In think tank’s Taiwan war game, US beats China at high cost

·11 min read

WASHINGTON – In a pessimistic, but realistic, 2026 war game scenario, a combined sabotage and information operation campaign helped Chinese military forces land on the shores of Taiwan. The United States, caught off guard due to another global crisis, must rapidly respond.

In this near future, the United States has some, but not all the weapons, units and ships it needs for this fight. But there is no magic bullet that’s going to solve this invasion in a matter of hours or even days.

Players in the air-conditioned offices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies huddled around conference room tables on Aug. 5. One room had the U.S. map of the Pacific region laid out, dotted with blocks of blue representing U.S. ships, airpower and units. Beside this map is another, dotted in red, showing the Chinese military view of the conflict.

In another room a detailed map of Taiwan sits, red forces already positioned and moving to take control.

This is the end of a week of war games in which various retired military officers, think tank experts and other government officials have participated. The result will be an extensive report later this year from CSIS analyzing the outcomes of 22 iterations of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In all but one, the “Taiwan alone” version, the United States is heavily involved.

The game umpires include two doctoral students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a former Marine captain and Eric Heginbotham, a principal research scientist with MIT’s Center for International Studies and author of five books and numerous articles on China’s military power. Overseeing the project is Mark Cancian, a CSIS senior advisor and retired Marine colonel.

Some variants had Japan involved from the start. The Philippines allowed U.S. basing in some iterations, but not others. Game moderators permitted U.S. strikes on mainland China in some, but not others.

Throughout the week the game always reaches a stopping point where the players know the likely outcome and, nearly always within the roughly three-week timeframe of simulated combat, it reaches a stalemate on Taiwan between U.S. and Chinese ground forces.

The U.S. team on Aug. 5 included Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security’s Defense Program, and Daniel Rice, an analyst with The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Dougherty also served first in the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and later as a senior advisor to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development.

The China team consisted of Dr. Nora Bensahel, a Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies visiting professor, and Institute for Defense Analyses research staff member Thomas Greenwood, also a retired Marine colonel.

In the very real world, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had only concluded her controversial trip to Taiwan days before this war game began.

People’s Republic of China party officials denounced Pelosi’s trip, calling it a provocation. The Chinese government considers Taiwan a part of China and fights attempts by other nations to officially recognize the country’s independence.

“China will definitely take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity in response to” Pelosi’s visit, officials with the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The wide variety and sheer number of games gives analysts a robust data set, multiple players in the Aug. 5 iteration told Military Times. This is one way to go beyond the headlines and official quotes for a nitty gritty look at what it might take to counter China’s ambitions for Taiwan in the foreseeable future.

Marine Corps Pfc. Kevin Kent, a heavy equipment operator with Marine Wing Support Squadron 171, moves his fleet during a squadron war game competition at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, April 26, 2022. (Sgt. Phuchung Nguyen/Marine Corps)
Marine Corps Pfc. Kevin Kent, a heavy equipment operator with Marine Wing Support Squadron 171, moves his fleet during a squadron war game competition at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, April 26, 2022. (Sgt. Phuchung Nguyen/Marine Corps)

Time, resources and strategy

In an age of data mining, advanced algorithms, machine learning and seemingly endless computer-run simulations, what value would an old-fashioned table top map, game pieces and a fistful of 20-sided dice hold?

“I think it helps you get a far better sense of what U.S. strengths and weaknesses are, and (what) an adversary’s strengths and weaknesses are, in a way that you can’t get from reading an order of battle or a news article,” Bensahel told Military Times.

Hearing from a variety of experts on aspects of air, land and maritime assets and challenges also gives players a deeper understanding.

“It helps shape your way of thinking and how you approach problems in a broader sense,” Bensahel said.

In this not-too-far-off scenario, four players are waging war in an operation that, should it unfold in the real world, would have catastrophic consequences. And the time of gameplay matters.

“If you want anything meaningful to happen on the ground, it happens in weeks or even months,” said Mark Cancian, former Marine officer, game co-designer and umpire. “The thing I like to tell people is look at (World War II) Okinawa took two months and three weeks and that island on the board is not that big. There’s a lot of loose talk on fait accompli. If the Taiwanese fight back, it would take months for China to take it on the ground.”

On the first U.S. turn, the players lost an entire aircraft carrier, though it was on the board from the “baseline” opening and not that team’s choice to have it where it was located. In a version earlier in the week, the United States lost 700 aircraft over the three-week battle.

None of these provided a pretty outcome, but in each of the versions, the United States prevailed, Cancian said.

Leaders assigned to 2nd Cavalry Regiment conduct a multinational war gaming meeting involving leaders from the United Kingdom, Hungary and the Netherlands during a planning phase while participating in Allied Spirit I at Hohenfels Training Area located in Germany, Jan. 20, 2015. (Army)
Leaders assigned to 2nd Cavalry Regiment conduct a multinational war gaming meeting involving leaders from the United Kingdom, Hungary and the Netherlands during a planning phase while participating in Allied Spirit I at Hohenfels Training Area located in Germany, Jan. 20, 2015. (Army)

A war game renaissance

Dougherty noted that war games once dominated the discussions but fell to a low point during the counterinsurgency decades of the early 2000s. That was until nearly a decade ago when former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva authored an article calling for a renaissance in wargaming in a 2015 article on the website, “War on the Rocks.”

The article challenged think tanks and war colleges to reinstitute wargaming in their work, pointing to inter-war periods of the past where wargaming helped the U.S. and its allies prepare for large-scale conflicts such as World War II and the Cold War.

