Will Beijing Attack Taiwan Sooner Than We Thought? Interview With James Fanell, Part 1

Simone Gao: (00:02)

Hello, everyone. Welcome to Zooming In China Chat. I’m Simone Gao. 150 Chinese fighter jets entered the southwest airspace recognition zone of Taiwan during the National Holiday of China two weeks ago, the most in the past 40 years. Taiwan’s defense minister said this is the most dangerous time for Taiwan. Would Xi Jinping really decide to invade Taiwan? Are the Taiwanese military and the U.S. military prepared for such a scenario? I had these discussions with James Fanell, former senior intelligence officer for China at the Office of Naval Intelligence and the chief of intelligence for CTF-70, 7th Fleet and the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Take a listen. 

Simone Gao: (00:56)

Thank you, James, for joining Zooming In China today. 

James Fanell: (01:00)

Thank you for the invitation, Simone. 

Simone Gao: (01:03)

Okay. Let’s talk about the possible war on the Taiwan Strait. First of all, the Taiwan defense minister recently said the People’s Liberation Army already has the capability to attack Taiwan right now, but they have to consider the cost. By 2025, their cost of invading Taiwan would drop to the lowest. What do you make of it? Can you explain what he meant exactly? 

James Fanell: (01:30)

Well, I think that the defense minister was, uh, specifically referring to, um, what I characterize as the decade of concern, which is based upon the, uh, the facts that who’s in town and Xi Jinping had ordered, uh, the PLA to be ready to have the capability to militarily invade Taiwan starting as early as 2020. And I think at that point in 2020, uh, Xi had assessed that they have a modicum of a capability to conduct an invasion, uh, but they would like to be able to continue their modernization efforts as well as their, uh, comprehensive national power to use, uh, political warfare, information warfare, economic warfare, to continue to try to wear down, uh, the people of Taiwan and the leadership of the current administration, uh, to, uh, capitulate essentially. And so I think part of the calculus also is the strength of the United States resolve and where their capabilities will be. 

James Fanell: (02:44)

And so I think, uh, somewhere around mid-decade, what I call the decade of concern, because we all pretty much–not all, but I–believe that by 2030, China will have to make a decision whether or not to use military force or not. And so I think around 2025 will be a decision time, uh, for the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA. And I think they’ll be looking for, as you know, there’ll be an election, uh, in, uh, November of 2024 for president. And if, if for some reason, uh, Trump or somebody like Trump were to come back into power, uh, Beijing would know then that they would have, uh, you know, basically no time in, in, in response because of a new administration would take much greater, presumably greater, actions to confront China than maybe we see right now.

Simone Gao: (03:41)

Right. Although 2024 is already very near, very close to now, but people are even worried about right now, you know, even before the 20th Party Congress, which is going to happen in 2022. So, you think right now there’s, I mean, what’s the possibility of having a war right now, before 2022? 

James Fanell: (04:03)

It’s very difficult to, uh, precisely determine when the PLA and the PRC would launch an invasion. Uh, and my personal assessment is it’s unlikely that Beijing would want to launch an invasion before their hosting of the Olympic games in 2022 and before the, uh, Party Congress, as you mentioned, uh, in later, in the fall of 2022. That said, it is still entirely possible, uh, that, uh, Xi and the Party could make the determination that now was the best time. As we know, in America in 2022, we will have mid-term elections and if a strong showing from a party like the Republicans, it’s possible that there could be, uh, more emphasis put on pressuring the Biden administration to take much more, uh, strong, uh, overt responses to Chinese action. So, again, these are timelines that are very difficult to determine, but my sense is is that, uh, they’re going to want to continue to at least, uh, enjoy the presence of the world’s attention for the Olympics. 

