The US over the years has continually pledged its support for Taiwan. During some episodes of higher tension between the Chinese and the Taiwanese the US has made military demonstrations such as the recent transit of the Taiwan straits by the USS John McCain.
Policymakers have long argued over whether to jettison the idea of “strategic ambiguity” that has underscored decades of America’s Asia policy, and outright declare that the United States would militarily defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. The Biden administration is making all of the right noises, but force deployments will prove US intent.
Since early September, as noted earlier, China has been carrying out the most provocative and sustained show of force in the Taiwan Strait in nearly a quarter century. Chinese military patrols, some involving more than 30 combat aircraft and a half-dozen naval ships, have roamed the strait roughly every other day. Many of them have breached the median line between Taiwan and China, a boundary that—until last year—both sides had respected for decades.
It is these rising tensions that should justify hardening and improving of the only two US bases within 500 miles of Taiwan—which is also the maximum unrefueled combat radius of US fighter aircraft—and both are easy targets for China’s land-based missiles. If China disables those bases, US air forces would have to operate from vulnerable aircraft carriers and from Guam, located 1,800 miles from Taiwan. The extra distance and midair refueling would cut the number of air sorties in half, giving China an opportunity to dominate the skies over Taiwan and inflict heavy losses on allied forces that try to fight their way into the combat theater. This thus argues for use of the longer-range missiles that the Army is developing and the USMC is seeking.
Interestingly the Marines are analyzing creating small task forces of Infantry to secure small islands, rocket/missile systems to attack enemy shipping and air defense systems to protect the small task force. The Army is looking to develop similar multi-domain capabilities. I have even participated in simulations of such capabilities. The Army is probably ahead of the Marines in system development and fielding but there are plenty of islands to assist in the isolation of the Taiwan area of operations. Maybe some commonality of doctrine and systems would speed the capabilities being ready for use?
The reliance on American air is most likely a reaction that air is the only asset that the US can bring to the fight. Before making the force decision there needs to be a decision on the role to be played and what the theater of operations includes. If operations are to be contained to just the Taiwan straits and the land masses adjacent to them the critical roles for the US would probably be intelligence collection and dissemination, isolating the area of operations and assisting in the deep battle. In short, the US would seek to isolate the area of operations to prevent Chinese reinforcement from ports and bases further north or west of the area. This would require naval forces and air.
While containing the combat area the US might also contribute to the deep attack against Chinese bases. Such missile and air attacks would necessitate extensive cyber operations to limit Chinese air defense in critical areas.
If the US sought to expand the area of operations it could launch attacks from Japan and South Korea and possibly even Vietnam. Such missile, cyber, naval and air threats would force the Chinese to fight on several fronts and could limit the assets available to enter the Taiwan straits fights. Even the threat of such attacks could heighten deterrence.
An air-land battle like strategy coupled with area of operations containment would allow the Taiwanese to defeat Chinese forces on the beaches while preventing/reducing Chinese reinforcement and follow-on attacks. The burning question at this point would be whether the Chinese would escalate by attacking allied forces outside of the area of operations. Would the Chinese accept a limited defeat? Would the Chinese obliterate Taiwan? They could do this easily, but what would they then gain? A wasteland?
When one gets to the end of this long tale of the issues involved in the conflict in the Straits of Taiwan he has a deeper understanding of the military and diplomatic issues involved and a deeper conviction that deterrence must work. For deterrence to work the Chinese must be convinced of US resolve and US and Taiwanese capabilities to increase the costs to China. Does the current administration have the required resolve? That is probably what the Chinese are trying to determine.