A new CNAS report by Stacie Pettyjohn, Becca Wasser, and Chris Dougherty outlines findings from Dangerous Straits, a recent strategic-operational wargame exploring a fictional 2027 war between China and the United States over Taiwan.
The wargame, hosted by the Gaming Lab at CNAS, in partnership with NBC’s Meet the Press, illuminated the dilemmas that U.S. and Chinese policymakers might face if China were to invade Taiwan, along with the strategies they might adopt to achieve their overarching objectives.
The wargame indicated a protracted conflict rather than a short war is likely if China decides to invade Taiwan. Neither side felt as though it had lost, but both had depleted their missile inventories, sustained significant losses, and still needed to resupply and rearm forces under attack. Preventing China from a quick triumph over Taipei did not equate to an American and Taiwanese victory.
Drawing from the findings of the wargame, the authors assert that the United States and its allies and partners must take several steps to change the Indo-Pacific military balance in their favor to deter China from invading Taiwan and prevent war. These steps include the following:
The U.S. Department of Defense should make sustained investments in long-range precision-guided weapons and undersea capabilities, while also enhancing the resiliency of its posture in the Indo-Pacific region and deepening planning with key allies and partners.
The U.S. Department of Defense should plan for a protracted conflict and develop ways to reduce the risks of inadvertent escalation with a nuclear armed China.
The U.S. Congress should enable key improvements in the Indo-Pacific through the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and should help shape Taiwan’s military posture.
Taiwan must improve its defensive capabilities by investing in asymmetric, resilient, and attritable capabilities; increasing training for its active and reserve forces; and by stockpiling key weapons and supplies.
This is the kind of narrative most people imagine when they think of military war games—scenes in the bowels of the Pentagon, units fighting digitally on electronic maps, commanders pondering their next step in a fast-moving crisis. Victory in the simulation, so the popular imagination goes, shows how to win a real-life conflict. Defeat in a war game, on the other hand, is an acknowledgement that any actual conflict will likely be lost.
Contrary to the popular imagination, however, this is not how war games work. Rarely is a war game designed to predict the future or develop a single definitive strategy. Instead, a war game helps military planners and analysts explore and understand a complex problem, regardless of the outcome. Win or lose, the purpose isn’t to define a strategy for the U.S. military but to help it better understand the capabilities it has, what it can already do, and what it needs.
Whether it’s Taiwan or any other potential conflict, the scenario is rarely the focus of the war games we at CNA design for the U.S. Defense Department. Instead, war games are about better understanding how the U.S. military can build deterrence, what technology gaps could hobble its forces, how an adversary’s capabilities might evolve in response to U.S. capabilities, and how all that might impact what Washington should invest in today. Fundamentally, war games strive to explore and distill the fundamental nature of the problem itself—which rarely leads to definitive scenarios or solutions.
In fact, using war games to craft a clear-cut strategy is impossible. Done right, war games are a plausible method of providing a brief and limited glimpse into a possible future—a single future in a multiverse of possibilities. Trying to imitate victory in a war game, on the other hand, means trying to align both sides’ future decisions in a complex conflict with the scenario that played out during the game. Obviously, these decisions are numerous and mostly beyond one’s control.
What worked in a single war game has limited utility—it worked against a specific adversary making a specific set of decisions using a specific set of game rules that may or may not accurately reflect the world. Failure, on the other hand, doesn’t require the game to be a perfect simulation. We often hear complaints from players that our war game rules make the adversary “10 feet tall.” But it is better to stress U.S. forces more than to give the adversary too little credit and not stress U.S. forces enough. Stressing the capabilities of the U.S. forces to their breaking point from all sides allows analysts and researchers to identify vulnerabilities and what might be needed to fix them.
So, in a war game, pay no attention to who won or lost. War-gaming is about the process, not the result—and analyzing that process is what will allow the U.S. military to turn losing into winning.
You can read the full article at the link above. For more on wargaming Taiwan, see Drew Marriott’s 2021 summary of recent Taiwan wargames here at PAXsims.
PAXsims Research Associate Drew Marriott prepared this report. If you know of other wargames that address a future conflict in Taiwan, let us know in the comments and we will add them in a future update.