James Fanell: (05:16)

Even though they’ve now said they’re not going to have spectators. So, this announcement this last week that Beijing will not have spectators at the Olympics, uh, was a little bit of an interesting twist for me, uh, because it could mean that China possibly is preparing for something even before, or during, the Beijing Olympics. I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s entirely possible. And what we’re seeing from the PLA in terms of operational readiness training with these, uh, high amount of exercises this summer and fall and the air incursions that we’ve seen over the PRC’s 1 October Day celebrations, uh, those were very dramatic, but I’d remind folks, those were just tip of an iceberg in terms of the total capacity of the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy. 

Simone Gao: (06:04)

Right, right. Um, I just want to go back to, uh, the Taiwan defense minister, uh, a little bit. So he said right now, the PLA already has the initial capability to attack Taiwan. What does that mean exactly? Does that mean that, uh, you know, the PLA has the ability to attack Taiwan and the ability to fend off U.S. aid? What does that mean exactly? 

James Fanell: (06:31)

Well, I think we know that the PLA has a strategy for conducting an invasion of Taiwan, and it’s composed of various elements. Clearly, they will be using their new Strategic Support Force to conduct, uh, cyber, uh, type of actions, offensive actions to, uh, shut down critical infrastructure in Taiwan, even to shut down or disrupt, uh, networks and infrastructures in Japan where American bases are. And even in the United States to cause confusion and, uh, create, uh, uh, delays in the ability of the U.S. military and other militaries to get into the theater. So, that would be the first thing that they would do. And then the Chinese writings talk about, uh, a joint fire strike campaign, which is essentially, uh, launching the missiles of the Strategic Rocket Force, the ballistic missiles that they have, uh, launching them at key targets in Taiwan, uh, at Naval ports at, uh, airfields, at garrison locations of the Taiwan Army, uh, at supply centers, at critical choke points, uh, at rail or at, uh, transportation hubs and things of this nature. 


James Fanell: (07:50)

So, those missiles would be flying into Taiwan in the midst of a cyber attack. And then once that is accomplished almost simultaneously, but after the missiles are flown, uh, the PLA air forces would then establish what they call a joint, um, uh, air, uh, an air superiority over the island. And so you would have the joint fire strike campaign, a joint anti-air raid campaign, which is the air component which would prevent any Taiwan air forces that remained from the strike campaign. Uh, those air forces would be either targeted on the ground, or if they are able to get up, they would be taken out in the air so that Taiwan would have, uh, China would have, and the PLA would have, air superiority over Taiwan, would be able to prevent, uh, U.S. air forces or Japanese air forces from getting in over Taiwan, which would allow them the final segment of the, uh, plan, which is the, uh, island, uh, invasion campaign to come across the Strait. 

James Fanell: (08:53)

And to be able to actually not have a contested landing on beaches where there’s barbed wire and tank, uh, restrictions, but they would actually be able to take maybe some of the key ports or airfields where they could actually come in with massive amounts of PLA troops that would be able to then, uh, conduct combat operations into the island. And so these phases, uh, a cyber event, a joint fire strike, uh, joint anti air raid campaign, and then the island landing campaign would be conducted in a, in a, in a sequential order but a couple of those up front. The cyber and the fire strike would be conducted almost simultaneously with the air, uh, activities. And actually, I think Chinese doctrine now is sophisticated enough that they would be able to actually do fire strikes. And when they would launch, uh, strikes, then they would have aircraft that would operate over. 

James Fanell: (09:47)

And then if they saw that there was still remaining targets that needed to be struck with ballistic missiles, the air forces would retreat back over the mainland, and they would restart relaunching, uh, missile strikes in, in a sequence like that. So, this is exactly how they would do that. And they’ve been practicing each element of that over the last two decades. First, they’ve been acquiring, uh, acquiring over two decades of military modernization, acquiring these materials, these ballistic missiles, these flighters, these, uh, naval vessels, uh, these helicopters, amphibious carriers, all of this. And they’ve been training in a complex electromagnetic environment up and down the coast of China from the North Sea fleet and the Bohai, inside the East China Sea and in the South China Sea, and across the Strait from Taiwan. 

Simone Gao: (10:39)

Okay. That’s a very complicated plan. And if they have been developing this plan, would you say this is the most likely battle plan that they will launch? 

