A full-scale amphibious invasion is obviously the most serious form of military action the PRC could undertake against Taiwan, and would constitute a military “culminating point” in the relationship between the two entities. For the PLA, full-scale invasion constitutes an ultimate solution if the PRC perceives its unification goal and territory threatened, or the ongoing dispute is deemed impossible to be solved in any other way. From a military perspective, it will involve neighboring countries, a sensitive interregional area, and will necessarily greatly change the international political climate and global political affairs. From a financial standpoint, an invasion would obviously affect the global economy. From a military perspective, the PRC would have to expect that Taiwan would likely be assisted by a coalition of strong enemies acting to prohibit the PRC from unifying Taiwan by force, with a high probability that PRC forces would have to fight multiple enemies, not just the forces of Taiwan.37 Under these circumstances, the PLA may employ the Second Artillery to undertake sustained missile bombardment, with the objective of forcing Taiwan to plead for peace before possible foreign powers can intervene, and thus creating an irreversible fait accompli before international intervention can work to thwart the PRC’s aggressive plans.38
Former Taiwan Deputy Minister of National Defense Lin Chong-pin, in an interview during a visit to London in 2009, told a Central News Agency journalist that using military force to attack Taiwan is the PRC’s final choice. To fight quickly and win quickly, he believed, the PLA will not resort to blockade, since blockades take time and provoke international outrage and intervention. Rather, he said, since 1990, the PLA has stressed quick and decisive military action, embodied in the slogan “First battle decides the war”; the PLA, he believed, would seek to launch and win an amphibious action “probably within one week”39
Since ancient times, amphibious operations have historically been extremely difficult to prosecute. Even for highly trained forces possessing asymmetric advantages in power projection, landing in the face of opposition has proven costly, even if ultimate victory has been secured. Such landings are recognized by military experts from the PRC, Taiwan, and the United States as among the most demanding and risky of all military operations.40 The U. S. Department of Defense has noted the following:41
Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military maneuvers. Success depends upon air and sea superiority, rapid buildup and sustainment of supplies on shore, and uninterrupted support. An attempt to invade Taiwan would strain China’s untested armed forces and invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with China’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency (assuming a successful landing and breakout), make amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk. Taiwan’s investments to harden infrastructure and strengthen defensive capabilities could also decrease Beijing’s ability to achieve its objectives.
An island landing invasion would involve joint operations by the PLA Ground Force, PLAN, PLAAF, and Second Artillery, supported by the People’s Armed Police (PAP), PLA Reserve Force, and Militia, all acting in accordance with a unified joint campaign plan and command structure.42 It would involve most, and potentially all, aspects of land, sea, air, and electronic warfare, including use of space-based assets and cyber attack. The crucial PLA challenge, obviously, would be circumventing or breaching Taiwan’s shore defenses, establishing and building a beachhead, transporting personnel and materiel to designated landing sites along Taiwan’s western coastline, and launching attacks to seize and occupy key targets or the entire island.43
PLA amphibious doctrine logically sets forth the progression of an amphibious operation in three phases: preliminary operations, embarkation and movement, and assaulting and establishing the beach-head. Each of these is addressed below, based upon Zhang Yuliang’s Science of Campaigns.44
Preliminary Operations are undertaken to paralyze an enemy’s operational system, to seize the initiative in the battle, and to set the conditions for amphibious landing operations. The missions in this phase include seizing information dominance via electronic combat and cyber warfare, and air and sea dominance via a comprehensive opening air and missile strike. Information dominance of the landing battle is the critical element of seizing air and sea dominance and the initiative of battle. The purpose is to greatly reduce the opponent’s capability of electronic equipment and secure the PRC’s own electronic warfare efficiency. Generally, it will start before the comprehensive fire assault, or at the same time, and will be proceeding throughout the whole battle process. Besides using airborne electronic countermeasures against Taiwan’s air defense equipment, the PLA is likely to use precisely targeted special operations forces against Taiwan’s electronic infrastructures, since use of broader – effect attacks, such as electromagnetic pulse weapons (EMP) or broad-area cyber attacks, might affect the PRC as much as Taiwan.
A preliminary comprehensive raid would employ missiles and other airborne fires to strike essential targets like command structures, air and naval bases, missile sites, and air defense systems in a sudden, massive, overwhelming manner. The purpose would be to paralyze Taiwan’s military operations, incapacitate its warfighting abilities, and thereby set up favorable conditions for seizing information, air, and sea dominance. In general, this action would consist of a primary raid, and follow-up raids.45 The first raid is the most critical, involving joint force attack by missiles and the service air components, particularly Second Artillery and the PLAAF.
