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Tracking China's preparations for war
Beijing "would not be subtle," says a long-time CIA analyst.
IF YOU’RE A CASUAL OBSERVER of headlines, “Xi’s looming third term in China raises threat of war over Taiwan” or “No Need to Blow Up TSMC in China War, Taiwan Security Chief Says” may give you the sense that as one deadly and destructive war rages in Ukraine, the world is about to have another in the Taiwan Strait.
It’s not. Defending the island democracy of 23 million in Taiwan is certainly on the mind of national security leaders today, but if another war truly were on the horizon, various economic and military factors would indicate Beijing planned to attack across the roughly 100-mile-wide strait. Yet we’re not currently seeing those signs—good news, obviously—despite worrying stories on how “Taiwan’s citizen warriors prepare to confront looming threat from China” and “The persistent threat of China invading Taiwan.”
So, what are the indicators and how do we know what they are? Thank retired CIA analyst John Culver for answering both questions in this sober and insightful analysis. The 35-year intel veteran notes the warning signs of a full-scale invasion or naval blockade to cut off western support and concludes that if “China decides to fight a war of choice over Taiwan, strategic surprise would be a casualty of the sheer scale of the undertaking.”
The war in Ukraine has shown how modern war requires vast stocks of bombs, missiles, and bullets—which in turn require raw materials, manufacturing capacity, and long production timelines. So China “would have already started surging production” of rockets, ballistic and cruise missiles, and other items “at least a year before D-Day,” according to Culver. Such a surge would be difficult to hide from both western intelligence and civilian analysts armed with excellent commercial satellite imagery.
Beijing’s preparations for war “almost certainly would not be subtle, at least to the U.S. intelligence community,” says Culver, “and probably not to Taiwan and other Western observers.” So here are other things to watch for before any shots are fired in anger…
1 to 2 years out:
China “would take visible steps to insulate its economy, military, and key industries from disruptions and sanctions.”
Internally and externally, Beijing would ramp up propaganda against the west and would prepare its citizens “psychologically for the costs of war”—tens of thousands of deaths in combat, financial pain, and civilian deaths from a U.S.-Taiwan response.
“Six or twelve months before a prospective invasion, China probably would implement a [People’s Liberation Army]-wide stop loss, halting demobilizations of enlisted personnel and officers, just as it did in 2007 when it ratcheted up pressure as Taiwan prepared to hold elections.”
There are also several economic indicators, per this CSIS analysis:
A freeze on foreign financial assets in China
Travel restrictions placed on high-priority workers and Chinese elites
Sales of U.S. bonds and rapid repatriation of Chinese assets from abroad
Stockpiling of emergency supplies and medicine
3 to 6 months out:
At this point, the PLA “would also halt most regular training and perform maintenance on virtually all major equipment,” Culver writes. “It would expand the capacity of the Navy and Air Force to rearm, resupply, and repair ships, submarines, and aircraft away from military facilities that the United States or Taiwan would likely bomb, including naval bases and military airfields near the Taiwan Strait. The PLA Navy would replace electric batteries on its non-nuclear submarines and intensify training in loading missiles, torpedoes, and ammunition on all vessels.”
In the areas opposite Taiwan's coast in China’s Eastern and Southern Theater Command, the PLA would set up field hospitals near embarkation points and airfields and take other “steps rarely seen in mere exercises.”
“There likely would be public blood drives. Mobile command posts would depart garrisons and move to hidden locations. Units responsible for managing petroleum, oil, and lubricants would deploy with field pipeline convoys to support vehicle preparation at civilian ports being used to load transport ships embarking on an invasion.”
Additionally, “provincial military-civilization mobilization committees would commandeer commercial ships, roll-on/roll-off vehicle transport ships, large car ferries, aircraft, trains, trucks—everything relevant to a war effort, for preparation prior to conflict, and then throughout.”
Military forces would be placed on alert. Across the PLA, leave would be canceled, and many would be recalled or restricted to their bases and ships. Civilian flights around the country would be disrupted. Even with Chinese censorship and its great firewall, it’s hard to imagine these activities not leaking out or being spotted by western observers.
And an “enormous” number of China’s 1.4 billion-strong population would be mobilized, “including reservists to guard key civilian infrastructure, be prepared to repair U.S. bomb damage, and prevent riots and sabotage.”
