In CNAS-Led Taiwan Wargame, No Air Superiority, No Quick Win

In a 2027 invasion of Taiwan by China, neither side achieves air superiority, both sides take heavy losses, and China finds little hope for a fait accompli, according to a recent wargame run by the Center for a New American Security.

The game highlighted the advances China has made and is making in military technology but also drove home the likelihood that logistics will be crucial in a defense of Taiwan, especially against an opponent in close physical proximity to the action. 

Sponsored by NBC television’s “Meet the Press” public affairs show and summarized on the May 15 broadcast, the wargame posited a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in reaction to a new government in Taipei seeking to declare permanent independence from Beijing. China has viewed Taiwan as a “breakaway province” since 1949, when the Nationalists escaped to the island after losing to the Communists on the mainland. While China has long professed that it wants peaceful “reunification” with Taiwan, it has also consistently warned that it could reclaim the island—about 100 miles from the mainland—by force if Taiwan makes irreversible moves toward independence.

In recent months, many have expressed concern that China would take advantage of the West’s attention on the Russian invasion of Ukraine to move against Taiwan. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress on May 10 that the intelligence community doesn’t expect that to happen, saying China doesn’t believe it’s ready.

The “Blue Team” in the wargame was led by Michele Flournoy, chair of the CNAS board of directors, who was a short-list candidate to be Secretary of Defense under President Joe Biden. Also on that team was retired Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes, former commander of Air Combat Command, now an adjunct fellow at CNAS, as well as Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) of the House Armed Services Committee. Analysts from CNAS and other think tanks populated both teams.

After three rounds of play—representing perhaps several weeks of combat—China had “paid a tremendous cost, primarily in ships … and aircraft, and the crews that are on those ships and aircraft,” Holmes said in an interview with Air Force Magazine. However, China was “able to get a foothold on the island,” seizing much of the northern region and Taipei. The game ended with a ground war about to play out, with neither side enjoying a clear advantage.

Holmes’ takeaway was that “even though China has lots of advantages and proximity to Taiwan,” and a large magazine of weapons, “it’s still a giant effort to get a significant force across that water in the face of determined opposition.” Given the assumptions and rules of the game, “They weren’t able to get it done in that short-range timeline that they hoped.” He also noted that for the Blue forces, the logistics of getting equipment, personnel, and materiel to the fight was overwhelmingly the most important factor.

When the game ended, the U.S. and its allies had set the conditions to bring in more airpower, Holmes said, which could have provided an edge in a subsequent ground war, if the game had continued.

“At the strategic and operational levels,” the CNAS exercise “‘rhymes’ with many of the things we see in our more detailed wargaming,” Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said in a written response to questions from Air Force Magazine. He said CNAS does “outstanding work in this area” and called the exercise credible, tapping “great minds with lots of experience.” 

Asked about the result that air superiority could not be achieved by either side, Hinote said control of the air “is likely to be contested over Taiwan in a way we have not seen in a long time. We are used to dominating” in this aspect of warfare, but China has “invested in modern aircraft and weapons to fight us.” He also chalked up the air-to-air stalemate in part to the tyranny of distance in the Pacific, making it hard to “project enough power to establish and maintain control.”

There is “no one silver bullet” that will guarantee control of the air, Hinote added, which is why the Air Force is seeking a portfolio of air-to-air capabilities, including the E-7 Wedgetail AWACS replacement, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) family of systems with “crewed and uncrewed” components, and an upgraded F-22. With Congress’ help, he said, the Air Force can field new systems within the timeframe of the game, “and that would make a difference.”

The game was not geared to test individual platforms, Holmes said, noting that while the U.S. had some penetrating—read: stealthy—bombers, they were not available in large numbers. Asked if the joint all-domain command and control concept was in play, he said, “We talked a lot about China’s ability to command and control their forces and protecting our ability, but we didn’t focus on particular systems.” With two members of Congress and strategists on the Blue team, “we were kind of playing at the high level strategic decisions” rather than at the platform-versus-platform level. The systems in the fight were “those that are in the FYDP,” or future years defense plan, he said, which made it easier and more realistic than a game set more than a decade in the future, using technologies that are still notional.

