A military exercises in the manner it plans to fight. This was true for Russia before the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, true of the United States before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and is true of China today.
A missile test range the People’s Liberation Army is using in western China demonstrates its combat intentions toward Taiwan. The U.S. should reckon for this, and other information on PLA force posture, in its military planning.
DCO Global News
Published on May 22, 2022
By Odoh Dominic Chukwuemeka
Russia’s yearlong force and equipment buildup, and its force structure, signaled its intentions toward Ukraine. Its plan was irrational, but that it “abandoned” its doctrinal principles is not clear. Russia’s ground campaign did not coordinate axes of advance to stress Ukrainian defenses, but it did create multiple pressure points aimed at overwhelming Ukrainian resistance.
Moreover, while the Russian air force never destroyed Ukrainian air capacity, Russia’s air force was not designed to conduct a broad interdiction campaign akin to the Coalition air campaign in the 1991 Gulf War. The modern Russian air force, the VVS, is, like its Soviet predecessor, designed to control the airspace over the front line, conduct interdiction missions at a limited operational depth, and prioritize ground targets in a tactical, rather than theater-wide, capacity.
In general, the best Russia analysts predicted the war’s initial pattern based on their understanding of Soviet and Russian doctrine. They ignored Ukrainian strategy, operational skill, and unshakable morale.
Similarly, the U.S. military fought—in broad terms—how it trained and exercised before its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although the U.S. Army expected a larger ground force commitment, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not fundamentally transform America’s doctrinal approach to ground warfare.
The U.S. executed a campaign in principle like that of the 1991 Gulf War, with three critical differences: broader political-territorial objectives, a lighter force commitment, and a nine-month “shaping” effort that degraded Iraqi air defenses and command structures before the actual invasion. Indeed, the American “playbook” was apparent after 1991 and 2003.
Build up overland, conduct a long-term air campaign, and use ground forces with speed and violence to collapse enemy cohesion and destroy its capacity. U.S. adversaries took note. The anti-access area denial strategy that is imitated from the Persian Gulf to the West Pacific was born.
The PLA will act in a similar manner toward Taiwan if the Chinese Communist Party’s political leadership orders an invasion. Public-facing PLA exercises are stage-managed, and the PLA conducted few flexible live-fire exercises before recent military reforms conducted under President Xi Jinping, meaning older exercises offer only a limited window into Chinese military thinking. In turn, the PLA’s operational security is superior to that of Russia. Note, for example, Russia’s egregious inability to stop its soldiers from using their cellphones in Ukraine.
However, open-source analysis has identified a major testing range in Xinjiang. Unsurprisingly, the CCP has used Uighur territory as a military test area—providing a clear window into PLA strategy against Taiwan.
The PLA has two testing ranges in the Taklamakan Desert, each resembling different target sets. The first range, identified in October 2021, has two objects, both of which have identical dimensions to U.S. Navy warships: one an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the other a Ford-class carrier, complete with cutaways for the aft flight deck. The second range, identified this month, lies eight miles south of the first. This range replicates a port, including three piers with a surface combatant alongside.
Both test sites are part of a larger ballistic missile testing area in the Taklamakan Desert. The PLA has built mock-ups of American warships in the past, including large surface combatants and carriers. However, the newly discovered site bears a distinct resemblance to Taiwan’s Su’ao naval base. The mock-up ship is far less detailed than the Arleigh Burke or Ford mock-ups, but could be a Kidd-class destroyer, the Taiwanese Navy’s only large surface combatants.
In any event, the missile test range has a clear purpose. The PLA hopes to target enemy ships in port, not only at sea during combat. Ports are clear military targets once shooting begins. Ships in port are more vulnerable than those that are deployed. A port is static, perhaps with point air defenses, but static all the same, making target acquisition easier.
Ukraine demonstrated this fact by incapacitating Russian landing ships in Bryansk. Ports have fuel and ammunition facilities adjacent to the actual pier or quay at which a warship docks. A munition that misses its seagoing target can cause significant damage. Damaging a port disrupts logistics and supplies for naval forces, and for all regional forces in a sea war.
Moreover, it is highly unlikely that once a cross-strait contingency is under way, the U.S., Japan, and their other Asian allies will leave their ships in port. In every major naval conflict, combat formations “surge” just prior to or following initial hostilities, like the British fleet to Scapa Flow or the American aircraft carrier force from Pearl Harbor.
Training missiles to target ships in port therefore has a clear military purpose: The PLA’s rocket forces can target U.S. and allied warships as hostilities commence, hoping to deliver a “knockout punch” against Washington’s Indo-Pacific alliance.
The U.S. and its allies should reconsider assumptions about the timing and character of a Pacific war and take three steps in response to the threat of Chinese targeting against port facilities.
First, America must revamp its “superbase” structure, under which it concentrates its military forces in a handful of gargantuan facilities to cut costs. This was suitable for an environment absent a peer competitor, when the U.S. military was expected to deploy only in counterinsurgencies and small wars. It is unfit for contemporary purposes, in which the U.S. confronts China as a peer competitor with expansionist ambitions.
The U.S. should revive bases it abandoned such as Subic Bay in the Philippines, expand bases farther from the First Island Chain—namely Guam, possibly in Australia—and distribute its forces at new bases in Japan and elsewhere, perhaps Vietnam.
Second, the U.S. should accelerate investment in missile defenses. Guam’s ballistic missile defense system is not slated to be deployed for several years. U.S. facilities in Japan have limited protection.
And Taiwan, if some American commentators are to be heeded, should virtually abandon its port facilities, and accept its destruction as it embraces a “porcupine defense” meant to survive a blockade. The U.S. should increase funding and roll out proven antimissile systems to protect its military installations. Partly foreign technologies, like Iron Dome, should be considered. This, however, is necessary but insufficient.
The U.S. and its allies should also reconsider their resistance to strikes against the Chinese mainland. If the PLA plans to destroy U.S. ships in port—and/or targets U.S. bases throughout the Indo-Pacific—it will gain a decisive strategic advantage over the U.S. as a war expands.
A “long war” in this circumstance may favor China, with its more robust ship repair facilities, rather than the U.S. Chinese military doctrine hardly needs encouragement to escalate, but U.S. and allied war plans that rule out striking Chinese land targets and disavow rehearsing for such eventualities encourage the likelihood of escalation in a Pacific conflict.
About the author: Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.
By Odoh Dominic Chukwuemeka
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