Opinion | The U.S. military plans a ‘Hellscape’ to deter China from attacking Taiwan

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SINGAPORE — President Xi Jinping has called on China’s People’s Liberation Army to be ready to take Taiwan by force by 2027. The United States, together with regional partners, must ensure a Chinese invasion can’t succeed. That plan hinges on quickly building and deploying thousands of new drones that would swarm the Taiwan Strait and keep China’s military busy until more help can arrive, according to the top U.S. military official in the Pacific. But time is running out to turn these plans into a reality.

Under its long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity,” the United States has never committed to coming to Taiwan’s defense if China attacks. President Biden has repeatedly said he would send the U.S. military to defend Taiwan, although he added a new caveat in his latest interview with Time, saying, “It would depend on the circumstances.” President Donald Trump seems less likely to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf, having told a GOP senator while in office that if China attacks, “there isn’t a f—— thing we can do about it.”

For any U.S. president, to send American men and women to defend a small democracy on the other side of the world would be a very tough call. That’s why Plan A is to deter Xi from ever attempting an invasion, by making sure that he never looks across the Taiwan Strait and sees an easy victory, Adm. Samuel Paparo, the new head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told me in an interview.

“They want to offer the world a short, sharp war so that it is a fait accompli before the world can get their act together,” Paparo told me on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “My job is to ensure that between now and 2027 and beyond, the U.S. military and the allies are capable of prevailing.”

China’s likely strategy is to overwhelm Taiwan with a massive attack with little warning, Paparo said. Xi doesn’t want to repeat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mistake in Ukraine in 2022, when Russia’s initial full-scale invasion failed and devolved into a long war of attrition.

The key to thwarting Xi’s assumed strategy is a U.S. strategy called “Hellscape,” Paparo told me. The idea is that as soon as China’s invasion fleet begins moving across the 100-mile waterway that separates China and Taiwan, the U.S. military would deploy thousands of unmanned submarines, unmanned surface ships and aerial drones to flood the area and give Taiwanese, U.S. and partner forces time to mount a full response.

“I want to turn the Taiwan Strait into an unmanned hellscape using a number of classified capabilities,” Paparo said. “So that I can make their lives utterly miserable for a month, which buys me the time for the rest of everything.”

“I can’t tell you what’s in it,” he replied when pressed about details. “But it’s real and it’s deliverable.”

There are some public signs the Hellscape plan is making progress. In March, the Defense Department announced it would spend $1 billion on a program called “Replicator” to build swarms of unmanned surface ships and aerial drones for this very mission. Paparo said the Replicator program shows that the United States is also learning lessons from the Russia-Ukraine war, where Ukraine has innovated with drone technology.

The timeline for delivery of these systems is unclear. If the drone swarms aren’t ready when the attack comes, that could raise the prospects of a protracted conflict that would incur heavy losses for U.S. Naval and Air Force assets and would likely expand to include allies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, according to most war game exercises conducted at U.S. think tanks.

Even if “Hellscape” comes together in time, drone swarms alone will not match Beijing’s massive military buildup on its side of the Strait. The PLA is expanding its nuclear, naval, air force, cyber, intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities at record speeds. According to Paparo, China’s military budget is likely three times what Beijing publicly claims, which would put it at about $700 billion annually. Meanwhile, Indo-Pacific Command’s budget is short $11 billion of what it needs this year alone, according to a letter sent to Congress in March by Paparo’s predecessor.

Financing the defense plan is not the only problem. The U.S. military currently has no reliable way to stop China’s hypersonic “carrier killer” cruise missiles. U.S. space assets are also vulnerable to Chinese attack. U.S. military deliveries to Taiwan are way behind schedule. Japanese officials told me the Biden administration is dragging its feet on Tokyo’s request to establish a new joint task force to help prepare for a conflict over Taiwan or in the South China Sea, where China is also getting more aggressive.

Also complicating planning is that a full-scale invasion isn’t Xi’s only option. China might stop short of attacking and simply blockade the island, as it seemed to practice last month after Taiwan inaugurated President Lai Ching-te, who is also referred to as William Lai. Beijing is also using economic coercion, political interference and disinformation to pressure the Taiwanese people into reunification and mess with their minds. Countering these threats falls outside of Indo-Pacific Command’s remit.

As a military official, Paparo has no official role in international diplomacy, but he does have strong opinions on what he calls China’s “revanchist, revisionist and expansionist” government. He believes that four decades of the West trying to convince China to liberalize politically has failed, giving way to a new, more dangerous era for Asia.

“The region has got two choices. The first is that they can submit, and as an end result give up some of their freedoms … or they can arm to the teeth,” he told me. “Both cases have direct implications to the security, the freedom and the well-being of the citizens of the United States of America.”

Paparo is right. Nobody thinks an arms race in Asia is an ideal outcome. But if Beijing insists on an arms race, the U.S. and its partners can’t afford to lose it. As George Washington said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” Absent more action by Washington, Xi may soon conclude Taiwan is his for the taking.

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