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PLA Navy Operational Scenarios for Taiwan
You Ji, The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief
China’s 2002 revision of its 1992 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine shifted its focus away from the development of the ability to win a “limited war under high-technology conditions.” Instead of attempting to modernize the PLA solely through “mechanization” (enhancing its hardware platforms), China attempted to achieve the transformation of its military through joint “mechanization” and “informatization” (the development of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance or C4ISR capabilities). This dual transformation would have direct implications toward the PLA’s war-fighting abilities in potential conflicts with Taiwan. Mechanization would provide the PLA Navy (PLAN) with the necessary equipment and platforms to operate in the littoral waters of the Taiwan Strait as well as in the deeper waters east of the island. Informatization, on the other hand, would allow the PLAN to acquire the capabilities required for asymmetric warfare (e.g. electronic/information warfare and long-range precision attacks) and more importantly, allow Beijing to wage a war of non-engagement against its opponents. The ability to wage non-engagement warfare creates conditions where Beijing is able to render any conflict in the Taiwan Strait into one of political coercion, rather than of punishment.
Engagement and Non-Engagement Warfare
The adoption of the new strategy of non-engagement warfare exerts a profound impact on the operational options of the PLAN in the Taiwan Strait. The key to any successful PLAN operation would include battles in areas east of Taiwan, stretching to the deep oceans in the West Pacific. This poses an enormous challenge for the PLAN, as it has yet to resolve the missing links in its force transformation, such as its weak Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and fleet Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) capabilities. This ill-preparedness dictates a pattern of operation in the minds of PLAN strategists: the avoidance of direct military engagement to the east of Taiwan (The Journal of the PLA NDU, No. 1, 2004). This policy of non-engagement conveniently coincides with Beijing’s current Taiwan strategy that prioritizes the deterrence of de jure independence over that of an immediate unification. Any war in the Taiwan Strait would therefore serve the purpose of coercing Taipei to back down rather than one of attrition. As such, it is important for PLAN strategists to formulate war plans that would not result in significant casualties not only to the Taiwanese population but also to the military personnel. For Beijing, an open-ended escalation of conflict must be prevented; this would turn the island’s population staunchly against China and destroy any hopes for peaceful unification
For PLAN strategists, the task of designing operations based upon the policy of non-engagement is a significant challenge. Among the most likely military operations that the navy would mount are blockades around Taiwan and amphibious operations on the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Under the circumstances, the availability of C4ISR and advanced strike platforms constitutes a necessary precondition for Beijing to wage counterforce operations without inflicting immense collateral damage. Such political concerns dictate that both naval operations be implemented in a non-traditional manner.
The ability to conduct a blockade based upon the policy of non-engagement is a difficult task. Yet if the war-of-politics principle were applied, it would be possible for the PLAN to utilize its blockade as a form of psychological warfare rather than as a conventional military operation. Adopting the strategy of a selective blockade, the PLAN may choose to intercept a minimum number of Taiwanese-registered ships at regular or irregular intervals and ignore the ships registered to the countries that are not involved in the conflict, preventing extraneous diplomatic provocations. It is here that the necessity for informatization becomes evident. Accurate C4ISR is required for the proper and timely identification and acquisition of Taiwanese cargo ships. To assist in this operation, no-fly and no-navigation zones may be declared in selected areas .
Utilizing a combination of military aircraft and ballistic and cruise missiles, the PLAN’s blockade of Taiwan’s four major waterways along its western coast would be a relatively easy task, without much need for surface combatant engagement. The main battle-line, however, would be drawn around waterways to the east side of Taiwan. Taiwan’s combat aircraft and land-based missiles could threaten any surface combatants that enter into areas within a 600-kilometer radius of Taiwan’s east coast. Unless the PLAN possessed aircraft carriers that would be capable of providing effective air cover or had a sufficient number of destroyers with adequate area-AAW capabilities, its current surface fleets would not be able to handle any sustained, large-scale blockade operations. Under these circumstances, the blockade would be primarily carried out through missile attacks on the key ports along Taiwan’s east coast (e.g. Taidong or Hualien) or by the PLAN’s submarines. According to the most recent estimates by the Taiwanese military, 12 submarines would be required for the effective control of the island’s eastern waterways. In such a scenario, the PLA could easily target Taiwan’s energy security because no ports on the east coast of Taiwan are capable of berthing oil tankers . The design of a selective blockade would allow the PLAN to intercept the minimum amount of ships required. Nonetheless, if the declared blockade failed to generate the desired psychological effects and economic costs (i.e., a rise in insurance, a drop in oil reserves, a loss of trade) and the Taiwanese leadership were not persuaded to retract its declaration of independence, additional military actions would be required.