The White Team—the judges—did a “very good job” of adjudicating the results, he said.

Holmes noted that the Air Force and DOD used to set such exercises in the 2030 timeframe, but a looming 2027 Party Congress in China, coupled with that country’s faster-than-expected military advance, has caused analysts to move the timetable forward as to when China could be in position to succeed in Taiwan, he said. Hinote said the Air Force sets its wargames in “multiple time epochs” to understand what the effects of various investments and fielded capabilities will be.

Attacking U.S. Bases Upfront—Blunder or Likely Move?

In the first stage of the game, China seized Taiwan’s outer islands and preemptively attacked American bases in Japan, Guam, and the Mariana Islands to slow a U.S. response to the invasion. Later, the Red Team hit Australian air bases and fuel depots being used by the U.S. Flournoy described these moves as strategic blunders because they practically “guaranteed” that Japan, Australia, and other Pacific partners would come into the war on the side of Taiwan and the U.S.

The Red Team made subsequent strikes against bases in Hawaii and Alaska, attributed to Chinese stealth bombers with standoff missiles.

Flournoy also expressed surprise that the Red Team would be overt in its invasion, saying she believes China would first make multiple feints at invasion disguised as exercises, to keep the U.S. guessing as to when the real invasion would come. This was what Russia did in building up forces in Belarus prior to invading Ukraine, she noted. The first stage also saw an inconclusive air battle over Taiwan, with U.S. aircraft flying from bases in the Philippines.

Holmes said this was also his biggest surprise—that the Red Team would lead off with a strike at U.S. assets and its allies across the Pacific. He believes China instead would “try to convince the rest of the world … to ‘mind your own business.’” 

Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, head of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a former planner for Taiwan defense at Pacific Air Forces, said the Red Team’s early aggression beyond Taiwan was “unrealistic.” Practically forcing Japan into the fight early is “counter to what we know about China’s strategy,” he said. Several Blue Team analysts noted that direct strikes against the U.S. would only heighten national will to retaliate and intervene on Taiwan’s behalf.  

However, Hinote said that the game “correctly identifies the incentive for China to open up the conflict with unprovoked attacks against U.S. basing and infrastructure, much like the Japanese decided to do in December of 1941, for many of the same reasons. The attack is designed to give Chinese forces the time they need to invade and present the world with a fait accompli.”

Joel Wuthnow of National Defense University, who headed the Red Team, said it was not a miscalculation to attack major force nodes in Japan early in the conflict.

“One of the things we discussed during the game,” he said during the broadcast, is that partners would be in the conflict “regardless of what the scenario was … Japan would be there to support the United States,” so the decision was made to attack U.S. assets in host nations early, when it would be “still relatively easier” to do so.

The move was also forced by China’s inability to swiftly “take out Taiwan’s president” and seize Taipei, which extended the fight.

At that point, Wuthnowhe said, the Red Team concluded that “we will get the prize, but we will have paid an enormous cost in national treasure.”

But, the U.S. doesn’t “plan on sitting and taking that punch,” Hinote said, declining to offer specifics but asserting that “our best response is a combination of denial and punishment that includes devastating consequences for an unprovoked attack on our homeland.”

Holmes said the Blue Team used the agile combat employment model, “working hard … to disperse forces early, all across the theater, in places where we had host nation approval.” Japan made all its bases available to the U.S., and American forces were “spread out … to complicate [China’s] targeting problem.”

The Blue Team did not attack Chinese targets far inland, striking mainly at ports and ships at sea. The “main ships” of China’s fleet were attacked to reduce the invasion force’s ability at sea to defend against air attacks, Holmes noted.

Both sides used most of what Holmes called their “exquisite” munitions in the first rounds and had to resort to less sophisticated weapons as play progressed. Asked if the Air Force’s FYDP makes sufficient strides in acquiring preferred munitions, Hinote said the fiscal 2023 budget “makes progress in this area, but there is still much to be done.”

