The Uncomfortable Reality of the U.S. Army’s Role in a War Over Taiwan
While it was once taboo for U.S. officials to publicly discuss defending Taiwan, the conversation now unfolds openly and pointedly. The contentious U.S.-Chinese relationship has become the centerpiece of U.S. military strategy, planning, and spending, with some calling for an even more overt focus on Taiwan. How exactly the U.S. military might defend Taiwan is still largely conjecture, but public discussions foreshadow a high-tech concept of warfare dominated by the Navy and Air Force, possibly with help from the Marine Corps. But is there a place for the Army too? Should there be? If so, what?
These are uncomfortable questions because there is a good chance that the role U.S. decisionmakers will ask the Army to play in this conflict is not what has been presented so far: lobbing missiles or “advising” Taiwanese military units. Instead, troops may find themselves either defending the island from a Chinese invasion or even helping retake Taiwan after China (due to proximity and first-mover advantages) wins the initial high-tech struggle. Both of these roles are massive shifts for an insurgency-honed force, as well as expensive, bloody, and politically fraught — not to mention that they would represent a significant escalation in a crisis between two nuclear-armed states.
Recent polling suggests that, for the first time in many years, a majority of the American public supports defending Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion. Given the potential for this conflict to include American soldiers, the public deserves to know what they are buying when they make this decision. As the United States debates whether to increase its support of Taiwan’s defense and officially align more closely with Taiwan, politicians need to honestly evaluate American willingness to see our commitment through. If the United States is indeed serious about defending Taiwan, then the government may need to make a massive investment in a new focus for the Army — and that pivot will have to occur quickly.
So, what is the future of the Army in a U.S.-Chinese competition turned violent? Why don’t we like to talk about it? An honest answer to these questions may help the United States avoid these uncomfortable circumstances in the first place.
A High-Tech Air and Sea Battle Is Not the Whole Story
Prognosticators looking at future war with China tell a story of air and naval campaigns that lean on U.S. technological dominance to subdue and defeat an invading Chinese force. Department of Defense concepts like AirSea Battle and the “third offset” all envisage high-tech fights in which, faced with an onslaught of Chinese missile volleys, air attacks, and destroyers, the United States comes to the defense of Taiwan with stealth fighters, long-range missiles, and stealthy submarines. These mechanisms all rely on networks of satellites and airborne sensors to fight the kind of offense-focused campaigns for air and naval dominance that have become the hallmark of U.S. strategy in the 21st century. Meanwhile, as both sides battle for air and sea superiority, they simultaneously try to blind one another with cyber operations, electronic warfare, and space attacks.
This vision of high-tech conflict is likely, but it’s just the beginning. There is a reasonable chance that China wins the first round of high-tech conflict. Declassified wargaming results, think tank reports, and congressional testimony all warn that the U.S. military — which will ostensibly be fighting to defend Taiwan from behind the island while dependent on fragile logistics chains — could lose the first volleys (or at least find itself seriously disadvantaged) in a Chinese quest to retake Taiwan.
Hence, there is a good chance the United States will struggle to keep Chinese forces from taking control of the Taiwan Strait. But what about the second — and more important — phase of conflict: defeating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? In order for China to assert control over Taiwan, it needs to not only defeat aircraft, submarines, surface ships, and missiles, but also take and control the island with boots on the ground.
The U.S. Army can play a large role in a Taiwan scenario, either by standing with Taiwanese forces to defend the island from a Chinese invasion or as part of a campaign to retake Taiwan after a Chinese invasion. However, this is a qualitatively different kind of role than what the Army is currently discussing, and far removed from the skills, tactics, and technologies that the Army developed over the last two decades of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. In fact, this kind of conflict more closely resembles the wars of attrition fought in southeast Asia or the island-hopping campaigns of World War II than the fights in which U.S. forces have honed their capability since 9/11.
Defending the island from invasion will mean defeating a Chinese military amphibious capability that is expanding rapidly. This expansion includes eight marine brigades and significant investment in new amphibious vessels, as well as a repurposed and large coast guard, merchant marine augmentation, and a prolific maritime militia. Chinese forces will be invading an island that has not focused enough on defense, instead buying increasingly obsolete prestige aircraft and missiles optimized for offensive strike. To further complicate defense efforts, Washington’s official policy of strategic ambiguity means that the United States has very limited forces on the island — ostensibly all in a training capacity. If the U.S. Army were to have to defend the island in the current status, it would face difficult and contested deployment conditions and arrive to fight alongside a Taiwanese military with whom it has limited-to-no experience. None of these conditions bode well for American forces facing the invasion of a peer competitor on an island they have not fortified, with an ally not officially an ally, and in a territory thousands of miles away from major Army bases. American lives would be lost — potentially at great scale. When the United States defended the Philippines against an invading Japanese force in World War II, it lost 25,000 troops, and almost 100,000 were captured (Japan would subsequently lose over 400,000 while defending the Philippines from a U.S. invasion force).
Further, if defending the island is a bloody and difficult endeavor, reinvading the island after China takes Taiwan would be far worse (so difficult, in fact, that it may be beyond the scope of U.S. capability or strategic interests). The United States lost about 23,000 troops in its reinvasion of the Philippines. Even the most successful campaigns — for example, the U.S. landing at Incheon in 1950 — killed more U.S. personnel than died in all but four of the 20 years the United States was in Afghanistan. And while the battles of World War II and Korean War are from a different time technologically, these skills — mass landings, retaking lost territory, defending coastal positions, and warding off invasions of thousands of troops — have become historical relics rather than campaigns the U.S. military is prepared to conduct.
Why Don’t We Like Talking About It?