Considering likely risk, efficiency, penetration, and costs, the PLA would probably choose SRBMs to execute the first raid. The high-priority targets of the raid might be SAMs, air defense radars, and fighter bases, because these targets, if untouched, could inflict heavy losses on PRC follow-on air and surface forces. The follow-on raids would be based on the result of the first raid. If the first raid degraded Taiwan’s air defenses sufficiently so that PLAAF attack aircraft could operate with relative safety, then following raids would likely use aircraft primarily. Otherwise, follow-on attacks might continue to employ SRBMs until conditions favorable for PRC air dominance over Taiwan were achieved. Once Taiwan’s integrated air defense system (IADS) had been destroyed or seriously degraded by SRBMs, the PRC’s aircraft would become more active, furnishing a more precise, flexible, functional, and efficient means to apply military force in support of PRC campaign objectives.
Thus, the type, frequency, and interval of follow-on raids depend on the assessed battle damage and recovery time of Taiwan’s air defense ability. This is, it might be noted, a very different form of air attack from that employed by coalition forces during the opening hours of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. In that case, there was essentially no pause for assessment between the first and follow-on strikes. Rather, following the first paralyzing strike by stealth aircraft and cruise missiles, a follow-on “gorilla package” strike was immediately undertaken.
This strike, enhanced by UAS systems mimicking manned aircraft, intimidated the surviving elements of Iraq’s air defense network into revealing themselves so that they could be jammed by EW and destroyed by coalition SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) strikes. After this second strike, Iraq had essentially lost any hope of maintaining any semblance of air control over its own territory. Nonstealthy coalition aircraft could then fly with relative impunity across Iraq for the next 6 weeks of war.46 In contrast, the PLAs writings imply a longer assessment period between the initial opening strike and follow-on attacks.
According to a RAND study, about 60-200 submunition-equipped SRBMs could temporarily neutralize most of Taiwan’s fighter bases. They could effectively suppress Taiwan air defense operations, allowing follow-on PLAAF strike aircraft to attack air bases and other targets with modern precision weapons.47
Seizing air dominance by conducting surprising, fierce, continuing, and precision strikes is thus a crucial prerequisite for any landing force’s grouping, embarkation, navigation, assault, and landing. Operations would be mainly conducted by the PLAAF, and joined by the Ground Force, PLAN, and Second Artillery, suppressing the enemy on the ground or jointly destroying the enemy in the air.48 Unless Taiwan’s air defense assets are mobile, bombproof, invisible, quickly recoverable, redundant, and numerous, the result can only get worse when the PLAAF is able to strike freely across the island. Seizing sea dominance would primarily involve the PLAN, joined by the PLAAF, ground forces, and Second Artillery, working together to control the area of the anticipated naval campaign, securing the landing force’s abilities to undertake embarkation, seaborne transportation (coupled with defensive mine sweeping), and the assault landing.49 The naval campaign poses challenges for both sides. Given the profusion and range of the antiship weapons available to both sides, it is difficult for both the PLAN and Taiwan naval forces to hide and survive in the Taiwan Strait because of its limited and constrained operational space.
Preparatory attacks against Taiwan’s coastal defenses prior to an amphibious landing invasion would be mainly conducted by the PLAAF, joined by ground forces, PLAN, and Second Artillery forces. Depending upon the results of the previous missile and air attacks, PRC forces would seek to destroy enemy coastal defense facilities, artillery positions, missiles, radar sites, command structures, communication nodes, and other key targets. Through these, the PRC would seek to reduce enemy defense capability, stop enemy movements, isolate the landing area, and create favorable conditions for landing PLA ground forces.50
Embarkation and movement would proceed upon the basis of successful preliminary operations. The mission of embarkation is organizing landing forces, with their attendant logistical requirements, and loading them for transportation. Movement means all formation of landing forces en route to the respective staging area from the rendezvous area. According to a Jamestown Foundation study by Dennis Blasko, the PLAN lacks strategic sealift capacity, and thus cannot meet the requirements of a full-scale amphibious landing invasion against Taiwan, at least in the short term.51 If this is the case, the PLA should employ more than one wave of amphibious fleets in a secured environment when it intends to invade Taiwan directly. The embarkation point must be a short distance from landing beaches to reduce time spent at sea. This is quite risky, for PLAN forces would be under near-constant Taiwan countersea attacks. Since, as Blasko notes, “Naval units from the South Sea Fleet would have to travel at least 500 nautical miles and those from the North Sea Fleet would have to travel at least 700 nautical miles to reach Taiwan,” the employment of fires against PLAN forces would be near-constant, and grow ever more deadly as forces came within reach of increasingly numerous shorter – range weapons, such as aircraft, sea – or-land-based antiship missiles, coastal gun fire, and battlefield rocket artillery such as the multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS).52
Assaulting and establishing the beach-head is primarily conducted by landing groups and assisted by other services to fight and assure the joint operation’s success. In the view of PLA analysts, it is the most critical of any of the invasion’s operational phases, the time of greatest stress, intensity, difficulty, and decisiveness. It is incumbent upon the invasion commander to assure the landing operations are successful by all means. The landing beach must be as swiftly established as possible after the first echelon of landing forces have assaulted and secured the beach front, and then developed rapidly in depth so that follow-on landing forces can exploit it. All these operations must be assisted by on-call, persistent, close air support, which would be provided primarily by the PLAAF.53