A prominent independent think tank in Washington conducted war games that said a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in 2026 would result in thousands of casualties among Chinese, American, Taiwanese and Japanese forces and that Beijing was unlikely to succeed in simulating a possible conflict, The conflict is gripping military and political leaders in Asia and in Washington.
A war over Taiwan could leave a victorious U.S. military in the same state of paralysis as the Chinese army it defeated.
By the end of the conflict, at least two U.S. aircraft carriers will be sunk on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and the world’s largest modern navy will be “a mess.”
These are among the conclusions reached by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in what it claims is one of the most extensive wargame simulations ever conducted of a possible conflict over Taiwan, the democratically ruled island of 24 million people despite China’s The Communist Party never controlled it, but it claims part of its sovereign territory.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has refused to rule out the use of force to bring the island under Beijing’s control.
CNN reviewed an advance copy of a report titled “The First Battle of the Next War,” about a two-dozen war scenario run by CSIS, which the project says is necessary because previously The government and private war simulations are too narrow or too opaque to give the public and policymakers a real sense of how a cross-strait conflict might play out.
“There is no unclassified war game to focus on the U.S.-China conflict,” said Mark Kancian, one of the three project leaders and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In unclassified games, they’re usually only played once or twice.”
CSIS conducted 24 wargames to answer two fundamental questions: Will the invasion succeed? What is the price?
The answer to both questions is likely to be no, the CSIS report says.
“The United States and Japan have lost dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of military personnel. Such losses will damage the global standing of the United States for many years,” the report said. In most cases, the US Navy would lose two aircraft carriers and 10 to 20 large surface combatants. About 3,200 U.S. troops will be killed in the three weeks of fighting, almost half of the U.S. losses in two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“China has also suffered greatly. Its navy is a mess, the core of its amphibious force is broken, and tens of thousands of soldiers have become prisoners of war,” it said. The report estimated that China would lose about 10,000 soldiers, 155 fighter jets and 138 major ships.
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These scenarios paint a bleak future for Taiwan, even if a Chinese invasion fails.
“While Taiwan’s military is intact, it is severely degraded and can only defend a damaged economy on an island without power and essential services,” the report said. The island’s army would suffer about 3,500 casualties, and all of its navy would suffer, the report said. Twenty-six destroyers and frigates would be sunk.
Japan could lose more than 100 fighter jets and 26 warships, while US military bases on its home soil were attacked by China, the report found.
But CSIS said it hadn’t, because its report suggested war on Taiwan was “inevitable, even possible”.
“Chinese leaders may adopt tactics of diplomatic isolation, gray zone pressure or economic coercion against Taiwan,” it said.
Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), thinks it is extremely unlikely that China will fully invade Taiwan. Grazier told CNN that such a military action would immediately disrupt the imports and exports on which the Chinese economy depends, and that disruption of such trade could cause the Chinese economy to collapse in the short term. China relies on imported food and fuel to power their economic engine, and they have little room to maneuver, Grazier said.
“In my estimation, the Chinese will do everything they can to avoid a military conflict with anyone,” Glazer said. To challenge US global dominance, they will use industrial and economic might rather than military might.
But Pentagon leaders have labeled China a “paced threat” to the United States, and last year a Congressional-authorized report on China’s military power said “the PLA has increased its provocative and destabilizing actions in and around the Taiwan Strait, including increased flights to Taiwan’s claimed Air Defense Identification Zone flights and conduct exercises focused on the possible capture of one of Taiwan’s outlying islands.”
A visit to the island by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August prompted a wide-ranging display of military power by the PLA, which included firing missiles over the island and into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Since then, Beijing has stepped up its military pressure tactics against the island, sending fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, drawing the waters separating Taiwan from China into the island’s air defense identification zone — commonly known as the airspace buffer zone as the ADIZ.
Referring to Taiwan at the 20th Communist Party Congress in October, Chinese leader Xi Jinping drew applause when he said China would “strive for peaceful reunification” — but then issued a stark warning that “we will never promise Renouncing the use of Taiwan’s military force, we reserve the right to take all necessary measures.”
The Biden administration has been a staunch supporter of the island of Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, which says Washington will provide the island with the means to defend itself without sending in U.S. troops for such defense.
The recently signed National Defense Authorization Act commits the United States to a plan to modernize Taiwan’s military and provide $10 billion in security assistance over five years, a strong sign of long-term bipartisan support for Taiwan.
However, Biden has said on more than one occasion that U.S. military personnel will defend Taiwan if the Chinese military launches an invasion, despite the Pentagon’s insistence that Washington’s “one China” policy has not changed.
Under the “One China” policy, the United States recognizes China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but never formally recognizes Beijing’s claim to the self-governing island.
“Wars happen even when objective analysis may indicate that attackers may not be successful,” Cancian said.
The CSIS report states that four constants emerged in the 24 wargames the U.S. military ran to prevent China from eventually taking control of Taiwan:
Taiwan’s ground forces must be able to deter China’s beachheads; the US must be able to use its bases in Japan for combat operations; the US must have long-range anti-ship missiles to “focus” on the PLA Navy from a distance; Fully arm Taiwan and immediately engage in any conflict with its own military.
“Taiwan does not have a ‘Ukrainian model,'” the report said, referring to how U.S. and Western aid slowly trickled into Ukraine long after Russia began invading its neighbor and no U.S. or NATO troops were actively fighting Russia.
“Once there is a war, it is impossible for any troops or supplies to go to Taiwan, so this is very different from the situation in Ukraine, where the United States and its allies are able to send supplies to Ukraine continuously,” Kansian said. “Whatever the Taiwanese are going to fight with, they have to have it at the start of the war.”
The think tank said Washington needed to act sooner if it was to meet some of the CSIS recommendations for success in the Taiwan conflict.
These include strengthening U.S. bases in Japan and Guam to defend against Chinese missile attacks; shifting its navy to smaller, more survivable ships; prioritizing submarines; prioritizing a sustainable bomber force over a fighter force; but producing cheaper fighter jets; and pushing Taiwan to adopt a similar strategy, arming itself with simpler weapons platforms rather than expensive ships that are less likely to survive a first Chinese strike.
The CSIS report said these policies would make it less expensive for U.S. forces to win, but casualties remained high.
“The U.S. will likely win a costly victory and suffer more in the long run than the ‘defeated’ Chinese.”
“Winning isn’t everything,” the report said.
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