What Would Happen if China Invades Taiwan?

In the year 2026, China has recently initiated an invasion of Taiwan.

Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Colonel and senior advisor at CSIS, is joining me on this week’s podcast. The subject of the podcast is a non-classified, comprehensive simulation called Game War, which was convened by the Center for International and Strategic Studies. The simulation aims to explore what happens next in the field of International and Strategic Studies.

Cutting straight to the point, the most likely result after 24 rounds was the failure of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, although it would come at an extremely steep price for both Taiwan and the United States.

In this episode of the podcast, we delve into the likely results and situations in great detail.

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Transcript slightly modified for better understanding.

Before we delve into the substance of the findings from the war games, let me briefly explain how it was designed and how it worked, so that later in the conversation, listeners have a better sense of what you’re basing your assumptions on.

In 2026, there exist counters that depict the anticipated military organization of different nations. The land forces navigate within the Taiwan ground map, while the air and naval forces operate within two operational maps. Multiple maps are utilized in this physical war simulation depicting a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan. The game was created by Mark Cancian.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:25] Why is that? Why in 2026?

In 2026, we had a pretty good sense about what was going on in the United States. So, the Pentagon published information about their plans and forces. The end of the planning period was when the war game was developed. During that time, Admiral Davidson highlighted this period as a time of great danger. Many officials also highlighted this period as a time of great danger. The first reason for picking 2026 is to highlight this period of great danger.

Is that correct? Do both sides of the structures exert force based on their assumptions? Additionally, do both sides of the structures exert force based on the probability of rules? Ultimately, different sides of the conflict are played by various experts in order to create the wargame.

It is important to us that the results of combat be objective, so we rely on the judgment and transparency of those involved. However, we also recognize that disagreements can arise, and if someone disagrees, we want to see if they can provide a transparent explanation for their judgment. We have also rolled the dice and captured results in some tables and computer programs, where calculations can be complex. All of this research has led us to the conclusion that the ship will sink if it is hit, and there are chances for the missile to actually launch and hit the ship if given the opportunity. So, in order to determine the probabilities and outcomes of different combat interactions, we have analyzed historical data, conducted operational analysis, and looked at the resolution of combat in terms of the structures we believe in.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:42] And utilizing all this information as inputs. You conducted the war simulation 24 times. Why that number?

We wanted to run it many times and have something that was defensible analytically. The recommendations for policy making can be very educational for participants because it depends heavily on the particular scenario and the luck of the dice. There are many war games that can be run once or twice and be credible analytically. We could explore a wide variety of scenarios, so the results would be more analytically credible.

What was the first assumption you made about how China would initiate its invasion war game? I want to spend the bulk of this conversation talking about how you played out the war and the repeated outcomes you saw many times because you ran it several times.

The U.S. And Taiwan are involved in a conflict where both sides are launching attacks and moving their forces. In response to the rhetoric and military buildup by Chinese officials, it is argued that the most dangerous course of action is for China to use their aircraft and missiles to strike the U.S. And Taiwan and launch an invasion. However, we recognize that it is plausible for Chinese officials to make the decision for such action, given the Chinese military’s buildup and rhetoric. It is also acknowledged that this may not be the most probable course of action for China.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:41] Where does China target Taiwan and the U.S. In that initial attack?

The assumption is that Japan would not participate in operations using United States bases, such as Kadena in Okinawa, unless Japan itself is attacked by China. However, Japan would allow the United States to use its military bases in Japan if China attacked Japan’s homeland. If there are a lot of United States forces on Guam, they will often go there after Guam. The Chinese just have many missiles available for the United States carriers to go after. In the first couple of days, most of their air force and Taiwanese surface ships and the Taiwanese Navy are destroyed, particularly by the Air Force, but they strike all Taiwanese targets in the initial volley.

In this area, if China were to initiate direct assaults on American military resources, it would likely serve as the starting point for the Chinese incursion into Taiwan, all in an effort to retaliate. [00:09:44] Mark Leon Goldberg

Yes, that was our presumption. If they decide to initiate this attack when the United States has already declared its probable involvement, it would be wise for them to target the U.S. First and reap the benefits. The Chinese find themselves in a position similar to that of the Japanese in 1941. Mark Cancian [00:09:59]

Do you want to get an American response, but one of the key assumptions of your question is that Taiwan would put up a fight, right?

We made an assumption that we really didn’t know how to judge Taiwan. We got an example of Ukraine in front of us. There are others who raise questions about whether Chinese could undermine Taiwanese resolve and morale. Many Taiwanese believe that. The Taiwanese government insists that it would fight. Of course, there is a lot of discussion and fight will ensue based on that assumption. Absolutely. Cancian Mark.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:01] Because if Taiwan does not resist, everything else becomes insignificant.

