In the last year, United States military and political officials have vacillated between warning of a Chinese attack against Taiwan by about mid-decade, and then walk-back cautions that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are not quite ready for that war.
Such dissonance is to be expected from a large democracy, especially as the very crisis looms larger, with rising conflict between imperatives to warn and assure, which then obscures what is urgent: the US can decisively deter the CCP from its war by an emergency revival of US tactical nuclear capabilities.
A message of assurance was offered during a March 2, 2020 Washington, DC Hudson Institute address by US Department of Defense IndoPacific Affairs Assistant Secretary Ely Ratner, who said “Deterrence is real, deterrence is strong,” adding China would likely not invade Taiwan before the end of this decade.
Warning and assurance were offered on February 26 by US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, telling the CBS TV show Face The Nation, “We do know, as has been made public, that President Xi (習近平) has instructed the PLA, the Chinese military leadership, to be ready by 2027 to invade Taiwan... I think our judgment at least is that President Xi and his military leadership have doubts today about whether they could accomplish that invasion.”
Earlier on January 27 a furor was created by the broad leaking to the press of a February 1 internal memo to his subordinates from US Air Force Mobility Command Commander General Michael Minihan, which stated:
“I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025. [Chinese President Xi Jinping] secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022. Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”
A more urgent warning was offered during an October 5, 2022 talk to the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, by US Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday, saying:
“What we’ve seen over the past 20 years is that they have delivered on every promise they’ve made earlier than they said they were going to deliver on it... When we talk about the 2027 window, in my mind, that has to be a 2022 window or potentially a 2023 window; I can’t rule it out.”
Gilday’s point is that China could decide to initiate military action at any time, which is the optimal assessment.
For the next two to four years the relative balance of power in Asia will favor China, meaning there will be great pressure on Xi Jinping to consider an early war to conquer Taiwan.
While the US is finally producing new short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles, they will not be deployed in Asia in numbers until the 2025 to 2027 time frame.
Meanwhile, the PLA may have 2,000 to 4,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, depending on the number of missions of their 6x cruise missile carrying 125+ H-6K/J/N bombers.
Most alarming, for decades the PLA has been assembling a Maritime Militia of large ferry ships, thousands of large river barges and thousands of fishing ships that could support multiple invasion waves of 100,000 troops plus their armor and support forces.
And if the PLA can capture Taiwan’s large airports and air bases, it will use a large proportion of its 3,000 Airbus and Boeing airliners to accelerate the transport of invasion and occupation forces.
China has built North Korea into a nuclear missile state capable of diverting US military attention with nuclear terror events, or heavy conventional and nuclear aggression against South Korea and Japan.
China may now provide military aid to reenergize Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, adding pressure to its exhausted defenders and forcing the diversion of more Western military resources, which since February 2022 has amounted to over $62 billion with over $44 billion from the US — military resources the US cannot use to reinforce Taiwan.
By aiding Russia’s invasion now, China will better ensure that Moscow will not be defeated and that Russian naval, air, and even army forces might join China’s invasion of Taiwan.
But if China heeds a crucial lesson from Russia’s failure to attack Ukraine with sufficient mass, it will strike Taiwan with as much surprise and as much mass as possible with an invasion fleet of thousands of ferries, barges and Boeing-Airbus airliners.
The key question for Washington is whether it can regard a Chinese decision to strike Taiwan with overwhelming mass as an opportunity, a chance to decisively destroy and thus deter China’s existential threat to Taiwan, by the emergency production and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.
The Biden Administration’s 2022 decision to cancel the Trump Administration’s tactical nuclear warhead armed Tomahawk cruise missile was a strategic mistake; it will serve no higher purpose than to tempt China to initiate an early war against Taiwan.
As such, the US should initiate a crash program to rebuild its theater nuclear forces, to include tactical nuclear artillery shells, tactical nuclear bombs, tactical nuclear warheads for cruise missiles, and new short to intermediate range ballistic missiles.
The most important of these would be low-yield tactical nuclear artillery shells, that the US deployed in Europe and Asia until the George H.W. Bush and Clinton Administrations decided to retire and destroy them.
Retired from US service in 1992, the W48 155-millimeter tactical nuclear artillery shell had a reported yield of 0.072 kilotons, or 72 tons of TNT, or roughly the weapons loads of three US Boeing B-52 bombers.
As a new rocket-boosted tactical nuclear artillery shell may only have a range of 70 to 100 kilometers it will be a defensive weapon, unable to attack the Chinese mainland.
However, the ability to fire 100 or so of these low-yield tactical nuclear artillery shells would devastate, possibly sink most of a PLA invasion force concentrated on thousands of ferries and barges, which would then render futile an airborne assault supported by very light vehicles.
While it would be optimal to deploy them covertly to Taiwan, nuclear artillery shells could also be airlifted from Guam or covertly stored in underwater locations very close to Taiwan.
If Xi Jinping understands that most of his invasion force will be sent to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait, he may then be less likely to order an invasion of Taiwan. The prospect of similar devastation to their invasion forces could also decisively deter North Korea and Russia.
Today the US has a small number, perhaps less than 50, of the W76-2, a 5-kiloton (5,000 tons of TNT) tactical nuclear weapon that has to be launched by Trident submarine launched ballistic missile, that unfortunately could be regarded by China as a strategic nuclear attack justifying a much larger Chinese nuclear retaliation against the US.
For global commitments the US may have about 500 of multiple versions of the B-61 tactical nuclear bomb, which can be “dialed down” to .03 kilotons or 300 tons of TNT. But these will have to be delivered by 4th generation non-stealthy US Air Force F-15E or F-16 fighters that may not survive long range PLA S-400 or HQ-9B anti-aircraft missiles that would be covering PLA invasion forces.
This is simply insufficient to achieve deterrence.
The US must seek to balance a robust theater nuclear force with a much larger strategic nuclear deterrent now that Russia has “suspended” its adherence to the 2010 New START nuclear arms control treaty and China is building up to a force of 3,000 to 4,000 nuclear warheads.
The main point is that US political and military leaders do not have to raise anxieties in the US and Taiwan by making constant warnings of a horrific Chinese invasion.
They can produce decisive assurance by rapidly reviving US theater nuclear capabilities while increasing strategic nuclear forces, to more efficiently deter Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin from considering new wars of conquest.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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