Russia’s invasion of Ukraine set off a flurry of handwringing over Taiwan. Russia, in this interpretation, “broke the ice” by attacking Ukraine, emboldening China versus Taiwan. But any such action by China would likely run into a similar buzzsaw of resistance, while lacking Russian advantages such as access to overland transit. Ukraine is not Taiwan, and regardless of what Chinese leadership thinks they are learning about the benefits of naked aggression, the People’s Liberation Army lacks the necessary power projection and sustainment capability and capacity to execute an opposed occupation of a densely urbanized island packed with citizens who have no interest in living under Communist rule.
Since 1949, when the defeated Kuomintang retreated to Formosa, the Chinese Communist Party has maintained the fictional goal of “reunifying” Taiwan by force. That’s never been possible. Even after a victory on the mainland, China has never had the capability to take Taiwan, particularly in the face of US opposition in three successive Taiwan Strait crises. While the Chinese military has strengthened, re-organized, and reequipped with new technology, it’s still not possible. Yet despite publicly releasing data that shows how inadequate Chinese amphibious capabilities are, the Pentagon has dreaded the Taiwan scenario for over 20 years. The conventional wisdom remains that improvements in technology and capacity will somehow allow China to invade the island, notably highlighted in 2021 when Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Phil Davidson, postulated a Chinese attack against Taiwan by 2027. Adm. Charles Richard doubled down in early May, stating that China is “watching the war in Ukraine closely and will likely use nuclear coercion to their advantage in the future. Their intent is to achieve the military capability to reunify Taiwan by 2027 if not sooner.” It’s not clear what analysis backs up these assertions, as long-running studies of the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute regularly conclude the opposite: China lacks the capability and the capacity to handle a full-scale invasion against a defended island country. Instead of viewing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as encouragement of authoritarian neighbors, China and the United States should look at it as a cautionary tale about what happens when amateurs go to war.
One key fact about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is that it is a party army first and a professional army second. It has not engaged in any major ground combat action since 1979, when the Chinese military invaded Vietnam, which ended in disaster for the aggressors. Vietnam was able to successfully resist, causing such a high casualty count that China was forced to withdraw due simply to attrition and the inability of the PLA to supply their own forces for combat operations. Looking further back we find that China’s navy has never fought a combat action of any significant size, intensity, or duration. China’s air force last participated in combat operations in the 1955 Yijiangshan Campaign, when they were used as aerial bombardment assets, targeting fixed positions. China’s military still struggles with joint operations. It has not had to plan a logistical campaign or deal with evacuation efforts for large numbers of casualties. All of these issues together would seem to spell doom for a complex, amphibious campaign.
Historical Background: The Invasion of Sicily
Amphibious or airborne assaults are the hardest joint operations to undertake and they are always a learning experience. Rather than assemble a list of advanced Chinese equipment and match it against a similar list for Taiwan, it is more instructive to look at what it takes to assault a populated island. There is a long list of comparative cases from World War II, ranging from the Pacific island-hopping campaign to the invasion of Madagascar, the air assault on Crete, and the allied invasion of Sicily. The last is the closest analog based on terrain, size, distance covered by the invasion force, and logistical demands.
American amphibious operations in the European theater in World War II started with Operation Torch, launched from the United States, in 1942. This was an operation with training wheels, against a collaborationist Vichy French regime with limited combat power. The U.S. Army, with no relevant combat experience, made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of lessons. The force gained additional combat experience, some of it the hard way, against the German Afrika Korps and Italian forces in North Africa. This experience informed Operation Husky, the assault on Sicily, where the Allies executed a successful precursor assault upon the island of Pantelleria in June, something the Chinese might have to conduct against outlying Taiwanese islands. In terms of soldiers in the assault force, Husky was larger than Operation Overlord would be 11 months later, landing more troops at a larger number of beaches, and over a greater frontage.
