Logistics Interdiction for Taiwan Unification Campaigns
If China attacks Taiwan, its ability to move the requisite levels of troops and supplies in a contested environment will be critical in determining its success. This makes logistics interdiction is an important, yet understudied, consideration. The good news for Western military planners is that whether the People’s Liberation Army launches a joint firepower strike campaign, a joint blockade campaign, or joint island landing campaign, its logistics capabilities would likely constitute a major weakness. This, at least, is the conclusion we drew from examining Chinese and Western military doctrine, studying similar historical campaigns, and conducting supply chain simulations.
Joint Firepower Strike Campaign
If Beijing launched a joint firepower strike campaign, its objective would be to apply stand-off, coercive pressure to force reunification. A strike campaign would employ conventional ground- and air-launched ballistic and cruise missiles ranging in intensity from limited strikes against symbolic targets to a broader approach aimed at paralyzing Taiwan’s political, military, and economic systems. A limited campaign might consist of employing People’s Liberation Army ballistic missile capabilities against a few salient objectives. A broader campaign would include a combination of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, artillery, and other stand-off ground strike capabilities. Targets would include air bases, command and control centers, energy infrastructure, air defense, and long-range strike capabilities.
Chinese doctrinal texts highlight the importance of target selection and proper weapon employment to degrade the enemy’s will. Chinese strategists are likely aware of Western precedents like Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Linebacker in Vietnam and NATO’s successes in the Balkans. For a People’s Liberation Army joint firepower strike campaign to succeed, one of two things must happen: Either Taipei capitulates quickly or strikes are used for escalatory purposes, including softening resistance in preparation for a cross-strait invasion. In both scenarios, failure to achieve quick and decisive success risks providing Taiwan’s international allies with time to organize a military response, forcing the Chinese to fight on multiple fronts.
Because this campaign deploys combat capability primarily within the borders of mainland China, opportunities for logistics interdiction are sparse and unlikely to make a meaningful impact. Given China’s robust domestic transportation network, Taiwan’s best approach to exploiting the People’s Liberation Army’s logistics weaknesses is simply to withstand the initial assault and stretch the campaign’s timelines. Taiwanese cruise and ballistic missiles could be directed at logistics capabilities near the shoreline and aggregated masses of troops and material to degrade the People’s Liberation Army offensive capabilities. However, this would have negligible effect in disrupting supply lines from inland China to support prepositioned coastal forces.
While logistics interdiction in this option might have limited success, the Chinese army still faces considerable risk in sustaining its forces during a protracted campaign. Consider the vast difference in peacetime training and exercise flight hours between People’s Liberation Army Air Force pilots and comparable U.S. pilots. Chinese bomber pilots fly approximately 80 hours per year, with the rest of the training conducted in simulators. However, a joint firepower strike campaign calls for these pilots to fly approximately 60 hours every two weeks. The intensity of this campaign would result in a dramatic uptick in demand for aircraft spare parts, fuel, and munitions. The stochastic nature of part failures and difficulty of forecasting the behavior of breakages under combat conditions would result in a significant portion of the fleet being grounded for lack of parts. And munitions shortages would mirror those in other high-intensity conflicts should the campaign become protracted, making it reasonable to assume that expenditures would outpace resupply.
In sum, a joint firepower strike campaign consisting of independent strikes on key targets is simple to plan and results in minimal risk during execution. On the other hand, this strategy would almost certainly be less effective than a blockade or invasion in securing Beijing’s political goals. Taiwanese and allied nations’ logistics interdiction options are limited, yet a lengthy conflict creates Chinese risk, as spare parts and munitions production likely would not keep up with demand. The ability of Taiwan’s military and civil institutions to simply survive and prolong the campaign could expose these vulnerabilities.
