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US loses half its fighter jets, tons of warships in China war game

The Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II supersonic aircraft, which started its operational testing on the amphibious assault ship USS America. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
August 09, 2022

American military strategists are actively gaming U.S. military response scenarios to a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan by 2026. The wargames have already found that the U.S. would have to lose more than 900 fighter jets — up to half of its fighter jet fleet — and a large number of U.S. warships to turn back China, a new report revealed Monday.

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The unofficial simulations are being held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington D.C.-based security and foreign policy think tank. The war games are ongoing and will run through September, with retired U.S. generals, admirals and former Pentagon officials gaming out the still-hypothetical fight with China over Taiwan.

CSIS first detailed some of the findings of its war game scenarios with Bloomberg News on Monday.

The basic details of the war game are that China decided to force reunification with Taiwan, an island China considers as a part of Chinese territory but which governs itself as an independent nation. The sides represented in the scenario will have their current weapons and capabilities or those they are on track to have by 2026 but will not use their nuclear weapons.

Scenario planners also assume that Japan will grant the U.S. military expanded access to use its territory as a base of operations, but that Japan will not get directly involved unless it is attacked.

As of Monday, the war gamers had studied the scenario 22 different times. In 18 of the 22 cases, Chinese missiles destroyed “a large part of” the U.S. and Japanese naval fleets and “hundreds of aircraft on the ground,” Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at CSIS, told Bloomberg News. He did not specify how many U.S. warships were lost in the cases.

“To get a sense of the scale of the losses, in our last game iteration, the United States lost over 900 fighter/attack aircraft in a four-week conflict,” he told Bloomberg News. “That’s about half the Navy and Air Force inventory.”

Cancian said part of the reason for the heavy U.S. losses is that the U.S. cannot take down China’s defenses without first moving in close and putting themselves at risk. 

“The results are showing that under most — though not all — scenarios, Taiwan can repel an invasion,” Cancian said. “However, the cost will be very high to the Taiwanese infrastructure and economy and to U.S. forces in the Pacific.”

Cancian — a retired U.S. Marine colonel and former employee of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during President Barack Obama’s administration — said the scenarios found that the U.S. could still inflict heavy costs on China despite its own devastating losses.

“Allied air and naval counterattacks hammer the exposed Chinese amphibious and surface fleet, eventually sinking about 150 ships,” Cancian said.

Cancian explained that the Chinese missile force is devastating to the U.S. and its allies for as long as their inventory of missiles lasts.

Cancian said submarines and bombers that can launch long-range missiles are “particularly important” for the success of the U.S. side

In the scenarios, the success of the ground battle in Taiwan depends almost entirely on Taiwan’s forces.

“The success or failure of the ground war depends entirely on the Taiwanese forces,” Cancian told Bloomberg. “In all game iterations so far, the Chinese could establish a beachhead but in most circumstances cannot expand it. The attrition of their amphibious fleet limits the forces they can deploy and sustain. In a few instances, the Chinese were able to hold part of the island but not conquer the entire island.”

Cancian said Taiwan’s inventories of anti-ship missiles are important, but their surface vessels and fighter jets are less useful “as long as the Chinese have long-range missiles available.”

While describing the high cost of a victory over Chinese invasion forces, Cancian cautioned, “We have not run the most pessimistic scenarios, where China might conquer the entire island.”

The war games come at a time when Chinese officials are repeatedly calling for Chinese “reunification” with Taiwan and warning against U.S. support for Taiwan. Last week, Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces launched war games around Taiwan in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island.