Taiwan Strait Crisis: An assessment of the naval and air force capabilities of the stakeholders

Taiwan Strait Crisis: An assessment of the naval and air force capabilities of the stakeholders


10 | 04 | 2024


How China and Taiwan stack up against each other in military terms, and the role the US and Japan would play in an open conflict

In the image

On the flight deck as the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) while transiting the Taiwan Strait in 2020 during routine operations [Samuel Hardgrove, US Navy]

The 2020s have seen the situation in Taiwan become more tense, from China’s aggressive military exercises in response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island, the shift of traditional allies to mainland China, to new elections held in 2024. China has become increasingly more aggressive against its neighbor, and the traditional ally of Taiwan, the United States. Several countries have gradually shifted their loyalties towards China leaving Taiwan diplomatically isolated in the world stage.

This analysis has the objective of comparing both Taiwan and China’s air and naval power, which since the end of the civil war in 1949 have become the key military assets of the two players, both as a tool of pressurein the case of China and one of deterrence in the case of Taiwan. The analysis uses historical precedents in Asia as clues of what to expect of the two nations and examines the role the US and Japan would play in an open conflict. Due to a lack of transparency, most information regarding the Chinese Military has been derived from secondary sources.


Both air and naval forces have played critical roles in the management of the crisis. Aircraft in particular became critical in the defense of Taiwan, particularly in 1949, 1954-55, and 1958, when some of the most serious actions since the 1949 Civil War took place. Control of the air and the sea of the Strait is critical for both nations, as it is the only thing keeping Taiwan safe from invasion and would be of great importance for China in the case of attempting military action.

The first attempt by China to invade Taiwan took place in 1949, with its failed attempt to capture Kinmen. Further naval and air clashes took place around the area during the crisis that occurred during the 1950s. However, no engagements between the two have occurred since the 1958 crisis. At that time, both China and Taiwan heavily depended on Soviet, and US and Western weapons sales respectively to build up their arsenals. They gradually began to produce their own weapons and equipment as they built up their industrial capabilities and found their suppliers unwilling to sell certain types of equipment.

Naval Power

This is (probably) the most important, and recognizable aspect of conflict and power projection in the Pacific and modern warfare. Both China and Taiwan have expanded their navies in recent years. China, to confront its greatest adversary, the US Navy, and Taiwan to maintain its survival and protect the Strait.

Taiwan, in particular, has seen major changes in this field. While its mainland counterpart has rapidly expanded in size and capabilities, going from depending on purchases of ships from other countries to building its own ships, Taiwan also continues to field ships that previously saw service with the United States Navy in previous wars. The change to building self-sufficiency has been gradual, but is picking up speed, with the nation starting construction in early 2024 of a new frigate. In addition to this, Taiwan has started expansion of its submarine force, with 2023 seeing the small nation expand its military industry in regard to naval power with the launch of its first domestically produced submarine. Currently the ROC Navy fields 5 submarines, 4 destroyers, 22 frigates, 2 corvettes, 10 mine warfare vessels, more than 40 offshore patrol vessels, and 7 amphibious assault ships. Despite gradually beginning construction of its own ships, they still bear similarities to ships used by the US Navy and those of France.

The PLAN on the other hand, has expanded its fleet to a much larger degree and speed than Taiwan, since its objective is to act as a deterrence and, if necessary, confront the US Navy in the Pacific. Within a short period of time, the PLAN has become one of the largest navies in the world. In recent years, China has taken interestin the construction of aircraft carriers, already possessing two that were purchased from the Russians and one more, domestically produced, is fitting out before beginning trials. In addition, China has quickly build up the industrial power to build its own ships. Most of China’s equipment has influence from those of the Russian Navy. China has also greatly expanded its fleet of submarines, with almost 80 submarines from a variety of classes and types, though there are some exceptions. Currently China possesses 3 aircraft carriers, 72 submarines, 49 destroyers, 44 frigates, 71 corvettes, 49 mine warfare vessels, 127 offshore patrol vessels, and 11 amphibious assault vessels. According to some reports, China has already surpassed the US the largest navy in the world.

Both nations field destroyers and frigates, which are the backbone of blue water fleets. In the case of Taiwan, it operates 4 destroyers and 6 frigates, all of which are of the Kidd Class and Knox Class of the US Navy. All the ships in these two classes were sold to Taiwan after the US decommissioned them. In addition to these, Taiwan operates 6 ships of  French built La Fayette Class and 10 of the licensed produced Oliver Hazard PerryClass frigates, all of them are licensed built except for two which were transferred from the US Navy after decommissioning.

The PLAN for its part, operates a large destroyer force ranging from different classes, with the first of them being based on the Soviet Sovremenny Class. The rest of the ships are a mixture of a variety of modified models of the Type 51 and Type 52 Classes of destroyers. China also operates the Type 55 Class destroyer. Regarding frigates, it operates configurations of the Type 54 and Type 53 frigates.