James Fanell: (10:51)

Yeah, I think it’s entirely likely that they will, uh, this is the, it may sound complex, but it’s very, it’s pretty basic. It’s neutralize your enemies, command and control with cyberwarfare attacks, launch ballistic missiles to take out the key ports and airfields, establish air superiority so that your aircraft can control anything that happens in the airspace over Taiwan, and then you start the invasion. Uh, so that it would be, you know, their plan is to make it almost impossible for Taiwan’s military to be able to launch a counterattack against the invading forces that had come across. That’s the strategy. Included in that is also this idea of, uh, uh, counter-intervention strategy, which is to keep the United States and other foreign militaries outside of the theater of operations. We call it A2AD in the U.S., it’s called anti-access area denial, but it’s this idea that they would also use ballistic missiles, like the DF-21D or the DF-26, which can range Guam, the DF-26 and the DF-21D, can range past the first island chain and be able to target U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. And you just saw this last, uh, week or so a large exercise with two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Carl Vinson, uh, the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth, and then a Japanese amphibious carrier, uh, the Ise. So those missile systems, the DF-21D and the DF-26, are specifically designed to sink large, big floating aircraft carrier-type ships. So, those missiles would be used as well as a counter-intervention strategy to keep supporting forces from Taiwan at bay. 

Simone Gao: (12:42)

How powerful are those Chinese missiles? Are they able to keep the aircraft carriers out of the area so they can’t function? 

James Fanell: (12:50)

Well, there’s been a lot of debate over these missile systems, these anticarrier ballistic missiles, and for a long time, uh, since the, you know, the late 2000s–2008, 9, 10–uh, we were learning about these missile systems and then for the next five, ten years, people were debating their efficacy and whether or not they were effective against, uh, targets at sea. And many critics of the missile systems pointed to the fact that China had never tested these missiles at a target at sea. Um, that’s not entirely true, but suffice it to say last August, in 2020, uh, China shot a salvo of missiles, two from the DF-21D and two from the DF-26, we believe, uh, at, uh, a maneuvering target, uh, in a closure area south of Hainan Island. So, it was a signal, uh, to the United States and Japan and others that yes, China’s missile systems are effective and have been tested against a maneuvering target at sea. Does that mean that they’re, they’re 100% accurate each and every time? No, our, our ships, uh, have, uh, uh, capabilities to, uh, uh, deceive incoming missiles. The missiles themselves are traveling at a high rate of speed, and if you can deceive their seekers, uh, just a little bit, they will miss, because it’s very difficult to hit a, hit, a moving ship, even a big aircraft carrier that’s, uh, a thousand feet long. 

Simone Gao: (14:17)

Okay. But what if they, what, what if they launched like hundreds of missiles? I mean, one of those will land on the aircraft carrier, right? 

James Fanell: (14:27)

Well, that’s the strategy that China would use. You know, the, the old saying that, uh, quantity has a quality all of its own. So, if you know that your missile system has an error rate of, uh, 10% or 15%, whatever it is, well, then you launch more missiles to ensure that you have the probability on your side that you’ll have a chance to hit one of these, uh, big, uh, uh, large-deck carriers. And just hitting a carrier, uh, would have, uh, the, it doesn’t have to sink the aircraft carrier to have what we call a mission kill, which is to effectively take the carrier out of the fight because it can’t launch and recover aircraft. 

Simone Gao: (15:07)

Right. Right. So, if that’s the case, and it seems like that’s not very hard to do, because if they just launch bunch missiles, one of them will land on the aircraft carrier and the carrier will be out of the fight. Then, what will the U.S. do? 

