A flotilla of Chinese naval vessels in a live combat drill in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

The Pentagon’s recently released 2019 China Military Power Report says PLA forces cannot conduct a full-scale amphibious assault on Taiwan – and are “less likely” planning for one.

The report claims the PLA does not have enough amphibious ships – and isn’t building enough of them either.  In military jargon, the PLA lacks “lift.”

In terms of the newest modern amphibious ships, it’s true China has only five large Type 071 amphibious transport docks. However, three more are in the works or outfitting, and the bigger Type 075 helicopter carrier is reportedly now in production.

But here’s what matters most: an amphibious ship needn’t be the newest model or, as the Americans seem to think, cost $1 billion each. The PLA Navy already has about 50 older amphibious ships that are more than capable of making the trip across the Taiwan Strait and disgorging PLA Marines, and by 2030 it will have more than 70 amphibious ships in total.

The US Marines have been complaining for years that they only have “thirty-some” amphibious ships to handle their worldwide requirements – and this is not enough.  The Chinese have more ships than that – and need not cover the globe. Instead, they can concentrate on the 90-mile wide Taiwan Strait.

Additionally, China has a boatload, to use the precise term, of commercial ferries, roll-on-roll-off ships and other ad hoc amphibious vessels, including barges, that would serve the purpose of moving troops and equipment across the Strait. And the PLA Navy has experience incorporating civilian vessels into military exercises.

Tens of thousands

To suggest that because the PLA Navy only has a few of the most modern amphibious ships they don’t have the “lift” to get enough troops and equipment ashore on Taiwan is missing the bigger picture. With the right weather and sea conditions, and with proper “cover,” the Chinese could get at least a few tens of thousand troops ashore in a day.

The PLA Marine Corps is scheduled to expand from its current 20,000 to upwards of 30,000 Marines – and quite possibly a lot more. This will take some time, although with the Chinese it’s usually less time than Western experts predict.

And often overlooked is the fact the PLA already has 50,000-60,000 amphibiously trained mechanized infantry. These army “marines” are intended as follow-on forces after the Marines seize a beachhead – but potentially can serve as the first wave, even now.

Just as importantly, the Chinese are doing the necessary training and planning needed to master amphibious operations. President Xi Jinping told the PLA to prepare to take on Taiwan by 2020, and it is doing so.

The Pentagon report points out that Chinese Marines aren’t yet fully trained and the PLA is not fully capable of the large-scale joint operations that characterize major amphibious assaults. Maybe so. But sometimes a force just has to be “good enough” to do a certain thing at a certain time in a certain place – rather than being and acting like a carbon copy of the USN/USMC amphibious force.

One also gets a whiff in the Pentagon report that amphibious operations are just so complex that the Chinese will never quite master them adequately to have a proper go at Taiwan.

But consider how well the PLA has done with aircraft carrier operations, which much of the Western defense commentariat and even many American military officers said would take years, if not decades. Amphibious operations are no harder than carrier operations.

Multipronged effort

Another point to consider is that an amphibious assault on Taiwan would only be one part of a multipronged effort, including missile assaults, special forces operations and possibly an airborne assault, paralyzing cyber-attacks, subversion and efforts to cut communications and satellite links.

The PLA Air Force would swarm and eventually render Taiwan’s air force extinct, in addition to hammering Taiwanese military and civilian targets.

PLA Navy submarines and surface combatants would also be out in force, dominating the Taiwan Strait and maybe the east side of Formosa too. Slipping in the amphibious assault force in this environment is feasible – assuming Chinese leaders are willing to accept the attendant casualties.

And that is a reasonable assumption given the nature of the Chinese Communist Party and its past behavior.

Of course, rather than invading, China prefers to economically and politically strangle Taiwan until it submits. But preferring not to do something doesn’t mean it cannot be done.

Ripple effects

So in purely military terms, and without considering the political and economic damage to the PRC from such an attack, and the possibility of US and Japanese forces stepping in, a Chinese amphibious assault is already feasible.

Still, an amphibious assault on Taiwan won’t be cheap and might even fail. And the ripple effects in China, the region and beyond are frightening. Indeed, the possibility of a broader war and the cessation of China’s international trade, for starters, are perhaps more of a restraint on Beijing attacking Taiwan than are the PLA’s current military shortcomings.

In fairness, the Pentagon report is informative and generally well done, but in places – such as a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan – it reminds some readers that a couple of generations of US defense analysts and China experts – both civilian and military – have consistently downplayed risks from Chinese military development.

Despite a military build-up that has come farther and faster than any country in history, and despite the PRC having no enemies, we often heard, and sometimes still do: ‘China has no global ambitions,’ ‘they only want to protect their coastal waters,’ ‘all great powers need a great military to defend their interests,’ ‘we’re way ahead of them,’ ‘we spend three times more than them,’ ‘they haven’t fought a war since 1979,’ etc.

And if there was anything to worry about it was, and often still is: “Maybe 10 years from now.” Those who argued otherwise were ridiculed and ostracized.

But Beijing, even before Xi Xinping, has always been clear about what it has in mind for Taiwan – if it can get away with it.

One wonders if the Pentagon is equally clear on the matter.

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