Joint Blockade Campaign
The objective of a joint blockade campaign would be to undermine the will and warfighting potential of Taiwan. It would apply the maximum possible pressure short of a full island landing and provide many options to escalate or de-escalate the conflict. This allows Chinese political leadership to ramp up coercive pressure to enhance their negotiating position, then either transition to a full island invasion should Taipei continue to resist or discontinue the blockade should their position become untenable. After a military build-up, a blockade would begin with full-spectrum offensive strikes on political, military, command and control, and logistics targets to achieve air, sea, and information superiority. Secondary targets would include antisubmarine forces, surface combatants, mine-clearing ships, and submarines. Offensive operations would conclude with the Chinese navy establishing sea dominance around Taiwan and its outer islands. Then the blockade would enter a sustainment phase involving continuous lockdown of Taiwan’s air and sea lines of communication. In addition to the maritime blockade, Chinese land- and carrier-based aviation forces would provide fighter combat air coverage and the Chinese coast guard would lead in conducting maritime board, search, and seizure operations.
In assessing the logistics implications for a Chinese blockade of Taiwan, the U.S. blockade of Cuba in 1962 offers a useful point of comparison. A similar campaign would see the Chinese navy establish a blockade ring 50 miles from the Taiwanese shore and approximately 1,000 miles in length. Taiwan is geographically smaller than Cuba and Chinese military technology is far more advanced than that employed by the United States in 1962. However, the objective of total blockade would require a substantial Chinese fleet that would impose significant logistical demands. Still, as with the U.S. blockade of Cuba, China’s ability to mobilize and leverage its vast organic supply reserves, combined with access to the logistics resources of neighboring friendly nations (Russia, North Korea), would likely preclude any major short-term supply deficits.
This analysis presumes that Taiwan fails to mount a vigorous defense and allied navies remain uninvolved. However, if Taiwan perceives the blockade as an existential threat, the campaign would take on a kinetic nature resulting in significant attrition. While the food, fuel, munitions, and spare parts required to sustain blockade forces would still flow eastward with relative ease, Taiwanese targeting of Chinese seaports would disrupt ports of debarkation and limit the ability to refuel and repair ships. Taiwanese mining of critical sea routes, combined with strikes on inland strategic petroleum reserves, munitions depots, and maintenance facilities, would degrade the Chinese navy’s ability to sustain their forces in the medium-to-long term. However, Taiwan’s actions would have to be carefully calculated, as their strikes may have negligible effects in the short term and carry substantial escalatory risks.
Overall, a joint blockade campaign would apply a great amount of pressure on Taiwanese military and economic institutions. But compared to a protracted joint firepower strike campaign, it creates an even more significant risk should Taiwan fail to capitulate quickly. From a logistics point of view, the People’s Liberation Army would be forced to consider some of the same inherent risks, namely potential shortages of munitions, critical spare parts, and fuel.
Joint Island Landing Campaign
The joint island landing campaign is the riskiest, but the one that delivers the greatest coercive pressure. After several months of mobilization and prepositioning, initial operations would attempt to quickly achieve air, maritime, and information superiority by targeting air/maritime bases, command and communication nodes, and air defenses. Major seaports and airfields would be early targets for capture to facilitate follow-on reinforcements and supplies. If the People’s Liberation Army successfully gained a foothold on the island, it could present the United States and its allies with a difficult-to-reverse fait accompli. By seizing the initiative, China could limit potential options for foreign military intervention.
Despite some important distinctions, a useful comparison for China’s logistical challenges would be Operation Overlord. The Allies confronted an extended German army, fighting well outside their own territory and thinly spread along the French coastline. In contrast, Taiwan would be defending a much more concentrated territory, and its defenses would be more condensed, overlapping, and robust. There is no retreat for Taiwanese forces, only surrender, so they are likely to resist fiercely. Also, the Allies quickly secured complete air and sea superiority, which is far from guaranteed in a Taiwan conflict.
Movement of forces across the Taiwan Strait (mostly by sea) would incur high rates of attrition. Military maritime transportation capacity is heavily reliant on the mobilization of civilian resources during times of war, and China actively promotes the production of civilian roll-on/roll-off ships to support military-specific requirements. This would allow People’s Liberation Army planners the necessary maritime capacity to move an invasion army. However, not all ships are built to military specifications and their use would impact civilian activities, adversely affecting China’s economy and trade.