Axis forces were under Italian command and included an understrength German panzer division, a mechanized division, and the elite Italian Livorno motorized rifle division, all embedded in two underequipped and poorly trained Italian Army Corps consisting mainly of local forces too feeble to be worth deploying to North Africa. The total troop count is uncertain, but was at least 132,000 Italian soldiers and 40,000 German, along with some 260 tanks. Within the command structure were a few poison pills, as the German forces had a separate chain of command and didn’t answer to the Corps commander. Additionally, both the population of Sicily and the Italian forces in Sicily were largely opposed to Italy’s fascist regime and alliance with Nazi Germany. With too few “reliable” forces to defend the island at the beaches, German forces were assembled as a central reserve, to respond to an enemy assault. Even so, because of Operation Mincemeat, a well-executed deception campaign, the Germans were convinced that the southern front would be opened in Greece. Even though Luftwaffe reconnaissance had detected the task force, a sudden left turn into Sicily during “unlandable” weather caught the defenders by surprise.
The assault occupied every piece of available allied naval and auxiliary shipping in the theater, which was so hard pressed that no carriers of any size, even escort carriers, could be freed up. The Allied Task Force came from Bizerte and Tunis, 350 miles to the west, and consisted of some 2950 ships and an assault force of over 160,000 men. This made the operation one of the largest combined operations of the war and the largest amphibious assault wave ever launched. The choice of where to land on Sicily took into account a number of factors, including the range of Allied land-based airpower, the need to concentrate the force, and the British concern that they could not support an operation logistically without a deepwater port. The British 8th Army and the Canadian Division planned to access the deep-water Port of Syracuse, while the Americans would target the smaller port of Licata and the airfields at Ponte Olivo, Biscari, and Comiso. The Americans cut a deal to get 1000 tons per day through Syracuse from D+14 onwards, an option they never exercised.
Naval gunfire support against enemy armor. Viewed from LST-325, USS Boise (CL-47) fires on enemy forces near Gela, Sicily, on July 11, 1943. .50 caliber machine guns on several of the loaded trucks are manned for air defense, under the direction and supervision of Navy gunnery officers. (Sgt. Crosnan, Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives)
Looking solely at the American (Western) Task Force, the assault force consisted of 316 amphibious ships with a combined tonnage of around 780,000 tons, capable of carrying 72,000 soldiers and 122,000 tons of cargo and vehicles. The assault wave was equipped with almost 1000 landing craft and small boats not counted in the total ship count, plus amphibious trucks and pontoon systems that were used to cross the surf line from grounded vessels. Supporting these assault ships were tankers, hospital ships, ammunition ships, and various “standard” cargo ships that had not been converted to amphibious ships. In two days, this force put ashore a combined total of 66,285 personnel, 17,766 tons of cargo, and an astounding 7,416 vehicles, all without access to a deep-water port.
Guided by dedicated shore party teams, the over-the-shore effort was complicated but well-choreographed. The biggest problem in the American sector was moving landed supplies off the beaches, as the boats could deliver supplies faster than the trucks could move them. The small port of Licata could handle five tank landing ships at once and accepted its first by 1600 on D-Day. Licata and the American beaches would supply the entire 7th Army until the capture of Palermo, and support it well.
At the American beaches, the warships supporting the operation included one Royal Navy monitor on loan, five cruisers, and 48 destroyers, plus mine warfare craft, PT boats, and landing craft configured for fire support rather than transport.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. The Navy’s action report explained what happened and how tasks were accomplished, but is riddled with observations of what went wrong and what corrections were needed to prevent a recurrence. Nearly every aspect of the operation suffered from inadequacies in planning and execution, but none were serious enough to force even a momentary pause in offensive operations, a testament to the experience gained in North Africa. Allied reinforcements were flowing in rapidly, and would eventually reach a total of 467,000 Allied forces deployed on the island, even while the Germans deployed elite parachute and mechanized infantry to bolster their forces. The Allies had more to bring, and they brought it faster — despite having further to travel.