The Marine Corps has touted its use of wargaming, especially those using algorithm-based simulations, to run hundreds or even thousands of iterations of a scenario. That data, Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger has said, in part drove many of the major decisions the service has made in recent years to radically transform its force design.

The changes included shedding all the Corps’ tanks, re-configuring artillery units, and even altering the foundational structure of its infantry rifle squads.

But those decisions also drove controversy. More than a dozen retired Marine officers, many of them generals, publicly argued that the decisions were too radical. They wanted to see what these simulations laid out that led to such moves.

The defense press has asked the same question. Official Marine responses lean on the rigorous analysis the service’s leaders said they’ve performed, but stop short of revealing much, citing classification and secrecy concerns.

Cancian has lodged his own criticisms of the moves. And he told Military Times during the CSIS war game event that part of the value of the think tank exercise is that it can be public.

A heavy element in the Marine planning for a war with China is its Marine Littoral Regiment, a still-forming unit that is experimenting with new weapons systems, formations and employment strategies.

“What are the assumptions? Where is the MLR?” Cancian said. That’s critical information for analysts, journalists and the public to understand better so that the Corps’ decisions make sense.

“And the Marine Corps says it’s all classified,” Cancian said.

Some of those assumptions are tested almost immediately in the Aug. 5 war game.

Luckily in this iteration, the Philippines and Japan have allowed the United States to base forces on their territory and use their airspace, though they’ve not entered the conflict.

It’s nice to have some land nearby to work from. But the distance is challenging.

The Marines’ key weapon, the Naval Strike Missile, simply can’t shoot far enough with its 100 nautical mile range, making it ineffective for strikes from the Philippines to Taiwan, which is where Marines might be stuck if their access to the area around Taiwan is denied.

“If I’m not on Taiwan, that weapon is basically useless,” Dougherty said. The CNAS expert has confidence that the MLR can be effective but he thinks the unit needs a longer ranging weapon than the NSM for this kind of scenario.

And in every scenario, once the conflict stars there’s a “forest of Chinese ships” around Taiwan. In other games the Chinese military sunk an entire Amphibious Ready Group twice. And twice when the MLR did get onto Taiwan, it ran out of supplies and Chinese fires destroyed both its aerial and sea-based resupply.

Rice’s employer, The Mitchell Institute, uses war games to see what hard data might show gaps either in capabilities or assets.

A career-long China expert who now focuses on airpower for the institute, Rice told Military Times that bringing that kind of data to the discussion with a service or Congress can give weight to argument for various resources.

For example, in the midst the Aug. 5 war game, the U.S. aircraft carriers proved too vulnerable. Or a planner might hinge their whole operation on their landing force securing a beachhead.

“You might think you’re totally shored up on the Marines rolling this (operation), but we ran the war game and every single time no Marine made it to the beaches of Taiwan,” Rice said, as a hypothetical example.

War games are usually the realm of top military brass or specially invited experts with classified clearances. But strategy games, whether military-made educational tools or classics such as “Axis & Allies,” a four-decade old World War II board game, can benefit even low-level strategic thinking.

Playing these games helps military members work through small pieces of conflict and bigger picture views of how to integrate joint forces, doctrines and warfighting plans, Greenwood said.

“I think war games are essential, because it lets you, in a peacetime environment ... experiment and tinker with new ideas,” he said.

Lt. Cmdr. Fisher Reynolds and Brazilian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Savio Cavalcanti provide inputs to a multitouch, multiuser interface as part of a control group at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., during the 2013 Inter-American War Game. (Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Navy)
Lt. Cmdr. Fisher Reynolds and Brazilian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Savio Cavalcanti provide inputs to a multitouch, multiuser interface as part of a control group at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., during the 2013 Inter-American War Game. (Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Navy)

The bitter end

The players and moderators ran their game for more than an hour, going through major moves, assumptions and outcomes.

“We took a giant face shot on our first turn when our carrier died,” Dougherty said.

“That always happens,” Mark Cancian said.

“One of the big lessons from these (war games) is that a deterrent is also a target,” Mark Cancian said.

While the China team had early successes, they lost far too much and took too many strikes on their ports and supply chain to continue the fight.

By the end of the game, the China team had more than 30 battalions on Taiwan, quite a feat in under three weeks of battle.

But the U.S. was able to cut off the Chinese resupply entirely, leaving thousands of simulated Chinese soldiers foraging for food, low on ammunition and trying to outmaneuver U.S. forces in a cat-and-mouse fight.

Dougherty noted how the time frame helped show real-world considerations. In many days-long simulations, the United States takes many losses, and the end looks dire. But in a longer timeline, China takes more losses and once the U.S. gets its forces flowing into theater, the result is almost unchangeable — the U.S. wins, but at a heavy cost.

An aircraft carrier that started play a little too close to Chinese weapons systems was lost early. Other carriers hightailed it out of Chinese weapons ranges but were then ineffective in providing support.

In the end, Japan did enter the fight, losing a Surface Action Group and other equipment. The United States lost three Surface Action Groups, comprising typically of at least three to four ships.

But the Chinese military took far more hits — 51 amphibious ships, 58 major combatant ships, seven Surface Action Groups and many more air and fires assets.

As one player noted, the Chinese Navy ceased to exist in any functional capacity after a few weeks of U.S. strikes.

The game ended before the complete conclusion of fighting, so it could get worse. The losses counted as historic by any modern measure but were limited in part due to long-range fires and precision targeting.

But the land battle on Taiwan would likely devolve into brutal large-scale combat neither nation has seen in decades.

“It would be a very different fight when you have to get in close and the attrition goes up further,” Cancian said. “At some point, we’re going to be throwing rocks at each other.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include information regarding gameplay and simulated weapon use.