However, if war came to Taiwan, the main ship used would be the landing craft, which would take the troops from ships to shore. China has since the 2000s increased acquisition and construction of LCACs (Landing Craft Air Cushion). LCACs are capable of transporting vehicles, including tanks, making them a valuable asset for any amphibious operation. LCACs are not ships in a conventional sense, while they can sail like ships they can also ‘float’ above the water via the inflatable cushion beneath it. Based on historical records, China’s approach to increase capabilities to conduct amphibious operations are recent. However, in these regard, China is still limited in their capacities, as some reports indicate China may need to requisition civilian ferries and ships to transport troops in a hypothetical war, which will be more vulnerable than military ships.

In the case of corvettes, the ROC Navy operates 3 ships of the domestically produced Tuo Chiang Class, with at least twelve more planned. The ROC Navy also operates a sizeable force of mine warfare, missile boats, and patrol vessels, which, while lacking the size and capabilities of their larger and more famous counterparts, have played critical roles in modern war. China for its part operates a sizeable force of corvettes, centered around the Type 56. In addition to this, it also operates a large force of smaller vessels, including the Type 22, Type 37, and Type 62, alongside a variety of smaller vessels.

Taiwan also has a limited force of amphibious transports, some of which are leased from the US Navy or built by Taiwan. Of those ships that were leased, 4 are World War Two era LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank).The ROC also operates 2 ships of the Newport Class. However, in 2023, Taiwan commissioned the first ship of the Yushan Class.  China for its part, operates a large amphibious transport form in the form of the Type 27, Type 71, Type 72, Type 73, Type 74, and Type 75.

Regarding aircraft carriers and submarines, China is the only one who possesses the former, with 3 of them built, all of them influenced by Soviet models. For its part, Taiwan has started expansion of its submarine force, possessing 5 of them, though only 3 can be considered modern. China for its part, operates a massive force of submarines, from multiple classes and types.

Since The ROC Navy would be on the defensive, it has prioritized the acquisition of missile boats, armed with the feared anti-ship missiles. Since the bulk of the ROC’s naval power is centered around the smaller craft, it is likely that it would be used to raid enemy forces or limit its ability to resupply, more than annihilating the enemy force. The smaller ships and submarines of the ROC Navy are likely to see the bulk of the action but the destroyers  and submarines could be used in a similar role. The PLAN would likely see action transporting troops across the Strait while at the same time dealing with air and naval attacks from the defenders and providing offshore bombardment. It is unclear if China will employ its carriers alone or will operate with escorts as those of the US. Based on experience in the 1940s, carriers will be a priority target for their adversaries.

If war came to Taiwan, they would need US and allied forces to repel a full-scale invasion from the mainland. Under the Three Communiques, and the Six Assurances, the United States pledged to sell arms to Taiwan. The US has, particularly under Trump, increased weapon sales to Taiwan. Due to its importance, it is likely that American forces will be committed to the defense of Taiwan. These assets would be extremely valuable for Taiwan, for US soldiers, sailors, and airmen have training and great experience from participating in operations in the Middle East.

The US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) fields a considerable force of ships, particularly their aircraft carriers, centered around the Nimitz and Gerald Ford Classes. The capabilities of the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke Class destroyers and Ticonderoga Class Cruisers are well known, as well as those of their submarine forcewhich is one of the largest and most experienced in the Pacific, with several attack and ballistic missile submarines. The US also has a very capable expeditionary capacity, allowing for the mobilization of several Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs). The US uses a variety of amphibious ships, allowing for transportation of large quantities of soldiers and their equipment. The US Navy would likely act in a defensive manner, and only taking the offensive to neutralize enemy convoys towards Taiwan, they would also likely carry out surgical strikes into the Chinese coast to delay troop movements.

Carriers are likely to see action in the same way as in 1942, with both of them attempting to attack each otherwhile remaining hidden from the other one. The presence of submarines, and other anti-ship missiles in the theater are likely to make both sides cautious in engaging in direct battle with their carriers. The air wings of US carriers would likely be used to protect the fleet and carry out airstrikes against PLA targets.

In the case that Japan would intervene in a conflict, it main tool would likely be the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force. The JMSDF fields a decent force as a result of the changing geopolitical landscape in the Pacific. Japan fields more than 20 submarines of three different classes. These submarines would play a role similar to that of their ROC counterparts in hunting and destroying enemy shipping.

