US Could Lose 900 Warplanes Defending Taiwan Against China Invasion: Analysis

  • A think tank ran war game analyses for a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan.
  • One of the analysts told Insider the US and Taiwan would likely succeed in beating back a Chinese invasion.
  • However, both sides would likely suffer devastating losses. Up to 900 US warplanes could be destroyed.

The US and Taiwan would likely be able to fend off a Chinese invasion, but it would come with heavy losses on both sides, a think tank analysis says.

This week China conducted three days of military drills around Taiwan shortly after Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, traveled to the US to meeting US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The drills involved practising encirclement of the island, with Beijing considers its own, and simulating direct strikes on Taiwan from the sea, air and China’s mainland, in what some analysts described as an escalation of drills conducted in August.

The Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, conducted war games last year to imagine how such a conflict would play out.

“The good news is that at the end of all the iterations so far, there is an autonomous Taiwan,” Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Insider.

“The United States and Taiwan are generally successful in keeping the island out of Chinese occupation, but the price of that is very high – losses of hundreds of aircraft, aircraft carriers, and terrible devastation to the Taiwanese economy and also to the Chinese navy and air force.”

In one of the more pessimistic scenarios, 900 American fighter and attack aircraft would be lost in four weeks, equivalent to half of the US Air Force and Navy’s combat planes, according to The Times of London.

Potential war game losses.

Potential losses in war games.

Center for Strategic and International Studies

But while the US would likely suffer heavy losses in a full-scale conflict with China, Cancian notes that, in general, China would likely suffer more.

“I would say in most scenarios, the Chinese fleet suffers a lot more because it’s very exposed,” he said.

He noted that they would likely lose over 100 ships during an amphibious invasion.

The war games are designed to help envision how conflicts would play out. In this imagined conflict, which would take place in 2026, each side only possesses military capabilities that it has already demonstrated in real life. 

The games involve two boards with an operational map of the Western Pacific, including Taiwan, Japan, China, and counters that are moved across the board. 

The team uses computer models and combat results tables to decide what happens based on analyses of historical experience. Dice are used to add an element of randomness.

They then move onto a separate map for Taiwan, which plays out the ground game of when the Chinese land and the Taiwanese try to defend the island.

A map of Taiwan used for a war game.

A map of Taiwan used for a war games.

Center for Strategic and International Studies

Cancian pointed to one of the games, reported on by the Wall Street Journal, which involved two pessimistic elements: the US being distracted by another crisis elsewhere in the world, such as Ukraine, and the Taiwanese being slow to react because of Chinese information operations and sabotage.

Out of the 24 games conducted, 18 tested pessimistic scenarios. Although the pessimistic scenarios yielded significant better results for China, none resulted in a clear Chinese success, such as occupation of Taipei, according to the report.

Cancian said that the CSIS would suggest some improvements to US strategy which could deter China, such as buying more long-range missiles and building shelters in Guam and Japan to protect aircraft because most of the aircraft are destroyed on the ground.

The war game board.

The war game board.

Center for Strategic and International Studies

Differences over Taiwan have heightened tensions between the US and China, and some military analysts believe that China might eventually invade the island.

China has for decades pressured governments not to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation and has promised to “unify” the self-governed island with the mainland by 2050. 

The US has long attempted to maintain a delicate balance between supporting Taiwan and preventing war with China, but tensions have recently risen. 

In August of last year House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, despite China repeatedly warning her not to. 

China called it an “egregious provocation” and said it would sanction the Democrat and her family, but experts said its response was overall within its standard playbook.

Pelosi defended her trip, telling NBC: “We cannot allow the Chinese government to isolate Taiwan.” 

China conducted military drills around Taiwan following Pelosi’s visit and said that further “training and war preparation” would continue, The Guardian reported.

A five-member congressional delegation led by Democratic Sen. Ed Markey arrived in Taiwan less than two weeks after Pelosi’s visit, risking further inflaming tensions with China.

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