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The year to fear for Taiwan: 2006
By Wendell Minnick

TAIPEI - If China ever makes the decision to invade Taiwan it is unlikely to be a large-scale Normandy-style amphibious assault. The reality is that China is more likely to use a decapitation strategy. Decapitation strategies short circuit command and control systems, wipe out nationwide nerve centers, and leave the opponent hopelessly lost. As the old saying goes, "Kill the head and the body dies." All China needs to do is seize the center of power, the capital and its leaders.

If China decides to use force to reunify the mainland with what it terms a breakaway province, the window of opportunity is believed to be 2006. This would give China a couple of years to clean up the mess before the 2008 Summer Olympics. Most analysts estimate that China's military strength will surpass Taiwan's defense capabilities by 2005. So 2006 - the Year of the Dog - is clearly the year to fear.

United States Defense Department officials now are reexamining China's military threat to Taiwan. This rethink has caused a dramatic shift in the way many think of defending Taiwan. Traditionally, Taiwan had always feared an amphibious assault - the Normandy scenario - and its defense strategy was always designed to stop such an attack. Now with a potential decapitation strategy believed to be in the works, US defense officials are beginning to think what had once been unthinkable: losing Taiwan in only seven days.

The Taiwan takeover scenario
China's deployment of its special forces and rapid-deployment forces, combined with air power and missile strikes, is the most likely formula for successfully taking Taiwan with the least amount of effort and damage. The military acronym KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) is in full force here. Special forces, which blend strength with deception and flair, offer China laser cutters rather than sledge hammers for defeating Taiwan's armed forces.

An airborne assault directly on Taipei by China's 15th Airborne Corps (Changchun), with three divisions (43rd, 44th, 45th) would be the first phase of the assault, with additional paratroopers being dropped in Linkou, Taoyuan and Ilian, to tie up Taiwan's four divisions assigned to the 6th Army (North). A Chinese airborne division contains 11,000 men with light tanks and self-propelled artillery. Some intelligence reports have indicated that China was able to airlift one airborne division to Tibet in less than 48 hours in 1988. Today, China's ability to transport troops has greatly improved. China is expected to be able to deliver twice that number - 22,000 - in two days.

Taiwan's 6th Army has seven infantry brigades: 106, 116, 118, 152, 153, 176, and 178. The 152/153 Dragons and the the 176/178 Tigers are said to be the best. Also a direct assault on the 6th Army's 269th motorized brigade, 351st armored infantry brigade, and the 542nd armored brigade would be mandatory for Chinese forces.

Most of the initial fighting would be in the Zhong Zheng District, Taipei, which contains the Presidential Building, the Ministry of National Defense, and the Legislative Yuan. As soon as China's troops hit the ground they would have to deal with Taiwan's Military Police Command (MPC). The MPC is responsible for protecting key government buildings and military installations. Its personnel are the gatekeepers, holding all the keys and guarding all the doors. They are considered no-nonsense and are humorless when approached. China's airborne forces would meet immediate resistance from these Taipei forces. Regular army units, all based outside of Taipei, would take hours, perhaps days, to respond. It would be up to the MPC to hold the Chinese back until reinforcements arrived - which might be never.

Assassins, saboteurs would be prepositioned
Pre-positioned special forces, smuggled into Taiwan months before, would assassinate key leaders, and attack radar and communication facilities around Taiwan a few hours before the main attack. Infiltrators might receive some assistance from sympathetic elements within Taiwan's military and police, who are believed to be at least 75 percent pro-Kuomintang (KMT), and hence, pro-unification. Many could use taxis to move about the city unnoticed. Mainland Chinese prostitutes, already in abundance in Taiwan, could be recruited by Chinese intelligence to serve as femme fatales, supplying critical intelligence on the locations of key government and military leaders at odd hours of the night; death is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

The second phase would begin after airborne forces captured Sungshan Airport. With a secure landing strip, China would fly in elements of its 14 divisions of "rapid reaction" troops using Ilyushin Il-76, Shaanxi Y-8, Antonov 26, and Xian Y-7 troop transports, with air support from China's 1,000 bombers and fighters. China's 10 Il-76 transports can carry 130 troops apiece, though this limitation could be overcome by commandeering aircraft belonging to commercial courier and passenger airlines. China has about 500 Boeings and Airbuses from which to choose. Some of China's heavy-lift transports would bring in BMD-2 Airborne Combat Vehicles and an assortment of armored vehicles. These air-lifted troops would spread throughout the city, securing bridges and key intersections. In addition, China has 200 transport helicopters capable of carrying commandos to Taiwan.