Mark Cancian [00:11:05] Exactly. I mean, the entire simulation is insignificant because the Chinese will enter.

China initiates a land assault on Taiwan, most likely in close proximity to conducting air strikes on Taiwan and U.S. Military objectives. Hence, the hostilities commence with Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:11].

During World War II, the military campaign in Italy, Taiwan was able to defend numerous locations that were home to many cities and rivers. The coastal plains consist of highly mountainous terrain, while the central region is a strategically advantageous island to protect. However, the challenge for the Chinese was that it was easier for them to land ashore and advance through the entire island. The Taiwanese had less combat power in the southern regions where the Chinese forces landed. This posed a significant difficulty, which led the Chinese player to attempt multiple landings in the north, which was not surprising. The rationale behind this decision was that the majority of the Taiwanese combat power was concentrated in the north to safeguard the capital. Initially, the Chinese launched their invasion by landing in the south of Taiwan. Mark Cancian affirms this fact. [00:11:26]

The initial American reactions to being attacked and to the ground invasion of Taiwan, prompted China to initiate its airstrikes and amphibious assault.

In due course, it can intervene on the field in order for the United States to concentrate on dismantling that obstacle. Breaking through the Chinese defensive barrier is incredibly challenging, therefore there is little we can do regarding the ground campaign. Employing strategic aerial warfare equipped with far-reaching projectiles, the U.S. Strategy involves launching an assault on the Chinese fleet using long-range missile-equipped bombers.

Can you flesh out a little more the initial response from the U.S., Like strikes launched against Taiwan’s naval fleets, as they are seeking to protect against invasion?

The action revolves around amphibious ships. The invasion will fail. What else matters? If they lose their amphibious ships, they can build up their forces on Taiwan and sustain them. In other words, if they can sustain those amphibious ships, they can build up their forces on Taiwan. The U.S. Has to intercept missiles and U.S. Ships to break through and get to the amphibious ships. Very often, Taiwan forms an east out line picket to intercept missiles and U.S. Ships. The U.S. Has to break through and get to the amphibious ships. Some of the Chinese surface navy is protecting them. Some of the Chinese surface navy is protecting the amphibious ships. The Chinese have a large surface navy. Exactly. Mark Cancian.

One way or another, those inferior ships from landing prevent or deter or destroy kind of ability America’s And Goldberg Leon Mark

The Chinese vessels can prove highly efficient against those land-based anti-ship missiles. However, it is worth mentioning that the Taiwanese air and naval forces do suffer significant damage in the initial stages. Mark Cancian also agrees with this observation.

That is the reason why Japan allowing America to utilize those bases to safeguard Taiwan is one of the crucial factors for determining success. However, the United States undeniably possesses a profound and longstanding security alliance with Japan and maintains several military installations in Japan. I aim to elaborate on the essential role that Japan plays in influencing the outcome of this simulated warfare, as previously mentioned by Mark Leon Goldberg.

The F-16s, F-15s, F-22s, and F-35s are all pretty useless in the fight of war. If we have to use those aircraft in Japan or Guam, it’s far too costly and ineffective for the United States to intervene. The bottom line is that the bases in Japan and Guam are absolutely critical, and we can’t afford to not have those bases available. Yes, that’s the only way the United States can ensure its strategic presence.

Is it correct that after allowing the use of armed forces in conflicts, Japan has also allowed the use of some of its airbases? This permission is indeed granted in most iterations of the Japanese war game.

Due to the distant location of the bombers, the United States had to rely solely on them. It was extremely difficult for the United States to effectively operate in areas where Japan maintained strict neutrality. However, there were a few instances where we managed to conduct operations. We were fairly confident in this assumption, so the United States hesitated to immediately involve themselves. Moreover, they were unwilling to do so if Japan did not grant them access to their bases, as it would essentially nullify their 70-year security arrangements. Their argument was that the United States should be allowed to utilize Japan’s bases, and we tested this with various high-ranking Japanese leaders, who expressed their agreement. This fundamental assumption, or what we consider to be the most likely scenario, is correct. Mark Cancian [00:15:39]

How long does this play out? The U.S. Forces respond to China’s capability of preventing invasion from sustaining and mounting ground attacks with their own amphibious assaults to deter them. As mentioned, the invasion begins with Taiwanese and U.S. Forces launching airstrikes and an amphibious assault, as mentioned by Leon Mark Goldberg.

Mark Cancian [00:16:54] The game lasts approximately three or four weeks of in-game time, and by that point, it becomes quite challenging.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:01] Understood.

