China’s special operations forces are Taiwan’s real problem, warships not

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  • China’s military expansion, especially its naval fleet, has captured the world’s attention.
  • As impressive as these ships are, the Chinese leadership cannot be counted on to retake Taiwan.
  • Lyle Goldstein is director of Asia Engagement at Defense Priorities and a former research professor at the US Naval War College.

In December, two Chinese carrier battle groups set sail simultaneously for the first time. They did so just weeks after the Chinese Navy’s newest large helicopter carrier began sea trials.

These are major milestones for the PLA Navy, which is clearly progressing rapidly in all respects. Still, they can be a red herring when it comes to “the most dangerous place on earth,” as The Economist accurately described the situation in Taiwan last year.

Indeed, China does not need large advanced warships to attack the island. This is quite easy to understand if you just look at a map and see that the medium-sized island is less than 100 miles from the Chinese coast.

If the United States tried to invade Cuba, would it need the 3rd, 5th and 7th Fleets? Barely. The US Army and Air Force would most likely be sufficient without the support of the US Navy. The same is true of Taiwan, which is unlucky enough to be a very close neighbor to a burgeoning nationalist superpower.

No warship needed

South China Sea between Xiamen in China and Kinmen in Taiwan

Less than 3 miles from the South China Sea separate the Chinese city of Xiamen and the Kinmen Islands of Taiwan on February 2, 2021.

An Rong Xu / Getty Images


In the first phase of an attack, Taiwan would be pulverized by thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles (not even counting deadly rockets), knocking out its air defenses, hitting runways and destroying key communication nodes.

After that, hundreds of PLA bombers and attack planes were said to have ruled the island freely, with the critical help of surveillance drones and “suicide bombers” ammunition.

The main purpose of these strikes, besides wiping out the small Taiwan Navy and Air Force, would be to clear corridors above the island with massive firepower, paving the way. to the PLA soldiers to insert themselves by parachute and helicopter.

Beijing has significantly modernized its airborne forces so that the three main services now perform very regular parachute jumps. The exercises demonstrate that Chinese airborne forces, moreover, undertake more difficult jumps, including at night, in coastal areas and even over water.

Chinese sources confirm that the PLA may have around 450 transport planes ready to deliver these troops. China has also made its most advanced Y-20 transport aircraft available to its paratroopers.

Chinese military paratroopers of the Y-8 PLA

Chinese PLA paratroopers jump from a Y-8 plane during a Pakistan-Chinese military exercise in Jhelum on November 24, 2011.

AAMIR QURESHI / AFP via Getty Images


Having studied large airborne operations like Normandy in detail, the PLA understands that these troops require additional firepower and mobility, for which special light tanks, jeeps and anti-tank weapons have been developed.

The PLA parachute troops will receive crucial assistance from a parallel effort from a huge fleet of transport and attack helicopters. Demonstrating the salient role of helicopters in the evolution of the PLA, and in a Taiwanese scenario in particular, China simultaneously deployed two types of transport helicopters and two types of attack helicopters.

This busy production schedule is complemented by significant imports from Russia. A Russian PLA expert recently estimated the strength of the PLA at 1,500 helicopters in a December 2021 analysis titled “The Heavenly Empire with Rotating Wings.”

Between paratroopers and helicopter forces, China could quite reasonably hope to put 50,000 troops on the island in the first wave and well over 100,000 in the first 24 hours.

It should be noted that Chinese strategists are well aware that these early waves of assault will suffer very high losses, but they see this as a necessary cost to achieve victory.

Chinese Air Force Special Operations Troops

Chinese Air Force special operations troops during an exercise, March 3, 2015.

Xinhua / Huang Hui


Just as Chinese strategists strive to solve the problem of firepower with airborne assaults, they have worked diligently on the problem of supply. Beijing’s helicopter and airborne forces will be supplied by parachuted pallets and heavy drones developed specifically for this purpose.

Most Western defense analysts seem in love with China’s amphibious tank force, which is touted almost daily in PLA reports. Yet Beijing strategists know full well that an amphibious assault on entrenched defenders with slow, highly visible assault vehicles is risky.