He added, “I expect munitions to be a key area where we improve both quality and quantity over the next several years, especially in air-to-air weapons and key air-to-surface weapons, including cruise missiles and hypersonics.”

Plan to ‘End This Quickly … Didn’t Happen’

In the second and third phases, China developed a slight edge, as it got forces ashore in Taiwan, but its progress remained slow. As its frustration mounted, the Red Team conducted a “nuclear test” over the Eastern Pacific to signal that it could reach the U.S. with nuclear weapons. This did not attenuate the Blue Team’s efforts.

Holmes said the Blue Team tried to “create conditions that will allow us to bring in more concentrated air and surface/sea forces, and we were ready to do that as the game ended … because we felt like it was safer now to get them in closer.”

Stacie Pettyjohn of CNAS, who headed the White Team, said her biggest surprise in the game was “how quickly things escalated, and the fact that the Blue Team didn’t really believe” that the Red Team would go nuclear. “It seemed to me that they thought that they were bluffing, and they were willing to call that bluff.”

The Red Team’s plan was to go in with massive force and “end this quickly,” but “that didn’t happen. The Americans put up a fight. We sacrificed a lot,” Wuthnow said.

“Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd opined that the exercise showed that there needs to be a “NATO of the Pacific,” which the two members of Congress agreed would be a useful tool and should be pursued. Gallagher also said the “strategic ambiguity” the U.S. has expressed for decades, about whether it will or won’t go to Taiwan’s aid, should be resolved on Capitol Hill—because if Congress is on break when China elects to attack Taiwan, “it could be three weeks” before the body can convene to declare war and authorize the President to take action.

“I think we have an urgent need for more defense agreements in the region,” Gallagher said. “And that became very apparent … We had three treaty allies that were involved in the conflict, but we still struggled to project power where we needed to project it. We quickly, in the game, clarified the policy of strategic ambiguity.”

As for a Pacific NATO, Holmes said, “That’s something for the statesmen to work through, but we certainly need the partners.”

Gallagher also said that the wargame showed that, as with Ukraine, deterrence can fail, and “that’s why we need hard power in place prior to the conflict breaking.”

Mark Gunzinger, a research fellow at the Mitchell Institute, agreed with that sentiment, asserting that the Pentagon is “now placing too much weight on deterring a Chinese fait accompli move against Taiwan. Deterrence will not work unless China believes we have the capabilities and force capacity to prevent them from succeeding. Today, we lack both.” He said that, due to divestments being made to free money to develop and field new systems, “DOD may reach a force capacity nadir around 2027, the year the wargame was fought.” It’s highly risky to bet too much on “integrated deterrence,” he said, which “assumes away some capacity shortfalls which would require additional defense spending.”

Gunzinger, who has written extensively on munitions stockpiles and capabilities, said that while both sides would, as the game suggested, use up “exquisite” weapons early, China’s “munitions inventory is much deeper than Russia’s” and it would be foolish to assume China would run out as quickly as Russia has in Ukraine.

Deptula observed that “it does not take a wargame to realize that if we are planning to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan, [Taiwan needs] to be supplied and prepared to defend themselves against a [Chinese] aggression now, vice waiting to re-arm and resupply them after the conflict begins.” The U.S. military lacks enough systems and equipment “to execute and sustain its own contribution to a successful defense of Taiwan, much less adequately supply Taiwan” with the weapons it needs, he said.

He also noted that “last-century agreements” such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, which limits the platforms and munitions the U.S. can provide to some countries, “must be eliminated, as they impose limits on assisting U.S. friends and allies while enhancing China’s military advantage.”

The broadcast exercise was useful in that it gave a wide number of viewers a basis for a “conversation” about China and Taiwan, in the context of Ukraine “and what we can do to keep that from happening in Taiwan,” Holmes said. Gunzinger noted that including members of Congress and their staffers in such exercises helps “open some eyes.”