Plan Now for a 'No-Fly Zone' Over Taiwan
Thwarting a Chinese invasion depends on air defense, and that starts with these four steps.
Taiwan is not Ukraine. It is, rather, in a far more vulnerable position. No matter what other idea guides the defense of the island republic, air superiority will be critical. Washington and Taipei must prepare now to ensure this air superiority. And while discussion of a Ukrainian no-fly zone has given a wide berth to military reality, planning for Taiwan’s air defense must be grounded in hard truth.
Proportionally, Taiwanese airspace is much more difficult to defend than that of Ukraine. While Russia must deploy combat power across a 1,400-mile border, China could concentrate tactical air forces in a much smaller area in assaulting Taiwan.
One could not, by the way, defend just half of Taiwan from Chinese aerial attack. The country is too small, and the Taiwanese population lives on the island’s western side. There is no “humanitarian corridor” one could create over eastern Taiwan. A Taiwanese no-fly zone is, in effect, an air exclusion zone over Taiwan – that is, a combat action, whether or not the U.S. declares it as such.
One could not even defend only Taiwanese airspace. Taiwan is an island, separated by thousands of miles of open ocean from U.S. bases. Its most reasonable supply routes would run through the Philippine Sea, south along the Ryukyus, or north from Luzon. Each area is beyond its territory and its Exclusive Economic Zone. Thus, the supply and logistical aspect of a Taiwanese no-fly zone would mean defending territory beyond Taiwan.
Given these operational, strategic, and geographic realities, four steps are necessary to win the air war over Taiwan.
First, the U.S. must ensure its naval and aerial superiority in the Ryukyu archipelago, between Luzon and Taiwan, and in the Philippine Sea. China should be expected to bracket Taiwan from the east and west, likely with an aircraft carrier strike group on one side and a ground-based air surge on the other. (China’s violations of Taiwan’s airspace over the past 18 months can be taken as practice for the latter.) The Ryukyus are a reasonable defensive line in the north. The archipelago can be turned into an anti-air nest, packed with forward-deployed U.S. Marines and Air Defense Artillery.
The Luzon Strait is harder to defend and would likely require forward-deployed tactical aviation. Most important, however, is the Philippine Sea supply route, as China almost certainly will push submarines into the Philippine Sea and out into the western Pacific. The U.S. should create an anti-submarine dragnet with surface ships and other assets, defended by a constant fighter screen. Each service can play a clear role in this system: the Army in the Ryukyus, the Air Force in the Luzon Strait, and the Navy in the Philippines.
Second, an integrated air defense network is needed to protect Taiwan from Chinese missile bombardment. China’s missile arsenal is simply too large to blunt with a traditional air defense system. Integration would allow for better tracking and target prioritization and enable far more effective layering. If fighter and radar picket data can be fused with air defenses, Taiwan can extend the engagement range of its older ground-based systems like its Patriot surface-to-air missiles, or PAC-2s. American interceptors can help, but given the scale of the operational problem, bolstering Taiwan’s missile defenses to ensure they survive an opening bombardment makes more sense.
Third, the U.S. must obtain more tanker aircraft. A no-fly zone would require air combat over Taiwan and near the Taiwan Strait—that is, extremely close to Chinese territory. U.S. air bases are too far away and the current tanker fleet is too small to provide the refueling that will ensure consistent fighter coverage over Taiwan and in the Luzon and Miyako Straits
Fourth, the U.S. must begin the fight with a significant numerical advantage, or risk being out-concentrated over time. Once again, China can focus a greater volume of aircraft against Taiwan than Russia could against Ukraine, even in the latter’s eastern region. Air combat is a numerical exercise: between forces of equivalent training and comparable equipment, quantity provides a decisive advantage that improves with scale. Chinese aircraft can refuel and rearm at bases far closer to the combat zone than their American counterparts.
Unless the U.S. is willing to strike the Chinese mainland—an option that policymakers should consider despite their political aversion to it—the U.S. must expand its tactical air fleet. Maintaining superiority over Taiwan will require 30 or more fighter squadrons, considering the aircraft the PLA can deploy rapidly from the Eastern and Central Theater Commands to the Taiwan Strait. It may require more if the PLA executes a larger buildup. Taiwan has 17 squadrons. Assuming reasonably effective missile defenses, perhaps 12 will still fly after the first wave of Chinese missiles arrives. This creates an 18-squadron gap between Taiwan and China that the U.S. would need to fill. Two American carrier air wings would provide eight squadrons, while an Expeditionary Strike Group could provide another squadron.
The remaining nine would come from ground-based aviation. Available Japanese-based Air Force tactical aviation could provide four fighter squadrons, and ground-based USMC aviation two. Thus, the U.S. would need to deploy to Japan at least three additional fighter squadrons and likely more, depending upon the state of Taiwanese air defenses.
Winning the air war over Taiwan would be the central immediate concern during a cross-strait conflict. The U.S. must prepare to fight and win this conflict. It should be prepared to say publicly and in advance of any hostilities that winning a conflict over Taiwan is the U.S. objective and that as part of this the U.S. will enforce a no-fly-zone over Taiwan.
Had we taken more seriously Mr. Putin’s attacks on such other Black Sea targets as Georgia and Crimea and acted with greater resolve years ago to help Ukraine defend itself, war might have been averted. Xi Jinping and his predecessors’ declared intent to subdue Taiwan—if needed, by force—is clear as blue skies. Those skies must be defended over Taiwan if the U.S. is to remain the Pacific’s pre-eminent power and our friends and allies in the region are to continue casting their lot with us.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.