So while the armor may have some use, the main forces disembarking, at least initially, will be infantry in small, light craft that can be built inexpensively. This approach is part of a cutting-edge reflection on amphibious warfare.

As two American strategists advising the United States Marine Corps wrote not too long ago: “Smaller ground units and capabilities dispersed over large areas [can] … Get disproportionate effects. “

PLA Chinese Military Cadets Amphibious Vehicle

A cadet demonstrates an amphibious all-terrain vehicle at the PLA Armored Forces Engineering Academy, July 22, 2014.

GREG BAKER / AFP via Getty Images


Reflecting this emphasis on small size and greater dispersal, the PLA has taken a keen interest in light craft operations in recent years.

These ships are fast, stealthy, and inexpensive, but perhaps their most notable virtue is their small size, which allows them to be transported and launched by almost any civilian ship, including ships from the enormous fleet of Chinese peach.

These vessels will cover the whole range from inflatable rafts with outboard motors to small landing craft and more efficient vessels. At the last end of the spectrum is a 16-meter “new type of high-speed ship”, specifically the 928D type assault boat for ground forces, details of which were revealed in January 2020 by a Chinese magazine. of shipbuilding.

In such devices, which could easily be hidden in cavernous storage areas near huge Chinese ports, Chinese assault teams could gain access to the entire Taiwanese coastline in four or five hours.

Normal force vs extraordinary force

Chinese soldiers in Jordan

Chinese soldiers at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center in Amman, May 3, 2016.

Xinhua / Mohammad Abu Ghosh via Getty Images


The assault vectors described above do not rely heavily on warships, but rely on a large force of highly trained assault troops, special forces in particular.

As elite formations in Western armies increased in size and capacity during the war on terror, Beijing has also invested heavily in such capabilities.

We got a glimpse of the intensity of development of these forces by China a few years ago, when a journalist from the Atlantic assessed them in an international counterterrorism competition. The PRC teams did not disappoint.

If one regularly watches Chinese military news, it is evident that these selected soldiers are prepared for stealth insertion, night operations, sniper tactics, securing difficult targets, urban combat and operations. in the mountains.

These troops would create chaos in the rear areas of Taiwan, closing roads and attacking headquarters, but they would also secure crucial objectives, including crucial heights, airfields and small ports.

When Chinese forces land on Taiwanese beaches, special forces teams may have already secured those landing areas.

The PLA’s penchant for special ops shouldn’t be too surprising. Over 2,000 years ago, Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote: “Use normal force to engage; use extraordinary strength to win ”.

Military amphibious landing exercise in Taiwan China

A Taiwanese military exercise simulating an amphibious landing attempt by Chinese forces, May 30, 2019.

Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images


American strategists, however, seem to prefer to simply count the number of amphibious tanks that could be launched, as the huge ships carrying these tanks could potentially be the target of American torpedoes and missiles.

Crude models that seek a “technological silver bullet” to defeat a Chinese invasion ignore the fact that Taiwan is mostly made up of mountains and urban areas. In other words, it will be good old fashioned infantry combat.

It should be noted that amphibious tanks have never been a decisive factor in the assaults on the beaches, neither in Normandy, nor Inchon, nor in the Falklands. On the contrary, air power has been decisive in these campaigns, and China has it in spades, supplemented by vast forces of missiles, drones and long-range artillery.

Infantry combat can be deeply affected by air power, of course, but the motivation of the soldier will also play a decisive role. In this regard, China also appears to have a major advantage over Taiwan, which has been lackluster in its own defense.

US strategists would do well to become aware of this scenario with a better understanding of local geography and developments in current Chinese military doctrine.

If, as this analysis suggests, a favorable geography, combined with highly trained and motivated special forces – not to mention the obvious first-mover advantage – allows Beijing to have almost complete control over a Taiwanese scenario, these factors also mean that Taiwan is not the right place for Washington to draw a “red line” in Asia-Pacific.

Lyle Goldstein is Director of Asia Engagement at Defense Priorities. Previously, he was a research professor at the US Naval War College for 20 years. In this post, he received the Superior Civil Service Medal for founding and leading the China Institute of Maritime Studies.


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