Empty six-inch shell casings litter the foredeck of USS Brooklyn (CL-40) on the morning of July 10, 1943. (US Navy via National Archives)
The gunfire support available was extensive, accurate, and supported by both shore parties and aerial observation. The Light Cruisers Brooklyn, Birmingham, Savannah, Boise, and Philadelphia were, excepting Birmingham, Brooklyn-class cruisers mounting 15 six-inch guns with 200 rounds per gun capable of a combined rate of fire of 150 rounds per minute, with another eight 5-inch guns as secondary armament. Each had four observation aircraft, many of which did not survive the first few days. The destroyers (like the Sims or Gleaves-class) had five 5-inch guns capable of firing between 15 and 22 rounds per minute with 150 rounds per gun. On D+1, during the series of counterattacks against Gela, the naval gunfire was so intense that two destroyers ran out of ammunition and had to retire. Over the first 48 hours, the fire support ships fired 3766 shells. The heavier rounds from the cruisers were devastatingly effective, even against moving armor, and completely outmatched any Axis artillery available on Sicily.
When we look at the Chinese equivalent, it becomes clear that the Chinese military simply does not have the naval assets or the auxiliary forces necessary to execute an amphibious operation on the necessary scale. The count of every PLAN amphibious ship currently operational or known to be under construction, plus naval troop-carrying auxiliaries, totals up to 128 ships of 744,370 tons, but their aggregate personnel, cargo, and vehicle capacity are less than half that of the older WWII vessels. Adding on the older PLA tank landing ships not owned by the Navy does not nearly make up the difference. Furthermore, the total PRC inventory of small landing craft is less than half of what the Americans had embarked off Sicily, limiting the size and number of landing waves. While the PLAN has helicopters ad Operation Husky did not, the PLAN is in the unenviable position of having fewer navalized transport helicopters than the theoretical capacity of their existing and planned fleet. Helicopters will not substitute for the personnel landing craft, although they can deliver payloads beyond the shoreline — in a benign environment.
Comparing naval gunfire support capabilities between the Western Task Force at Sicily and an equivalent modern Chinese naval task force, the on-call fire support available to the American forces on Sicily was staggering. With five cruisers and seven destroyers on station, the available weight of fire was over a million and a half pounds of ordnance without reloading. (The effect of the monitor’s 15-inch guns is not included here because there is no modern comparison available). An equivalent force of PLAN cruisers and destroyers barely scrapes up a sixth of that, and it’s clear that seven World War II-era destroyers alone could deliver more fire than the entire notional Chinese naval task force, despite firing a lighter weight shell.
|Gun||Shell Wt (lb)||Guns/Ship||Rounds/Gun||Ship ROF||Ships||Available Rounds||Weight of Fire|
Naval fire support volume comparison
Over the Shore Logistics
Equipment comparisons aside, it is not entirely clear that China has the logistical capabilities to move a large force ashore and support it. In an amphibious operation, getting all of the pieces and parts together in the proper sequence is a major challenge, and there is simply no substitute for combat experience. While two of the three landing zones in the American Zone were assaulted by green troops, the logisticians who planned and executed the assault were experienced and had the benefit of previous direct experience, to say nothing of lessons trickling in from the Pacific theater. Attempting an assault where every member of the planning staff and execution team is inexperienced is a recipe for confusion, if not outright catastrophe. The challenges faced from a logistical standpoint are greater than they were in 1943. Vehicles are heavier, fuel and ammunition consumption is higher, and captured gasoline is not terribly useful for the powerful diesel engines used by most fighting vehicles. The electronic systems of modern AFVs require them to be running most of the time, so that even standing still has a fuel penalty — a point illustrated well in Ukraine.
If a Chinese force is to effectively sustain itself in combat operations, it needs to bring up support forces, none of which can swim aboard by themselves and only a small fraction of which can fit in the LSTs. That means that ports are not optional, but the difference in ship designs between the 1930s and today has effects that reduce the ability to lift vehicles rather than increase it. Today’s container ships are not particularly useful for transporting vehicles and are largely dependent on intact port facilities for offload. Container ships with onboard cranes, called “geared” ships, do exist but compose less than 10% of the global container ship fleet. Thus, in order to transport containerized cargo, the Chinese military will need to gain control of a port.
The obvious method of movement of large numbers of vehicles is to use vehicle carriers, ranging from the big, dedicated roll-on/roll-off ships to seagoing ferries. Some of these ships are configured to carry passengers, while others are pure car and truck carriers. Extreme caution must be used when transporting heavy vehicles, as the high-clearance vehicle decks tend to be higher in the ship, threatening the ship’s stability when heavily laden. Many ships of this type were designed to carry empty vehicles from the factory to the market; vehicle ferries are more often required to carry loaded vehicles (plus drivers and passengers). The ability to carry 36-ton AFVs was generally not a design consideration when these classes of ships were designed.