China might encounter opposition from Taiwan's new rapid deployment force. The newly created Aviation and Special Forces Command (ASFC) has united three aviation helicopter brigades, the 601st, 602nd, and 603rd, with the 862nd Special Warfare Brigade under one command. The 862nd is Taiwan's elite paratrooper brigade and modeled after the US Army Rangers. The helicopter brigades are made up of a combination of CH-47SD Chinook transport helicopters, AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopters, OH-58D Kiowa armed observation helicopters, and UH-1H Huey transport helicopters.

Taiwan also has some noteworthy smaller commando units. There are two Marine Corps units: the Amphibious Reconnaissance Patrol (ARP) and the Special Services Company (SSC). The army also has two: the 101st Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion (ARB) or "Army Frogmen", and the Airborne Special Services Company (ASSC). The ASSC is a new unit modeled after the US Delta Force. ASSC recruits from the 862nd and performs counter-terrorism and other special missions. The question of whether these forces could, or would, be moved into the conflict area in time is another matter.

Except for special forces and the marines, it is unlikely that the rest of Taiwan's infantry brigades scattered across the island would do much. As the saying goes, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that matters." Taiwan's military is rife with lethargic and ineffectual troops just begging for their 20-month tour of duty to end so they can go back to their girlfriends and jobs. Many call Taiwan's youth, including its young soldiers, the "strawberry generation" because they are soft and spoiled by the good life. US military officials visiting Taiwan often complain that the military's boot camps are too lax. The military appears more afraid of angering the parents of the conscripts than confronting a Chinese invasion, say visiting US soldiers. One politically correct legislator recently complained to Asia Times Online, "Taiwan has to do something about violence in the military." The correspondent reminded him, "The military is a violent institution." The conversation was over; the lesson lost.

Identity crisis within Taiwan's military
Taiwan's military also faces an identity crisis. The idea that Taiwan is part of China still resonates strongly within the military. For example, unit patches worn by soldiers often bear the outline of China, not Taiwan. The 6th Army, 8th Army, 46th Division, and Marine Corps have the image of China on their patches. The 117th Infantry Brigade has an eagle landing on mainland China. The 34th Division, 157th Infantry Brigade, and 200th Motorized Brigade display the Great Wall of China. None of the unit patches or emblems bears the image of Taiwan. In fact, visitors to military bases see no evidence whatsoever that they are located in Taiwan. China is the central theme of the whole military experience for Taiwan's conscripts. Even the names of naval vessels have Chinese themes.

Taiwan's navy would have little to do in this war scenario, except sink like rocks. A few would shoot down a small number of the Chinese planes heading to Taiwan, but most would be taken out of action by China's numerous anti-ship missiles. Of particular annoyance is the nasty Russian-made Sunburn anti-ship missile (ASM). Three times as fast as the US Harpoon ASM, the Sunburn does not slam into the side of a ship like the Harpoon; instead, as it nears the target it rises above it and then dives straight down through the deck of the ship. The speed and angle of the attack make it nearly impossible to shoot down or to disable by electronic countermeasures or jamming.

Taiwan's air force would be kept busy trying to repair runway damage caused by the estimated 500 short-range ballistic missiles deployed along China's coast and targeting Taiwan. China's Second Artillery Corps would launch Dong Feng 11 (M-11) and DF-15 (M-9) in multiple-wave and multi-directional saturation attacks on air bases, port facilities and other strategic locations. Only a small number would be intercepted by Taiwan's three Patriot (PAC-2 Plus) anti-missile defense batteries located around Taipei. The PACs will only be able to hit missiles coming down on northern Taiwan. The south is totally unprotected from ballistic missiles. China's special forces, infiltrated to Taiwan, would take a keen interest in locating and destroying the PACs. Everyone knows where they are, so it would not be too difficult.