The campaign was designed to run from months 3 to 2, but we probably would not be able to complete it. We ran out of time and only managed to run the game for 4 to 3 weeks. The Chinese forces were eventually able to destroy our units, but we were on the island trying to eliminate the Taiwanese forces. Maybe we could have taken another island, but we couldn’t attract the Chinese amphibious ships to the island. On the other hand, the U.S. Was able to build enough combat power to take on the Chinese forces in a couple of months. They might take longer to conquer the island, but they will have enough time to build up their forces and sustain them. They could capture a port or an airfield on Taiwan, and they have enough forces to do so. In other words, it is pretty clear that the Chinese forces either have enough forces or will take longer to achieve their ultimate resolution. Mark Cancian usually knows how the battle is going.

What did you discover after conducting 24 iterations of this war simulation, Mark Leon Goldberg, regarding the most likely result of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan?

The Chinese actually emerged victorious in a few extremely negative situations, and there were significantly higher casualties in the range of gloomy scenarios that lasted longer. Naturally, positive scenarios yield better results for the United States and Taiwan. That being said, we examined various scenarios in order to prevent or, if prevention fails, resolve this conflict more swiftly. Our recommendation is to bolster our military capabilities so that it would be exceedingly costly for the United States, Japan, and China to undermine an independent and democratic Taiwan. The ultimate outcome was that the United States and its allies successfully maintained an independent and democratic Taiwan. [00:18:14] Mark Cancian

Following that likely Pyrrhic triumph, how would you depict Taiwan, the main region of Taiwan? However, in the most likely situation, Mark Leon Goldberg, [00:18:59].

Yes, Taiwan has been severely battered. Its economy is likely in disarray. Numerous cities have suffered extensive damage due to the ongoing conflict. Furthermore, its transportation infrastructure has been significantly impacted by Chinese interdiction measures, resulting in substantial hardships.

What do the casualties on the U.S. Side look like after being involved in combat with the Chinese military for a minimum of three weeks? And Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:35].

In the conflict in the Middle East, it is typically noted that the United States will lose about half as many as 20 years ago. In just three weeks, we can expect several thousand killed and a couple of hundred aircraft lost, including two aircraft carriers and 20 ships. However, it is important to emphasize that our report does not include losses from other regions or areas. The losses mentioned are quite substantial for the U.S.

In the United States, there has been a level of mortality in warfare that has not been witnessed for a long time. In just about three weeks of combat, approximately 3000 members of the American military would lose their lives. The number of American service members killed and the amount of U.S. Equipment lost are both astonishing. I am referring to Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:20].

Therefore, it could be conceivable that this might be a victory with a Pyrrhic outcome, which is why we are worried that returning to isolationism after the first war could deter war more effectively than fighting it. Since the Second World War, the Air Force, which has essentially operated as a sanctuary, and particularly the U.S. Military and the U.S. Population, will be shocked by this. Yes, this will have a particularly shocking effect on the equipment, especially since it has not really been seen since the Second World War.

It’s a substantial portion of the Pacific U.S. Fleet that I lost, which also means that I lost a significant part of the Pacific U.S. Fleet in terms of size.

It is highly unlikely that aircraft carriers could be replaced for the current capacity given. It would probably take a decade to replace these ships, as they are very difficult to replace. The problem is a major issue for the U.S. Fleet. That would mean that we would have to stop for a couple more weeks. Additionally, we would have to stop for three or four weeks. Furthermore, there is a flaw in this plan because there is ongoing fighting in the South China Sea. It is a significant loss, as you may already know. We are aware that we could potentially lose 20 or even ten aircraft carriers. Considering that the U.S. Fleet has around 290 ships, we need to keep this in mind. Mark Cancian has rightly pointed out that it is a substantial challenge.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:09] And what does your scenario imply about what occurs to China after enduring a loss?

We have taken it to heart, and we know that the Chinese government and Chinese media have seen this report. It is a good piece of news, but we will act cautiously to make sure that the Chinese recognize our hopes. These losses could potentially destabilize the communist Chinese regime powers, as they are significant enough. China would also lose a lot of equipment, including many prisoners of war in unsuccessful invasions, particularly in Taiwan.

What is the reason behind that? Is it accurate to assume that in the case of a Chinese assault on Taiwan, one of your main assumptions is that the United States would refrain from attacking the Chinese mainland? Additionally, something that catches my attention is Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:51].

We played it both ways, so the Chinese are a nuclear power with the capability to strike our homeland. They say that escalation to nuclear weapons might not be too escalatory, but if you talk to the White House or the State Department, you might find out. Whether this would be authorized depends on who you talk to. If you talk to people in the Pentagon, they absolutely say that we’re going after the mainland. About half of the games allowed the U.S. To strike the mainland. We played it both ways, so that is the situation. The United States was not involved.