Current geopolitical unrest between China and Taiwan increases by the day. While commentators speculate about a future invasion of Taiwan, diplomats attempt to avoid one. And as militaries around the world arm themselves for the worst, hobbyists and professional wargamers have been analyzing the situation through simulations. Check out their work in this collection of reports and tabletop games.
Premise: The U.S. national security apparatus has long focused on preparing for a possible invasion of mainland Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army. In The Poison Frog Strategy, CNAS explores an adjacent possibility: a Chinese invasion of islands within Taiwan’s maritime jurisdiction. The report focuses on scenarios that involve a specific island, but its conclusions are applicable to other Taiwanese territory in the South China Sea.
Content: This scenario begins with a surprise seizure by the People’s Liberation Army of Taiwanese controlled Dongsha Island, followed by an increase in military exercises in the South China Sea. The report suggests that the only plausible strategy for the U.S. —while prioritizing the avoidance of war— would be to unite the world in isolating China diplomatically and economically.
Conclusion: The wargame found that China’s first-mover advantage might prove tenable. The soft-power approach that the U.S. and its allies could adopt to avoid the onus of escalation would, at best, be slow to compel a PLA retreat. At worst, the strategy could be thwarted by advanced economic preparation in China. The report suggests that Taiwan’s best option is to pursue deterrence through multilateral preparation; if China were to succeed in invading the border islands, the report warned, there would be few feasible options to force a retreat.
Premise: This report presents a comprehensive timeline of how China’s current “gray-zone” strategy —a slow but vigilant series of military efforts to wear out Taiwan— might escalate into all out war. Reuters consulted military strategists and officers from Taiwan, the U.S., Australia, and Japan to form the basis of T-Day, and looked to articles produced by Chinese and American sources for additional insight.
Content: The report is composed of chronological scenarios, mapping the potential battle to all out war in East Asia. The escalation of the conflict happens in four phases. First China stages a blockade of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands and then they invade Kinmen Island. When Taipei refuses to negotiate with the PRC over reunification terms, the PLA blockades mainland Taiwan, leading to a full-scale, amphibious invasion of the island.
Conclusion: Reuters ultimately speculates that Taiwan’s military capabilities would crumble at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, and international efforts from the U.S. and its allies —including military and economic tools for retaliation— may not be enough to stop China.
Premise: This report is the product of a Körber Policy Game staged in May of 2021 alongside Chatham house. It examines the possibility of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait from a European perspective, offering answers to some key questions: how might a Chinese invasion in the Taiwan Strait impact Europe? how should the continent’s leaders position themselves in such a scenario? and what European interests would be at stake?
Content: Crisis participants were given a scenario where China enacts a blockade of the Taiwan Strait and invades Kinmen Island, proceeding to take control of Taiwan’s air and sea borders after military resistance from Taipei. The simulation teams responded by discussing commensurate policy recommendations. They agreed that Europe would be reluctant to engage kinetically, favoring an economic response. Teams highlighted the trade ramifications that the scenario would produce, suggesting that Europe strengthen its resilience to possible economic fallout and diversify its supply chains to mitigate the crisis of inaccessible Chinese goods.
Conclusion: The report emphasizes the importance of determining a united posture towards China within the EU, and supports establishing strong Indo-Pacific connections to deter Chinese aggression in the first place. Europe’s economic dependence on China and ambiguous ties to Taiwan foreshadow a concerning sentiment for democracy: the continent may prioritize continued access to the Chinese market over defending the U.S.-Lead world order.
Hobby commercial games
Pondering the Past
Understanding the geopolitical history of Taiwan is critical to examining the possibility of a future invasion; even more applicable, however, is developing an understanding of the decisions which built this history. The following hobby games familiarize players with Taiwan’s military past:
The aforementioned crisis reports dissect the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan, and describe possible scenarios that could effectively prevent or result from such a conflict. These hobby games enable players to be strategic decision makers, considering for themselves Taiwan’s uncertain future:
A Sea of Fire is a matrix game of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, by Evan D’Alessandro. It includes an overview of matrix game rules, scenario briefings, map, counters and event cards, plus designer notes.