The backbone of the JMSDF, is however, the more than 40 destroyers, frigates, and mine warfare vessels they operate. The destroyers, alongside submarines would be the critical players of the naval war. The destroyers of the JMSDF would also act as escorts for their allies as they try to reinforce and resupply Taiwan. Furthermore Japan has the capacity to deploy troops abroad, in the shape of the four amphibious assault ships of the Izumo and Hyuga Classes, which, alongside their American counterparts would deploy Marines to Taiwan to assist in holding off the Chinese.

Air Power

The other critical aspect of the Taiwan Strait Crisis is air power. Both, the Chinese and Taiwanese air forces sought to expand their air power, by purchasing aircraft from their ideological allies and turning to them for training and expertise. China benefited from its alliance to the Communist Block, receiving some of the first jet aircraft produced by the Soviets, though it began license producing those models later on and gradually, entirely new aircraft. Despite China’s newer models, the bulk of its forces still greatly resemble that of Russia and the former USSR.

China currently possesses a massive air force, with fighters, strategic bombers, fighter-bombers, transport aircraft, as well as helicopters, originating from domestic produced models and models purchased from the Russians. 

Amongst the planes of the PLAAF there is a fifth generation fighter, the J-20. These new fighters reinforce an already considerable force of combat aircraft that include  J-7, JH-7, J-8, J-10, J-11, J-16, Q-5, SU-30, and SU-35. All of them either built by China or purchased from Russia. However, China has started attempts to replace their more older aircraft. All of these make up a total 1,239 aircraft.

China also fields the H-6 bomber, inspired by the Soviet Tu-16, a model dating back as far as the 1950s. Alongside these, China operates a considerable number of aircraft used for signal intelligence, AWACs duties, or in ASW roles. All of these alongside their tanker fleet gives the PLAAF a considerable advantage over Taiwan.

Further to these, the PLAAF operates its own combat helicopter units. While the US and Taiwan operate transport helicopters, the PLAAF has its own combat units, capable of taking on heavily armed enemy forces. These capacities allow China to be able to engage conventional enemies.

The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) for its part, initially used planes from the Second World War, but gradually modernized with American help, receiving planes from the ”Century Series”. Taiwan continued this pattern, purchasing F-5s from the US and the Mirage 2000s from France until they produced their first aircraft, culminating in the eighties and nineties with the F-CK-1 (also known as the Indigenous Defense Fighter or IDF). These were later reinforced with F-16s purchased from the US. All of these sum up a total of 285 aircraft.

In addition to these, Taiwan fields AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft built by the US and which are still used by the US Navy. The same occurs with their ASW aircraft, the P-3 Orion. Taiwan also has a decent force of transport aircraft, all American and Dutch models. In addition to these, the ROCAF field some helicopter from France and the US. These helicopters would likely be used for Medivac, SAR (Search and Rescue) missions, and to infiltrate commandos.

The role of the air forces would be, for the attackers, to support the invasion force by conducting CAS (Close Air Support) missions for the PLA and the PLAN forces landing in Taiwan, as well as protecting them from air and naval strikes. Taiwan for its part, would use its air force to try and protect the skies above the island, and providing CAS to ground forces where necessary. Considering the massive gap between the two air forces, it is unlikely there will be a massive air battle.

The US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps as well as the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) would see a similar mission, though they would also likely strike PLA forces in the mainland to prevent more reinforcements being sent to Taiwan.

The USAF fields a considerable, and battle tested array of combat aircraft, including the various models of the F-16, F-15, and the A-10, alongside the F-22 and F-35 stealth aircraft. The US also fields strategic bombers like the B-52 ,B-1, and B-2s and a considerable transport, air refueling, and AWACS (Airborne Early Warning and Control) fleet. In addition, the USAF fields several drones.

The US Navy and Marine Corps for their part, field a considerable force of multirole fighters, transport helicopters, and drones. In the case of the Marines, they field both transport and combat helicopters of the Bell Cobra series.

In the case of the JASDF, they field a decent force of licensed produced US fighters like the F-15J and domestic production of the F-2 fighter aircraft. In addition, Japan has purchased the F-35 from the US. The JASDF also fields a considerable transport and special mission aircraft, many of their aircraft and helicopters are domestically produced or purchased from the US. In addition to these capacities, the Japanese Navy is expected to begin trials of a naval version of the US MQ9 drone sometime in 2024.


In conclusion, even though Taiwan has increased its military capabilities in air and sea, so has China. Both nations have made great advances in their domestic weapon industries and technologies. However, the military and technological gap remains as large as always in the benefit of China. China’s growth has taken a more offensive focus in the 2000s, with their developments centered on Taiwan and confronting the US beyond China’s coast. We can also conclude from the data that China lacks the capacity to mount a large-scale amphibious operation at the moment. Based on the data, it is unlikely that Taiwan will be able to defend itself for a long period without US weapons and ammunition to hold against an all-out invasion by China. Taiwan may even require the deployment of US and Japanese forces on her soil to prevent an occupation from the mainland.