Did a nuclear conflict lead to any of your results? I mean, the Chinese interpreted as assaults on their atomic abilities and thus would initiate, that the United States hit objectives in China in the framework of a typical war, indicated the most likely course of a nuclear conflict between the U.S. And China would happen in the scholarly journal International Security, maybe around a year ago that I recall perusing an article. In any of your models, was that atomic situation envisioned and tested? [00:23:42] Mark Leon Goldberg

We hope to follow a project that involves making decisions and utilizing nuclear armaments. If you are using nuclear weapons on the battlefield, the dynamics are different and the game becomes very different, often taking much longer to play. One reason for this is that including nuclear weapons in the first place was intended to create a different and more complex game. Some argue that keeping the conflict at a conventional level could alleviate concerns of escalation. We made the choice to take nuclear weapons off the table for two reasons.

What suggestions did your war simulation propose to avert that Pyrrhic triumph and deter a Chinese incursion into Taiwan? Therefore, if your most likely result was this Pyrrhic triumph wherein the U.S. Geopolitical position was gravely compromised and the naval armada was impaired, all these military personnel perished.

The United States needs to be cautious about deploying forces forward in a brewing crisis, as we are running low on certain types of munitions. The Pentagon’s budget for FY 2024 includes a lot of munitions, but we are experiencing higher losses than anticipated. We need to buy more long-range precision munitions to replenish our stock. Additionally, we recommend building hardened shelters and dispersing aircraft to make them less vulnerable to Chinese missile attacks. Japan and the United States should also consider constructing hardened shelters for aircraft, as it is estimated that 90% of aircraft losses occur on the ground due to Chinese missile strikes.Output: In order to enhance the United States’ capability to fight and increase deterrence, it is important for us to exercise caution when deploying forces forward during a developing crisis, as we are currently experiencing a shortage of specific types of munitions. The Pentagon’s budget for FY 2024 encompasses a substantial amount of munitions, yet our losses have been significantly higher than expected. Therefore, it is imperative that we acquire a greater quantity of long-range precision munitions to replenish our inventory. Furthermore, we propose the construction of fortified shelters and the dispersion of aircraft to minimize their susceptibility to Chinese missile assaults. It is also advisable for both Japan and the United States to construct hardened shelters for aircraft, considering that approximately 90% of aircraft losses occur on the ground as a result of Chinese missile attacks.

In that highly probable Pyrrhic triumph scenario, do you personally adopt a stance on whether the advantages surpass the expenses after conducting the war simulation? However, once the war simulation has been conducted, let policymakers make the decision. The objective was to present information, but the project did not express a viewpoint on whether the advantages of safeguarding Taiwan surpass the costs. So, Mark Leon Goldberg. [00:28:39]

My son seems to be similar to me because our last names are the same. Ian, who is a war game enthusiast and has a lot of experience playing war games at the Naval War College, and Matthew, who has also been involved in war gaming and has spent many years in China as part of the Asian China MIT team, are both part of the team. Eric Higginbotham, the manager, and I, the lead investigator for the thesis, are the principal investigators. At this point, I should mention that there were three principal investigators involved in this report and that it relies on a wide variety of foreign policy judgments and opinions from different people. The reason we didn’t include this in the report is because we are a group of people who have different opinions and judgments. However, personally, I believe that executing these defenses and defending Taiwan would be a reasonable military posture and that it is necessary to have a policy announcement to that effect. Despite the president’s advisors walking back their statements several times, it is clear that we are moving towards announcing a policy to defend Taiwan. You can see this coming out of the White House. You can see this coming out of Congress. In my personal opinion, the United States should strengthen these defenses if we are going to announce a policy to defend Taiwan. That’s my personal opinion.

Do you have any additional information you would like to include or any specific point you wished to address? Lastly, I am aware that we have exceeded the allotted time. Mark Leon Goldberg [00:30:21]

Since 1945, the Air Force hasn’t had the experience of flying over Taiwan and welcoming you to Okinawa. They have been turned into a cemetery and the golf course has been transformed into wounded-filled hospitals. The previous squadron was killed in the previous missile attack, so they had to move into barracks that were vacated by the previous squadron. The aircraft on the ground were destroyed and hundreds of wrecks were caused by the Chinese missiles that have struck the bumpy runway many times in the past. When I talk to Air Force audiences, I tell them to imagine the situation of arriving at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, where the aircraft they are reinforcing are landing on a bumpy runway. I emphasize that this is a culturally different kind of experience for the middle ranks, the lieutenant colonels, majors, and the like. They need to be ready for the services that this sanctuary of war experience requires. And it is very different from what they have done in the last 25 years plus. This is a great power conflict, and I emphasize that all the leadership has been saying the right things. The Navy and the Air Force, particularly the military services, know what a shock this is, not just for the American people, but for you as well.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:31:46] Mark, thank you so much for your time. Very thought-provoking situations that you describe.