Even if Taiwan could dispatch some of its fighter aircraft, China would meet them in the air with some of its brand new Sukhoi 30, Su-27 and JH-7 fighters. China took delivery of 154 Russian Su-27 fighters earlier this year. By the end of 2004 China is expected to have 273 advanced Sukhoi fighters. Those fighter pilots able to take off before their bases were destroyed would give the Chinese a hell of a fight, but once their aircraft began to run out of fuel they would have no where to land. Many would simply fight to the bitter end and eject if they cared enough.

In the meantime, China's 100 Xian H-6 (Tu-16) Badger and approximately 500 Harbin H-5 (Il-28) Beagle bombers would clean up those areas not destroyed by the initial missile attack. Of particular concern to the Chinese are two "secret" air bases located within hollowed-out mountains in eastern Taiwan, Chiashan in Hualien and Chihhang in Taitung. These would probably survive the initial missile strike, and require a little more effort from China's air force.

New pro-Beijing government swiftly sworn in
Once Taipei was captured, a new government chosen by Beijing would be sworn into office. There would be plenty of Taiwanese politicians to choose from. It is well known there are many pro-China legislators who have investments in China and more than a few who have had private meetings with Beijing officials. The inauguration would be conducted in the spotlight of the international media, giving it some psychological legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. There would be too many pro-China people in the US State Department - privately relieved the Taiwan issue was finally settled - to say anything in Taiwan's defense.

With the new government inaugurated, the new president would declare an end to all hostilities with China. During a nationwide televised speech, the new president would order all military forces to stand down. With the pro-China sentiments running high in the Taiwan military, it is likely that most would grudgingly accept the new president.

The new president would contact the US Department of Defense via the new hotline installed by the US government in 2002 and warn against any US military actions taken on behalf of Taiwan or against Taiwan's new guests, the Chinese military. Using the hotline would demonstrate to the US that the new president and his people have access to the codes necessary to transmit an encrypted message, and also validate that the new president has the authority to access the hotline within Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense - a demonstration of power and control.

US military forces could respond in this scenario if so ordered. The question is, how committed is the US to Taiwan's defense? Given the speed of the Chinese attack, it is unlikely that US aircraft carriers would initially be involved, except for the USS Kitty Hawk. The closest US military support that could act quickly is only 20 minutes away in Okinawa.

Under the 5th Air Force based in Japan, Okinawa's Kadena Air Force Base has two fighter squadrons of F-15 Strike Eagle fighter aircraft (44th FS Vampires and 67th FS Fighting Cocks). In addition, the Misawa Air Base in Japan has two fighter squadrons of F-16 Falcon fighter aircraft (13th FS Panthers and 14th FS Samurais). The 7th Air Force in Korea has three squadrons of F-16s and the 11th Air Force in Alaska has three squadrons of F-15s and one squadron of F-16s.

Call in the US Marines?
The US Marine Corps is another potential thorn in China's side. Under the Marine Aircraft Group 12 in Iwakuni, Japan, the marines have three squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets, one squadron of EA-6B Prowlers, and one squadron of AV-8 Harrier fighter aircraft (Okinawa).

China has every reason to fear US air power. US pilots are far better trained than the Chinese. China has been lax in its training programs, so it would not be surprising to see TV images of Chinese aircraft plummeting to earth in flames. One can understand why China fervently hopes US military forces will be pulling out of South Korea and Japan.

If the US were able to send aircraft carriers to the scene, the US Navy's Pacific Fleet has six aircraft carriers in its arsenal: USS Kitty Hawk, Carl Vinson, Nimitz, Abraham Lincoln, John C Stennis, and Ronald Reagan. These ships carry F-14 Tomcat, F/A-18, and EA-6B aircraft. The Kitty Hawk is the only permanently forward-deployed aircraft carrier in the US military. Based at Yokosuka, Japan, it recently visited Hong Kong and is often mentioned in media reports regarding potential conflicts involving Taiwan.