SO THERE IS TIME, and war is, fortunately, not inevitable. Even top U.S. military officials differ on whether Beijing ever makes good on threats to take Taiwan by force. In the end, Chinese President Xi Jinping weighs a strategic calculus—is trying to seize Taiwan worth the cost? The western response, then, is to deter war by making that potential cost so unbearable that Xi always answers a resounding “no.”
That deterrent begins to take shape in several recent news reports. From The New York Times on Oct. 5, U.S. Aims to Turn Taiwan Into Giant Weapons Depot:
WASHINGTON — American officials are intensifying efforts to build a giant stockpile of weapons in Taiwan after studying recent naval and air force exercises by the Chinese military around the island, according to current and former officials.
The exercises showed that China would probably blockade the island as a prelude to any attempted invasion, and Taiwan would have to hold out on its own until the United States or other nations intervened, if they decided to do that, the current and former officials say.
Report two: Taiwanese microchip mogul Robert Tsao is bankrolling a training program for a civilian militia to defend against a Chinese invasion. The program right now is small yet backed by a $30 million pledge. “We need to train three million people in three years,” Tsao said. Years of training and arms stockpiling helped Ukraine defend against Russia during the war’s opening. And western weapons shipments have helped Kyiv shift the balance in its favor.
Three: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said Monday that China’s threat of armed confrontation “is absolutely not an option for our two sides.” She added: “Only by respecting the commitment of the Taiwanese people to our sovereignty, democracy, and freedom can there be a foundation for resuming constructive interaction across the Taiwan Strait.” China predictably responded by saying Taiwan was not independent and didn’t have a president. But Tsai comes out ahead by bringing the rhetoric down—while suggesting that Beijing’s continued saber-rattling and military incursions near Taiwan’s shores will only result in even more western support rather than capitulation.
“We have an abiding interest in maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, which is critical to regional and global security and prosperity and a matter of international concern and attention,” The White House says in its new National Security Strategy released on Wednesday. “We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, and do not support Taiwan independence…And we will uphold our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to support Taiwan’s self-defense and to maintain our capacity to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan.”
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🚨 The Rundown
The Group of Seven (G7) nations demanded Russia “completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its troops and military equipment from Ukraine” on Tuesday, including Crimea and all of Moscow’s illegally “annexed” regions.
The statement from western governments came after Russia carried out days of state-sanctioned war crimes in Ukraine, firing hundreds of missiles and drones at civilian targets. One missile “hit a playground in downtown Kyiv and another struck a university,” the AP reported. Hundreds were injured, and at least a dozen people were killed.
500+ potential war crimes have been documented in Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, according to a joint AP/FRONTLINE tracker.
Even China has publicly called on Russia to take it down a notch. “We have noted the relevant reports,” said a Foreign Ministry official when asked Monday about bombings across Ukraine. “We also hope that the situation can de-escalate as quickly as possible.”
Top U.S. and European leaders met in Brussels, Belgium to hash out a 10-year plan to make Ukraine “fully interoperable” with NATO. After meeting with representatives of ~50 countries comprising the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters:
All countries must “chip in and help them rebuild and sustain an integrated missile defense system,” said Milley, explaining that it requires planning, system deployment, training, and linking with Kyiv’s command and control. “It’s quite complicated from a technical standpoint,” but “it is achievable.”
“The systems will be provided as fast as we can physically get them there,” Austin replied to a Ukrainian journalist who said he was “anxious” about his family at home.
“I know that you’re concerned about your family, and certainly that’s understandable. We’re going to do everything we can to help Ukraine get what they need to protect the Ukrainian people.”
Germany has delivered Ukraine the first of four Iris-T air defense systems. The mobile surface-to-air missile system provides 360-degree protection against “aircraft, helicopters, drones and other missiles,” according to the manufacturer.
The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is back home after seven months in the Baltics, Mediterranean Sea, and Arctic region. “All of this was done with the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine War, which added an additional sense of importance to our work,” said Col. Paul Merida, MEU commander. “Much of which was done alongside our NATO allies and other key regional partners.”
The Department of Homeland Security will screen passengers from Uganda for Ebola. A federal notice says that anyone present in the African country 21 days before U.S. entry should expect “enhanced public health measures” upon arrival. One death and 54 confirmed cases of the deadly virus have been recorded in Uganda.