There are many reasons, even beyond America’s official foreign policy stance, why politicians and military leaders avoid talking about the Army in these kinds of Taiwan scenarios. Most obviously, discussing these possibilities requires speaking openly about the United States losing the first round of conflict. This scenario is a difficult pill to swallow, but one that is possible enough that — given recent discussions about changes in the U.S.-Chinese balance — it at least needs to be examined. Related, it is hard to believe that the U.S. military would put forces into exactly the kind of prolonged wars of denial and attrition that doctrine since Vietnam has tried to avoid. The underlying belief, drawn from Vietnam, that the American public has no stomach for significant loss of life has been a strong and enduring influence in U.S. military strategy and has led to a focus on qualitative technological superiority and campaigns of offense dominance. Indeed, the Army’s last defensively focused doctrine (a 1976 version of field manual 100-5, colloquially referred to as Active Defense) was largely rejected by the Army corps and replaced with the far more offensive AirLand Battle. This doctrine shift has influenced Army (and to some extent Air Force) acquisition strategies and campaigns ever since, leading to technologies and operations that optimize speed and overwhelming decisive advantage over defense and wars of attrition.
Focusing on defending or retaking territory is a hard shift for the Army. After the withdrawal from Afghanistan and facing a U.S.-Chinese competition that seems to play out on anything but land, the Army is struggling with an identity crisis perhaps as dramatic as its reinvention after the Vietnam War. Army doctrine and the public narrative both reveal this struggle. The Army’s most recent doctrine, Multi Domain Operations, waxes on about operations short of conflict and “layered stand-off,” while long-range precision fires dominated talks at the annual Association of the U.S. Army convention. The head of Army operations in the Indo-Pacific suggested Army training with allies in the region would help deter China from invading Taiwan. Together, the public discussion suggests an Army conception of itself in the U.S.-Chinese competition as an actor that vaguely threatens cooperation with Taiwanese forces coupled with long-range precision artillery as part of integrated deterrence to keep China from invading Taiwan.
None of these conversations confirm whether these actions could actually deter a revisionist China. Indeed, advisory forces and threats of long-range strikes have mixed records as signals of alliance commitment credibility. Additionally, all of these conversations stop short of articulating what the Army would do after deterrence fails. As Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth candidly commented, “I’m not convinced that we have fully thought our way through all of the challenges we may face on the future high-end battlefield if deterrence fails.”
The focus on campaigns of offense dominance, coupled with an Army in the midst of an identity crisis, has left the United States without enough tools for the second phase of a conflict over Taiwan. The Army will need new weapons and operational strategies if it is going to defend or reinvade Taiwan. It will need to create new training concepts and capabilities for conflicts that involve defending or retaking territory against the world’s largest army. It will need to train with Taiwanese forces and invest in paradrop and other methods for infiltrating contested territory. Further, the Air Force and Navy will have to divert attention away from campaigns for air and naval superiority and instead support ground efforts, conducting close air support in contested airspace. While the United States has made great strides in modern close air support after its 20 years of war in Afghanistan and the Middle East, conducting close air support for major combat operations is a difficult endeavor and one that only a few training facilities in the United States are designed to hone.
It’s Time to Talk About the Army’s Role in a Taiwan Scenario
The Army can make a compelling argument for manning, equipping, and planning for this second phase of conflict, but it requires both a desire by the Army to change its focus and a political reckoning about the extent of the U.S. security relationship with Taiwan. That is not an Army fight — that is a political discussion.
My argument here is not for or against U.S. defense of Taiwan, whether declared or ambiguous. Defending a democracy from an autocratic China may be worth the lives of American soldiers. However, the problem is when those advocating for clearer and more declaratory support to Taiwan don’t articulate what that means. Selling a narrative to the American public that the United States can come to the rescue of Taiwan without significant Army personnel in Taiwanese territory is potentially dishonest. Moreover, it might lead to overinvesting in air and naval assets poised only for the first volleys of a war to defend Taiwan.
That potential misunderstanding is dangerous. Without a public debate about its commitment to defending or reinvading Taiwanese territory, Washington runs the risk of falling into traps that confounded the United States in both Korea and Vietnam. In Korea’s case, the United States didn’t fully understand its own commitment to South Korea until after a calamitous North Korean invasion. In Vietnam, the public felt duped about the cost of an “advisory force” that turned into a large-scale war and conscription. Some hawks are keen to galvanize public support for firm assurances to defend Taiwan, concerned that a perception of public disinterest might decrease deterrence and ultimately lead China to invade. However, it would be far worse for the United States to promise to defend Taiwan without preparing its public and its soldiers for the fight they very well could face.
If Washington does decide that Taiwan is worth fighting for, then the Army could play a major role in both deterring and, if necessary, winning that conflict. Sending Army personnel to train with Taiwanese forces and create doctrine, operations, tactics, and weapons for a Taiwanese defense strategy could help convince Beijing that Washington has the will to follow through with its ambiguous commitment to Taiwan’s security.
On the other hand, the Army already has its hands full with Russia and North Korea and more explicit commitments to Taiwan might let Taipei off the hook for investing in its own defense. Most importantly, all parties must weigh how a larger role for the U.S. Army in a future Taiwan conflict could spiral a precarious relationship into an unwanted war. Already, the Chinese foreign ministry has decried the presence of U.S. security advisors in Taiwan and launched a large-scale military drill in the Taiwan Straits to demonstrate their displeasure with a U.S. congressional visit to the island. An overt move by the United States to place American forces on the island could become a Cuban Missile Crisis moment for the Chinese in which two nuclear states find themselves in a dangerous game of chicken.
These important questions — not the Army trying to fit within an AirSea battle of long-range fires— should drive the debate about the future role of the U.S. Army in Taiwan.
Jacquelyn Schneider, Ph.D., is a Hoover fellow at Stanford University and an affiliate at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Follow her on Twitter @jackiegschneid.