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Chip Hodgkins: Lessons in Ukraine for the future of Taiwan

I felt a bit of author’s pride recently while looking back on a piece I wrote in January that foresaw a very professional Ukrainian Armed Forces and their ability to hold and even counterattack Russian advances. This led to some inquiring on the lessons of the war that could be applied to the potential hottest of flashpoints around the world: the China-Taiwan Strait.

Xi Jinping, while celebrating his third term as general secretary of the Chinese Community Party, announced three new generals to plan an attack across the straits within the next five years. U.S. Admiral Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, said that the invasion could come in the next year rather than five or six.

Unlike many previous presidents, Joe Biden has clearly stated that the U.S. would fight alongside Taiwan. The U.S. does have the resources to supply Ukraine and fight against the Chinese. Assuming the Taiwanese have learned the lessons of the Ukrainians’ warfare and have the same intestinal fortitude, they should be able to hold off or even defeat a Chinese invader by themselves if necessary.

It would be a rough timetable for the Chinese and with no ability for surprise due to U.S. intelligence. They would need two to three months for their air force to move into the vicinity and utilize not only bases but civilian airfields. Additional cross-channel landing craft needs would take at least six months.

This doesn’t even take into account the naval blockade that the Chinese would need to form around Taiwan or the fact that China lacks the naval guns needed for a landing. Consider the incredible effectiveness on D-Day of all kinds of guns on destroyers, cruisers and battleships and that the same kind of firepower is no longer available even through missile use.

Even excluding U.S. involvement, there would be an air war raging across the island. Taiwanese losses to overwhelming Chinese numerical advantage would mean retreating a large number of the Taiwanese Air Force into fortified mountains made to protect aircraft while using them sparingly.

The Taiwanese also have significant anti-air, anti-missile, and hardened command and control facilities which the Chinese would have to degrade with air force and missile strikes — but can they? Consider the Russians’ struggles against Ukraine. They missed or could not come up with the combined ground, drone, satellite and other intelligence to accurately hit necessary targets. The Russian and Chinese abilities and tactics are very similar, and not even up to U.S. and allied air abilities in the First Gulf War of 1991.

While China would be spending time whittling away at Taiwanese command and control, the Taiwanese would be training up to 2.5 million reservists in addition to their ready and professional regular army, getting them up to speed to face the Chinese landing coming sometime after six months of the beginning of their preparations. The Chinese Navy would be moving the landing craft needed and even taking some hard defended Taiwanese smaller islands.

Taiwan’s key advantage in this campaign would be twofold.

First, the Chinese, despite all their manpower, will only be able to land 150,000 or so on Taiwan on day one. This total is very similar to allied D-Day numbers, but without thousands of aircraft and guns in support. In addition, the Germans on D-Day could only muster 50,000 men to the immediate vicinity to face them. The Chinese would be facing a fairly large fraction of millions of Taiwanese, who could expel them from the island. How will this really go is not known, but the Chinese would find themselves in a tactical position they are not used to: greatly outnumbered.

Second, in order to stage this invasion and the necessary blockade, the Chinese Navy would be out of their safe zone in the South China Sea right into the sweet spot, comparatively speaking, of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. China, like Russia, does not have the command and control and overall battlefield viewing and integration of the U.S. and its allies. Although any war is not predictable — for example, the Chinese have not renounced the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Taiwan — one would assume the blockade would be the ocean graveyard of the Chinese fleet if the U.S. fleet intervenes.

Over the years, former military leaders in western countries have written almost hysterical books proclaiming coming defeat in the future by a feared adversary. I own many; a few are British from the 1800s. More recently, a U.S. Admiral wrote such a book about a war starting in the South China Sea called “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.” These books and the paranoid and fearful citizens they create do a disservice to our nation.

By examining the lessons of the Ukraine War and what a Taiwan invasion or war with China might really be like, we take fear away, and replace it with vigilance.

Willard “Chip” Hodgkins is president of WBRK Inc. He received a journalism degree from Boston University, where he also studied Eastern European history and Soviet military policy.

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