Amphibious assaults are highly favored by the PLA as a response to an escalation of conflict. In PLA writings, forced landing of various kinds are commonly the focus of research and several scenarios have been discussed . Currently, however, Beijing’s overriding concern is the maintenance of the status quo and, therefore, the prospects of any large-scale amphibious operations against Taiwan are unlikely.
For instance, China’s defense industries are capable of constructing additional amphibious warfare vessels. Yet, Beijing has been reluctant to do so, fearing that such a move would be interpreted as a blatant unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force. As a result, while new landing ships have been included in the PLAN’s force structure, there have not been any significant additions. The PLAN’s inventory is currently comprised of around 10 Yuting-class amphibious warfare ships plus a similar number of tank-landing ships. Nevertheless, put together they can transport a maximum of one division of PLA soldiers per wave. Even with the support of a large number of civilian ships and smaller landing crafts, the PLAN may at most transport a handful of group armies in the first wave.
Although Beijing has been slow in building up its amphibious warfare capabilities, it may opt for an unconventional strategy in an invasion of Taiwan. Recognizing the enormous costs if it were to attempt a Normandy-style invasion, the PLAN is now attempting to develop the ability to launch a vertical amphibious attack, namely, operations of air-sea integration . Vertical amphibious operations, which depend on the massive use of helicopters, larger Ground Effect Vehicles (GEVs) and hovercrafts, would raise the pace of landing by four or five times and allow units such as the PLA’s 15th Airborne Army to attack the enemy’s in-depth defenses and seize key political and military targets. This would help to weaken Taiwan’s command and control capabilities and clear the way for the subsequent waves of landings by the slower surface transports. The PLA’s 15th Airborne Army and other units using these platforms will attack the enemy’s defense depth and seize its key political/military targets. At the moment, the PLA has designated eight group armies for extensive joint training for a Strait campaign. The 1st and 41st Group Armies have been overwhelmingly designated for amphibious warfare purposes. The other six group armies with a force numbering half a million men (the 12th, 31st, 26th, 67th, 39th and 40th) have devoted a large amount of their training for amphibious and airborne operations.
For the time being, large-scale PLA/PLAN amphibious operations against Taiwan proper remain inconceivable. Any operation would certainly involve significant collateral damage, betraying Beijing’s aim of peacefully coercing Taipei to halt or reverse its attempt to declare de jure independence. In the unlikely event of any forced landing campaigns, it would be more probable for the PLA to seize Taiwan’s offshore islands, such as Quemoy and Matsu. The former is the largest offshore island of Taiwan. Located just 18 nautical miles away from the mainland coast, it is vulnerable to PLA attack. More importantly, these islands serve one strategic mission of the PLA in a future war against Taiwan, namely luring the Taiwanese military to rescue these islands. If the Taiwanese military were indeed dispatched, the PLA could engage them in a major battle in a place of its own choosing. This would present Taipei with a serious dilemma: defending these islands would be an almost impossible task for Taiwan, given the huge quantitative military disparity between the two sides. Giving them up, however, would cause an enormous problem of legitimacy for the Taiwanese leaders in the eyes of its citizenry. The PLAN has already attained the capability to capture them if it is politically necessary. Therefore, the options of a PLA amphibious campaign are contingent upon Beijing’s political and strategic considerations, not just the military ones. At least the avoidance of invading the Taiwan proper may save the PLA from the possibility of failing in the war.
1. The Military Art, no. 12, 2003, p. 19.
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