QDR Team: Big Threats Matter

A new RAND study says China's burgeoning arsenal of ballistic missiles could spell a quick defeat for the Taiwanese air force in the event of a war for the island. On the other hand, a Chinese amphibious assault would be wrecked in the face of Taiwanese anti-ship missiles. The study confirms the risk posed by "anti-access" weapons, a threat the QDR is closely examining.

We’ve been hearing from sources that for all the talk about irregular and hybrid warfare, the driving force in the QDR strategic review currently underway is the High End Asymmetric Threat, or HEAT, team. That team is examining the threat posed by a “near peer” competitor armed with an inventory of advanced “anti-access” weapons: anti-satellite systems, increasingly accurate ballistic missiles, anti-air weapons, anti-ship systems, undersea warfare systems and cyber attacks.

It makes the timing and the findings of a new RAND analysis of a full blown Chinese attack across the Taiwan straits all the more interesting. The new report, in typical RAND style, uses sophisticated modeling to simulate a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the 2010-2015 timeframe, including a preemptive ballistic missile bombardment, a cyber assault on the island’s infrastructure and a Normandy style amphibious landing.

In a 2000 report that looked at a similar scenario, RAND predicted a bloody repulse for the attacking Chinese as Taiwanese and U.S. aircraft savaged the Chinese air fleet and seaborne landing force. However, this time around, RAND sees China establishing air superiority over the strait within hours of the first shots being fired.

How to explain such a reversal? Primarily, it’s due to China’s burgeoning stock of increasingly accurate short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), around 1,000 of which are deployed opposite Taiwan. Launching a preemptive strike, RAND figures that with 90 to 240 SRBMs, China could: “cut every runway at Taiwan’s half-dozen main fighter bases and destroy essentially all of the aircraft parked on ramps in the open at those installations.” Follow on bombing raids by Chinese aircraft armed with precision bombs would destroy any surviving Taiwanese aircraft parked in hardened shelters.

A similar fate would be inflicted on U.S. aircraft at the Air Force base at Kadena and the U.S. Marine Corps base at Iwakuni on Okinawa, RAND says.

Even with its air fleet a smoldering wreck, Taiwan is unlikely to roll over for China; the Chinese would have to actually pull-off a successful amphibious landing and occupy the island. Continuing with the anti-access theme of the report, Taiwan could still successfully defend its beaches with a combination of anti-ship cruise missiles, U.S. bombers launching Joint-Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs), shorter range missiles, such as Hellfire, and some very tenacious dug-in Taiwanese infantry.

Contested amphibious assaults are exceedingly difficult to pull off successfully in the era of long-range, precision weaponry where ships bobbing on the seas are very exposed, as are the landing craft making the run in to a defended beachhead.

The smart folks over at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments have been harping about the implications of anti-access weapons for some time. I spoke to CSBA fellow Dakota Wood a few weeks back about a series of war games they conducted for OSD highlighting the “game changing” potential of precision guidance and range, and how such weapons will force changes in the way the U.S. military organizes and equips for the future battlespace.

With guided missiles of all types increasing in accuracy and readily available, it will demand a change in thinking from “How does my weapons system match up against the enemy’s similar system?” to “How does your costly system match up against the enemy’s missile magazine and what’s the size of that magazine?”, Woods said.

There are rumors that the Marine’s amphibious warfare capabilities may fare poorly in the QDR. This recent RAND report certainly doesn’t bolster their case. It also raises questions about the utility of short range tactical fighters when an enemy’s ballistic missiles can hold nearby airfields at risk. OSD won the battle against the F-22, yet favored large numbers of the F-35. We’ll see if that’s still the case come February.