Hamas’s surprise war against Israel is horrific and a stark warning for the United States’ interests in the Indo-Pacific and for Taiwan. The nature of Israel’s and the United States’ intelligence failure—how could they fail to receive or, if received, to heed warnings of the attack—will be a source of heated debate for decades to come. Previous strategic surprise against the U.S., including Pearl Harbor, Tet, the end of the Cold War, the rise of the PRC, and 9/11, remain topics of contention, but provide a valuable study for the causes of these undeniable intelligence failures. Fundamentally, there are many reasons why the U.S. intelligence community can fail. But surprise—the inability to anticipate the attack, which is often rooted in a failure of imagination and errors in assumptions—tops the list.
The costs of intelligence failures are always considerable for the American people, U.S. interests, allies, and partners. The danger that there will be an intelligence failure regarding the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) invasion of Taiwan is particularly acute. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will attempt to do everything it can to maximize surprise by playing to existing U.S. assumptions, expectations, and failure of imagination. The likelihood of the PRC’s successful surprise is rooted in them and, as such, should compel U.S. national security officials to expect that an invasion started by the PRC will be broader than anticipated, likely to include attacks against U.S. allies, Japan, and the Philippines, as well as Guam and even the U.S. homeland. It is probable that the invasion will also be escalatory not only horizontally, that is, including more countries than Taiwan, but also vertically, involving more intensive combat and employment of chemical weapons attacks or limited nuclear strikes—in essence a war of existential proportion.
In 1941, Japanese attacks against the British in Malaya and Singapore and the U.S. in the Philippines were necessary to secure Japan’s flanks to the strategic objective of oil in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Additional attacks against U.S. targets in Guam, Wake, and Pearl Harbor were the attempt to shock the American public and military and compel them to recognize the high cost of recapturing Japan’s conquests, which soon also included most of the Solomons, and the Marshalls and Gilberts. Japan presumed U.S. forces would be deterred from the high costs of recapturing Japan’s outer defense perimeter and so recognize the conquests as a fait accompli. So Imperial Japanese leaders had hoped. They could not imagine that after months of spectacular success their fleet would be checked at Coral Sea and soundly defeated at Midway.
Japan’s lessons, which Hamas horrific attacks have underscored, is that the PRC will act not as the U.S. expects. To offset or mitigate surprise in a Taiwan invasion scenario, the U.S. needs substantive military capabilities in the region. Intelligence failure is never a positive development, but tangible and reliable martial capabilities can provide an adaptive response to offset surprise.
Unfortunately, the U.S. does not possess adequate capabilities in the region. This obvious deficit contributes to the CCP’s calculation that a surprise attack will work, which lowers the cost of war for the PRC, and so invites deterrence failure. In sum, it makes war more likely.
To reverse this situation, a sustained surge of U.S. military capability is needed now.
At sea, more SSN and SSGN presence is required where at any time two-thirds of the U.S. submarine force should be forward deployed to the western Pacific. Additionally, the bulk of the U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier force always should be in the Indo-Pacific. This means a minimum of two carrier strike groups (CSG) should be forward deployed west of the International Dateline at all times—in essence a 2.0 CSG presence akin to the old 1.0 CSG presence maintained in the Persian Gulf for 30 years.
On land, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps should be openly deployed in Taiwan, as well as increases to present bases in Okinawa, across the rest of the lower Ryukyu Islands and among bases in the Philippines, including those on northern Luzon.
In the air, in addition to more combat deployments, Air Mobility Command needs to ensure that it can conduct a NICKEL GRASS-sized operation in support of Taiwan as Military Airlift Command did in support of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Greater air and ballistic, cruise, and hypersonic missile defenses are needed at every U.S. base in the U.S., U.S. territories, and allied and partners’ soil. Japan’s evolving force posture and greater preparation in its industrial base for ship repairs are welcome steps for this key ally and should be replicated and surpassed by the U.S.
Surprise can never be eliminated as the enemy is always dynamic. Moreover, the fundamental fact that surprise works means that aggressors will always seek to maximize it. But having sufficient military capabilities can reduce its effectiveness. The stability that Israel and the Biden administration expected was shattered overnight. Hamas’s lesson for Taiwan is that a similar expectation of stability in the Taiwan Strait is a gross mistake. War is coming and the U.S. and its allies need the capabilities now to deter it, or fight the war if deterrence fails.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.