Therefore it is necessary to capture a port relatively intact, but even then, the landing forces are vulnerable. The war in Ukraine illustrated this point when an unexplained explosion occurred on the Alligator-class Assault Transport BDK-65 Saratov, pier side in the captured Ukrainian port of Berdyansk. Surveillance video of the port showed a single small explosion, followed by a large secondary explosion 21 seconds later that started a fire aboard the ship and led to further explosions. Two neighboring Ropucha-class transports, Tsesar Kunikov and Novocherkassk, were showered with flaming debris and suffered casualties, but managed to move off and extinguish their deck fires.
Pulling a Sicily on Taiwan
If China really intends to invade Taiwan, it is going to have to make a massive investment in amphibious capability that dwarfs even its current buildup. While it is impossible to accurately assess the condition and organization of their logistics and support forces using open sources, it is entirely possible to look at their capacity instead of making assessments of capability. Using Operation Husky as a baseline to characterize the execution of a successful amphibious assault on an island, it is possible to make some degree of comparison that goes well beyond lists of fielded equipment.
All told, it’s entirely clear that China lacks the capacity to match the American assault wave against Sicily, to say nothing of the entire Allied effort that included British and Canadian forces. While an analysis of the carrying capacity of the commercial vessels belonging to China (and Hong Kong) is beyond the scope of this paper, these ships are next to useless in an assault phase and come into play only if adequate, intact port facilities are captured.
Furthermore, the degree of fire support required to deal with counterattacks against the beachhead is illustrated well by the successful American fire support off Gela, which today is impossible to replicate by any navy; even airpower lacks the capability to deliver the necessary volume of fire, particularly over time. And of course, the enemy gets a vote. The Americans landed among small towns manned by weak garrisons with a population that did not muster significant opposition and was unsympathetic to their own government. In Taiwan, as in Ukraine, invaders should realistically expect an aroused and angry population with a sizable and modern military willing to contest every inch of heavily urbanized territory. It’s here where the comparison to Sicily breaks down, and capacity questions aside, the idea of landing into an urban area and expecting any other result than an early and bloody defeat seems ludicrous. China would be lucky were it in a position akin to Allied forces when they assaulted Sicily.
This assessment is focused on the ability of the People’s Republic of China to execute a successful assault, but there is no question that they could launch an unsuccessful one. Absent the disaster at the French port of Dieppe in 1942, Western military forces have few examples of amphibious operations that failed at the shoreline; there is room for Beijing to create one. What one side views as military reality may not be perceived as such by the other side, a truism that we are seeing play out graphically in Ukraine right now. Chinese involvement in Korea and later in the Sino-Vietnamese war illustrates that Party political imperatives may well override sound military advice, at least until the level of military failure becomes too high to paper over. The Chinese Communist Party believes, as an article of faith, that the superior morale, commitment, and willingness to sacrifice that they expect in the PLA will carry the day against an adversary that might be more capable on paper. Given the differing assessments of the actual correlation of forces, the PRC may well assess that they could avoid Russia’s mistakes and carry out a successful assault.
The Republic of China has been planning to resist a PRC assault for more than 70 years. Jeff Hornung writes that in the same way that the United States and NATO bolstered Ukrainian defenses before the 2022 Russian invasion, it would be possible to bolster Taiwan’s defenses with a tailored mix of hardware and training, backed with a newly-discovered economic stick that might reasonably act as an additional, non-military deterrent. The defense of Taiwan is not a burden the Republic of China need shoulder alone, and an expanded, overt, American advisory effort might well provide both an improved deterrent and a much more lethal defense, should deterrence fail.
Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha retired from the Air Force as a colonel. He was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, he has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Image: National Archives. Saturday, July 10, 1943. Hit by a bomb at 1835, USS LST-313 is burning just off the Gela beaches on Sicily. A wrecked Higgins Boat is in the foreground.