As most forces and logistics support will be shipborne, Chinese and Taiwanese ports represent potential bottlenecks. A cross-strait invasion would require significant buildup of forces and logistics, and Taiwanese intelligence would have ample time to build a stratified target list. Should an invasion appear imminent, heavy mining and deliberate sabotage of Taiwan’s own airport and seaport capabilities could worsen Beijing’s challenge, while Chinese ships waiting offshore to unload their cargo would be particularly vulnerable to Taiwanese fires.
Even if the People’s Liberation Army could establish and hold a beachhead, subsequent transportation of troops and supplies would be challenging. Rail networks are available but would be risky, as they are susceptible to sabotage and difficult to maintain and repair. The two main Taiwanese roadways run parallel to the coasts and are ideal for serving coastal cities, but not for the movement of forces across the island. Roadways across the island are consolidated into a small number of main arteries that are easily interdicted. If Taiwanese forces continues to field an organized military resistance, they would have numerous opportunities to disrupt People’s Liberation Army movement by exploiting natural bottlenecks such as bridges and mountain passes.
A joint island landing campaign is the most decisive approach to achieving Taiwanese reunification, but the complexity of such an operation, combined with the political, economic, and military implications of failure, make this an extremely risky gambit. Logistically, the People’s Liberation Army is not constrained by transportation capacity in moving troops and supplies across the strait. The success or failure of the campaign would also be apparent in a few weeks, thus removing many potential sustainment issues. Yet, it is in this campaign that the strongest risk of logistics interdiction exists. From air and seaports of debarkation in mainland China to difficult shore landings in Taiwan and congested or unpassable ground lines of communication on the island, there are an almost innumerable number of potential bottlenecks that could grind Chinese logistics support to a standstill. Campaign failure would be a national disgrace with possibly existential implications for the ruling party.
Looking at the role of logistics interdiction in potential Chinese military operations has important implications for Taiwan’s defense. In the first two scenarios discussed here, the People’s Liberation Army would have difficulty sustaining operations should they turn into protracted campaigns. But they would face fewer logistics interdiction risks, making these options less risky overall. However, these campaign options are unlikely to achieve the sort of quick capitulation desired by Chinese political leadership and may significantly undermine China’s international standing. By contrast, the last campaign option is the least likely to result in a protracted campaign (thus avoiding sustainment problems), yet carries serious logistics interdiction risks.
In the first two campaign options, Taiwan should focus on delaying Chinese offensive operations and surviving long enough for inherent Chinese supply chain problems to emerge, and for its allies to organize a response to force a political settlement. If facing a joint island landing campaign, Taiwan should employ an active defense, rapidly and decisively exploiting Chinese logistics vulnerabilities. If this happens, and Taiwanese resistance does not crumble, the Chinese invasion could face acute supply difficulties, or even campaign failure, in a matter of weeks, if not days.
Jacob Maywald Ph.D. is an assistant professor of logistics and supply chain management at the Air Force Institute of Technology. He is an active-duty Air Force logistics officer and has served in a variety of roles planning and executing Air Force and joint supply chain operations. He also instructs for the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Study of Air Mobility program, and this paper’s analysis was partly derived from student contributions.
Ben Hazen Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Air Force aircraft maintenance officer and currently serves as an assistant professor of operations and supply chain management at the University of Dayton. He also serves as an adjunct professor at the Air Force Institute of Technology where he teaches and researches strategic mobility and air transportation management.
Edward Salo Ph.D. is an associate professor of history at Arkansas State University. His work has been published by 1945, Inkstick, National Interest, Eunomia Journal, the Modern War Institute, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and he has presented at numerous conferences including the U.S. Military Academy Social Studies Department Security Seminar (2023).
Michael Hugos is the author of several books, including Essentials of Supply Chain Management. He is a cofounder of SCM Globe, which develops and deploys cloud-based supply chain modeling and simulation applications for use in education, business, and government.
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