The US Marine Corps has seven amphibious assault ships in the Pacific equipped with a variety of helicopters, fighter aircraft and assault troops. These are basically self-contained invasion forces. There are the USS Tarawa, Belleau Wood, Peleliu, Essex, Boxer, Bon Homme Richard, and Iwo Jima. Basically mini-aircraft carriers with an attitude, the Tarawa, for example, can carry four AH-1 Sea Cobra attack helicopters, six heavy-lift CH-53 Stallion transport helicopters, 20 M-60 tanks, 29 light armored vehicles, 29 AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles, and 1,900 men of a Reinforced Marine Battalion.

US aircraft carrier strike group may move to Guam
China may also have to consider the newest arrivals to Andersen Air Force Base in nearby Guam. In February, six B-52s Stratofortresses arrived from the 5th Bomb Wing based at Minot, North Dakota, at the request of the US Pacific Command (PACOM) in Hawaii. PACOM requested a "rotational bomber force on the island until it's no longer needed".

PACOM argues that the move is in response to North Korea, but others are suggesting that Taiwan is the basis of much of the move. This is a common theme in US military planning in Asia: the overt reason used is North Korea, but the covert one is Taiwan. Guam is now being considered for possible placement of an aircraft-carrier strike group to be moved from Hawaii.

Japan is another element in the equation, and it could intervene. Many argue that if China takes Taiwan, both Japan and South Korea would quickly develop and deploy nuclear weapons - probably in a few months. Losing the Taiwan Strait to China and facing a militarily adventuresome Beijing would send shock waves throughout the region. If Japan chose to intervene, it has nine squadrons of F-15 fighters to throw into the fight. Japan's naval arm could engage Chinese naval forces with close to 50 destroyers, 10 frigates, and 16 submarines.

However, in an escalating conflict involving the US, there is a possibility that China would attack US military bases in the region. Slamming DF-21C Terminal Guided Missiles on Okinawa could be a start. Beijing would consider this to be an option only after US forces have engaged Chinese naval vessels and aircraft crossing the Taiwan Strait, according to analysts. China might even get more aggressive by using special forces against US military bases in Japan, Alaska and Hawaii. All these options would give China more time to consolidate forces on Taiwan, and forestall US intervention.

Why is Taiwan worth fighting for?

To anyone who looks at a map of the region, the reasons are obvious. Taiwan's strategic location makes it extremely valuable. The Taiwan Strait is a critical sea lane, and taking Taiwan would allow China to choke off international commercial shipping, especially oil, to Japan and South Korea, should it ever decide to do so. In addition, Taiwan serves as a vital window for US intelligence collection. Taiwan's National Security Bureau and the US National Security Agency jointly run a Signal Intelligence facility on Yangmingshan Mountain just north of Taipei (see Spook Mountain: How US spies on China, March 6, 2003). Taiwan's inclusion into China's military power structure would be unthinkable for Japan.

Of course, this is only a scenario based on selected facts and seasoned with conjecture. Speculation about what China could do and what it will do are rarely comparable. Too many media pundits make mention of a Normandy-style invasion, or an apocalyptic-style missile strike, without seriously considering the fastest way between two points. Of course, China, be warned: "No plan survives the first seconds of combat."

Wendell Minnick is the Jane's Defence Weekly correspondent for Taiwan and the author of Spies and Provocateurs: A Worldwide Encyclopedia of Persons Conducting Espionage and Covert Action (McFarland 1992). He can be contacted at

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Apr 10, 2004

Taiwan faces big military challenges (Mar 23, '04)

US: China has credible Taiwan attack options (Mar 1, '04)

Men in black: How Taiwan spies on China (Feb 26, '04)

China-Taiwan arms race quickens (Feb 23, '04)

France, Germany: Lift China arms embargo (Feb 11, '04)


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