taiwanese forces must hold the line and be capable of holding the line for a sustained period of time while allied forces “spin up” to respond with a significant concentration of forces and capability to wrestle control of the island back from any Chinese beachheads.
However, as articulated by the CSIS, the Taiwanese military must remain unbroken: “While Taiwan’s military is unbroken, it is severely degraded and left to defend a damaged economy on an island without electricity and basic services. China also suffers heavily. Its navy is in shambles, the core of its amphibious forces is broken, and tens of thousands of soldiers are prisoners of war.”
The CSIS also articulates the outcome for the US-led response, and it’s long-term impact on the US global position, stating, CSIS explains this, stating, “Victory is not everything. The United States might win a pyrrhic victory, suffering more in the long run than the ‘defeated’ Chinese. Furthermore, the perception of high costs might undermine deterrence: if China believes that the United States would be unwilling to bear the high costs of defending Taiwan, then China might risk an invasion.”
Lessons for Australia’s future strategic planning
There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia, this is particularly well explained by Peter Zeihan, who explains: “A deglobalised world doesn’t simply have a different economic geography, it has thousands of different and separate geographies. Economically speaking, the whole was stronger for the inclusion of all its parts. It is where we have gotten our wealth and pace of improvement and speed. Now the parts will be weaker for their separation.”
Accordingly, shifting the public discussion and debate away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?