James Fanell: (15:24)

Well, as I mentioned, we’re not totally, the U.S. is not totally unaware of this strategy of you sending a lot of missiles, and we’re not unaware of the capabilities of the missiles and how they’re configured and things of that nature, which I can’t talk about in detail. But what I can at least say is we have, we have the capability and the thinking that we’ve been working on for, for a long time to how do we deceive and disrupt a missile system like that? Whether we deceive it through, uh, sending a false signal of what our signature of the aircraft carrier looks like, maybe five miles away. If you were able to create a signature that said, well, it looks like the USS Ronald Reagan is not here, it’s over here, uh, that will defeat the missile system. There are other systems that we can do. 

James Fanell: (16:09)

We have a U.S. Cyber Command that has the ability to do its own offensive cyber operations. So, maybe you disrupt the command and control of the missile system before it’s even launched. So, there’s a lot of things that the U.S. military has the capability to do, but presumably, uh, you know, we have also considered the fact that these large-deck, uh, aircraft carriers could be taken out. So, what does the United States also have? Well, we have a series of, uh, other platforms. We have surface ships, which are not quite as capable, but they’re becoming more capable with, uh, uh, like the team LAAM, uh, Navy, which we have, uh, there was a new missile system that’s being developed. It’s actually been tested already. They shoot a T LAAM that can go and strike Chinese ships that would also be involved with the invasion. Uh, and then we have our submarine force. And so we have a number of submarines, nuclear powered submarines, that carry a variety of, uh, uh, vertically launched, uh, cruise missiles and attack missiles that could be used to also disrupt the Chinese invasion plan. 

Simone Gao: (17:14)

Hmm. Okay. Will America and its allies be able to defeat the PLA in a scenario like that? 

James Fanell: (17:22)

That’s the big question. And, and right now, I think the answer is more and more folks like me that have been giving warning about the PLA modernization for a couple of decades, um, we’re very, very concerned about the, uh, uh, the gap in military capabilities between the PLA and the U.S., uh, Indo-Pacific forces that are forward deployed into that region. Uh, and even the, you know, it takes a couple of weeks for aircraft carriers to get from the west coast of the United States across the expanse of the Pacific. So, uh, I’m very concerned that the balance of power is shifting into the PRC’s favor. And that is why I’m a strong advocate of building up our deterrent capability. And so we have the, we have, uh, uh, an existential threat in many ways, uh, from the PRC. Certainly Taiwan as an existential threat from the PRC and the PLA. 

James Fanell: (18:23)

And so it’s incumbent upon us that want to ensure freedom and democracy and liberty in this region, uh, is not overcome by the, by the Chinese Communist Party. We need to have the force structure and military that can deter, uh, the PRC from acting. And unfortunately to get those forces and get that force structure that would really deter China, it’s going to take a lot of time, beyond 2025. And this has been my worry for so long, which is when I first started giving these warnings, uh, over a decade ago, I, I was well aware that it would take awhile for the U.S. to be able to start producing the kinds of military equipment that would deter China. We don’t have those completely yet. We have some, and we’re, we’re working on it, uh, but is it enough to actually stop China in the conventional arena? 

James Fanell: (19:15)

And I’m not so sure it is, which leads to the other arena, which is the nuclear arena. And in that regard, the United States is still, uh, the world’s leading power when it comes to nuclear weapons. And so, I think there’s a place in this, uh, deterrent, uh, uh, strategy to deter the PRC from, uh, launching an invasion that would, you know, put 23 million people at risk. That the United States needs to communicate to Beijing that not only will we fight you conventionally, but you have to worry about whether or not we will use nuclear weapons. And that sounds crazy to a lot of people, uh, but right now we need to do that. And it’s not so crazy when we consider that in just the last six, seven months, China has already built, uh, constructed 350 new nuclear ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missile silos, out in central and western China. Uh, so China recognizes that they’re behind in the nuclear, uh, arsenal, uh, race. And they’re now racing towards building a nuclear arsenal that could very quickly close that gap that the United States has over, uh, China. And so, we need to pay attention to that as well. 

Simone Gao: (20:34)

That’s it for today. Thanks for watching Zooming In China Chat. Please like, share, subscribe and donate to this program if you like my content. Our website is zoomingin.tv. I’m Simone Gao, and I’ll see you next time.

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