Goodbye to free Taiwan? Island democracy will play for its existence, without a single ace up its sleeve

It is not surprising that Taiwan, with 24 million, is a dwarf compared to one billion China. Many are surprised that a red flag is not yet flying over Taipei. But in the case of Taiwan, the weight disparity is significantly leveled by geography. Taiwan is separated from mainland China by a strait more than one hundred and twenty kilometers wide. Most weapon systems will not cover this distance. For the success of a hypothetical invasion, it is necessary to fully control the air and the sea, and only then can the units be transported to the places of landing.

The landing forces will face a hard fight with the ground units of the defenders. However, the attacker must rely on the fire support of the Air Force and Navy, at least in the first phase of disembarkation, because most artillery will (at best) only be on their way to the invading beaches. Without air and naval domination, most landing craft will be sunk, and even if an attacker could accidentally control selected beaches, he would not be able to maintain his bridgehead without the continuous replenishment of forces and supplies.

At the same time, until recently, China lacked the capacity to give it hope of success. At the beginning of this millennium, the vast majority of the less than three thousand Chinese fighter and multi-role aircraft were obsolete (mostly technologically at the level of MIG-21 – ie machines from the late fifties). Only a hundred modern Su-27s protruded from this mass of obsolete machines (more modern Chinese aircraft such as the J-10 came into service only after 2003). Although Taiwan had “only” less than five hundred fighters, 58 of them were modern Mirage 2000, 149 F-16 (and 128 domestic F-1 could be considered a machine surpassing most Chinese aircraft). If China really wanted to, it might still be able to gain air supremacy over the Taiwan Strait, but only at the cost of huge losses.

A similar situation prevailed in the navy, although older Chinese structures had been replaced and modernized since the mid-1990s. Although Taiwan also operated a mix of obsolete and very modern (such as the La Fayette frigate) vessels, there is no question that China has technological parity or dominance in this area. In short, at the turn of the millennium, it would only take China many weeks to gain air and sea superiority, it would not be possible without huge losses, and the chances of an overall fiasco would be considerable.

But over the past twenty years, the balance of power between island democracy and China has changed significantly. First of all, China managed to radically change the air force. If we take only fighter and multi-purpose aircraft (about 1400 aircraft) 72% of them are already modern SU-27/30/35, or domestic types J-10, J-11 and J-20. Numerically, China reduced the total numbers, but qualitatively made a big leap forward. In contrast, Taiwan has an air force basically the same as twenty years ago.

And a very similar situation prevails at sea. China has introduced a number of new vessels, significantly upgrading existing ones while strengthening landing capacities. Likewise, China has improved significantly in the areas of anti-ship missiles, naval anti-aircraft systems and electronic warfare systems. And if we are talking about expensive technologies, it is worth adding that China has also become a space power with more than 130 satellites (Taiwan has one satellite).

However, a significant qualitative leap was also recorded by ground units of the Chinese army. If in 2000 the vast majority of the tanks used were derivatives of T-54/55 (the first hundred series of this tank was produced in 1948). At present, 60% of the five and a half thousand tank fleet consists of relatively modern tanks (at least comparable to the modernized T-72). And we can see a similar shift in other techniques. For example, China has significantly strengthened the capabilities of its missile forces with a range of over 100 kilometers. In the event of a conflict, Taiwan could cover hundreds of relatively accurate missiles and at least significantly reduce the functionality of military bases, identified ammunition depots, key transport hubs and airports (with the exception of airports nestled in the mountains).

Although Taiwan is trying to modernize its military, its limited resources (and international isolation) do not allow it to keep up with China. In some areas, the island democracy has almost the same equipment as at the turn of the millennium (in addition to the above-mentioned air force, for example, there are also tanks). Of course, this does not mean that older weapon systems are worthless, but it is clear that the defender is losing the technological advantage and will have to adjust his plans accordingly. Around the year 2000, Taiwan was numerically renumbered, but technologically it prevailed over China in most dimensions. Today, it has been renumbered and, moreover, it is losing its technological superiority in a number of dimensions.