At the most recent meeting of the Aspen Strategy Group — which includes current and former senators, former senior officials, retired military, leading academics and analysts — a number of the participants expressed considerable doubt about whether the United States could defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, or even whether it would attempt to do so. Behind the concerns voiced at Aspen, Colo., was the shadow of a potentially brutal Chinese paramilitary operation to crush the dissenters in Hong Kong. The fear was that once Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy toward Hong Kong was terminated, Taiwan would be next.
Moreover, they argued, there is no way Washington could send two carriers into the Taiwan Strait, as it did during the 1996 crisis, causing Beijing to back down from its threat to subjugate the island. Having determined that it never again would be forced to submit to such a humiliating retreat, the Chinese Communist government has spent the past two decades modernizing and expanding its forces to respond to any potential threat of American attack.
Indeed, many analysts doubt whether American carriers could even operate within what has been termed “the first island chain” — Japan, northern Philippines and Taiwan — which is now within the range of Chinese land-based DF-21D and DF 26 anti-ship ballistic missiles. Moreover, given what they view as America’s dismal prospects for defending Taiwan, several participants also argued that aircraft carriers, in general, are so highly vulnerable that the time has come to begin phasing them out of the fleet. At a minimum, they argue the Navy should at least to halt any new construction of these $13 billion mastodons.
It is certainly true that the threat to aircraft carriers is far more serious today than it was in the second half of the 20th century. Moreover, there is little doubt that carrier tactics and operations in support of Taiwan will continue to be far more difficult than in the past. That does not mean, however, that carriers are obsolete, as their critics contend, or that the defense of Taiwan is nothing more than a pipe dream.
To begin with, it is not as if the Navy has just awakened to the existence of the two Chinese anti-ship missiles, or to China’s determined development of its maritime capabilities, including in the cyber realm. The hypersonic DF-21 was first tested over a decade ago; the DF-26 at least two years ago; and analysts, including Chinese analysts, have been describing their capabilities for nearly as long. The Navy has not been sitting still since then, and analysts have been describing some of its countermeasures in open literature for some time.
It is certain, however, that the Navy’s most potent countermeasures have not been described in the public sphere. Nor are they likely to be. Such countermeasures come in two forms. Some are operational and tactical, which incorporate leading-edge technologies that are widely known but are applied in innovative ways.
The second category are countermeasures that remain highly classified — so-called “black programs.” The very classification of these systems renders them less than optimal in wartime, however. This is the case either because they are not incorporated into war games, or because they are unlikely to be employed in battle by sailors unfamiliar with their capabilities.
The inability of war gamers to incorporate these systems in their games is of special concern because, as was noted at the Aspen Strategy meeting, some war games involving Taiwan have resulted in American defeat. Were these “black programs” incorporated into the Navy’s games on a regular basis, the outcomes could well be different. While the details of the games would remain classified (as are most Navy war games), their outcomes could be publicized. Were that the case, Chinese military planners, who otherwise might be buoyed by reports of war games that resulted in American maritime “losses” in a war over Taiwan, would be forced to think again. So, too, would potential defeatists in Taiwan itself.
The United States has been committed to the security of Taiwan since the 1949 communist takeover of the mainland. It has maintained that commitment ever since, the 1979 China Relations Act’s recognition of the People’s Republic by Washington notwithstanding. At a time when American reliability is being questioned around the world, signaling uncertainty about America’s ability to defend Taiwan would further undermine Washington’s standing as a credible ally, especially in East Asia.
On the other hand, reaffirming that Washington’s longtime strategy of deterrence, based primarily on the power of American maritime and air forces, remains solidly intact would signal that Washington’s national security policy is more than just words on paper.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.