The West Point Board of Visitors will hold its annual meeting on Oct. 22. The board “provides independent advice and recommendations” to the President of the United States on academy “morale, discipline, curriculum” and other matters.
The Army plans to deliver its Next Generation Squad Weapon to ground combat soldiers in 2023. The long-awaited successor to the M4 rifle and M249 squad automatic weapon will be known to soldiers as the M5 rifle and M250 automatic rifle.
The Sig Sauer-made M5 is a bit heavier than the M4 familiar to grunts, but it fires more lethal 6.8mm rounds (rather than 5.56mm), giving soldiers more stopping power and greater range.
“These weapon systems will give soldiers significant capability improvements in accuracy, range, signature management, and lethality,” the Army says on its acquisition website, which has additional specs.
The Pentagon is measuring the “estimated prevalence of exposure to extremist activity in the military” for the first time in its latest survey of equal opportunity in the ranks.
"No one knows exactly how many extremists are in the U.S. military, but it takes only one to wreak havoc within the ranks,” I wrote last year at Task & Purpose, documenting several dozen cases of active-duty service members influenced by hate. The Pentagon didn’t answer my questions at the time, but DoD officials publicly said they had no data on troops found to be promoting views of Nazis, white nationalists, and other extremist groups.
A top U.K. spy chief has warned of Chinese technology exports carrying “hidden” national security threats that can be used to track individuals. "I think it's really important from a very early age that we understand that there is no free good here,” said Sir Jeremy Fleming, chief of the GCHQ. “When we are using these services we are exchanging our data for that and if it's proportionate and we're happy with the way that data is safeguarded then that's great.”
“Mortgaging the future by buying into the Chinese vision for technology may be attractive to some in the short term…” he said, but “[w]e need to offer alternative solutions that are practical, that are affordable, and that are backed by international funding or market investment. If we don’t, in the longer term, the hidden costs of China’s cheap technology solutions will become very obvious.”
The latest update on important Chinese Army and Navy developments is out from the CNA think tank. The PLA Update takes note of China’s recent participation in Russia’s Vostok 2022 exercise and the June launch of its third aircraft carrier, CNS Fujian.
Air Force researchers have translated this Chinese text on port landing operations, which may be handy for U.S. planners exploring Taiwan's defense options.
The US and UK Navies wrapped a one-day exercise testing unmanned systems and AI “to enhance maritime monitoring” in the Arabian Gulf on Oct. 7. Exercise Phantom Scope saw 3 Saildrone Explorer drone vessels sailing alongside manned American and British ships off the coast of Bahrain.
Marine Col. Nicole Mann became the first Native American woman in Space on Oct. 5. Mann, of the Wailaki Tribe, is an accomplished astronaut and Marine fighter pilot serving alongside other NASA Crew-5 members on a five-month mission to the International Space Station.
“Today marks another major milestone for the Marine Corps as we recognize the contributions of Col. Mann—a proven warfighter with several dozen combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan—and now the first female Marine to be a NASA mission commander,” said Gen. David Berger, Marine Commandant.
China is preparing to launch a “third and final module” to its Tiangong space station. The Mengtian module is fueled and ready to launch later this month to the station, which is in low Earth orbit and roughly a quarter of the ISS's size.
Anduril now has loitering munition capability for two of its drones, giving military clients a “flexible and adaptable” seeker or warhead to slap on its 600M and 700M Altius models. They are tube-launched from aircraft or ground, fly autonomously, and range 275+ miles.
The Navy reprimanded three officers and altered SEAL training following an investigation into the death of sailor Kyle Mullen in February. Two captains and an unnamed medical officer were issued non-punitive letters of caution after the investigation concluded that Mullen died “in the line of duty,” although they were not directly blamed for the 24-year-old’s death.
The Pentagon is building a new registry of injuries from “anomalous health incidents” aka “Havana Syndrome.” The registry will collect data on U.S. government employee demographics, treatment, and circumstances of developing the mysterious illness, which first surfaced in Cuba in 2016 and has sickened hundreds worldwide. Many cases remain unexplained despite a years-long probe.
“There’s just no answer,” a House Intelligence Committee member briefed on the investigation told CNN. “They’ve done an immense amount of work, literally spreadsheeting every catastrophic set of symptoms down to the headache and there’s just nothing. None.”
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