Variable 6: What is the size and capabilities of the Chinese Armed Forces?

I think I covered most of this in my previous posts, for example: Invading Taiwan in the next six years – the fight? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org). But, let me walk and talk through the subject one last time.

An amphibious invasion of Taiwan is going to require China to not only put an army across that can defeat the 130,000-man Taiwanese Army, but to also supply that invading army for the duration of the operation (which could takes weeks or months). This means maintaining control of the sea and the air. So while China probably has the army right now that is capable of doing this, if the United States supports Taiwan, it does not have the navy or the air force to do this (especially over time).

So, for the Chinese armed forces to invade Taiwan, they will need not only an army (which the have), but a navy (which they currently do not have) and an air force (which they really don’t have) that can control the sea and the air around Taiwan.

So, for the Chinese to invade Taiwan, they need to either 1) build up their navy, 2) built up and modernize their air force, and/or 3) make sure the United States does not intervene. As this last point is covered in the last post, let us just look like at what they need to do to address the first two points.

The Chinese navy currently consists of 2 small carriers and 36 destroyers. The U.S. navy consists of around 11 large carriers, 9 amphibious carriers, 22 cruisers and 59 destroyers. This is a gross mismatch. See: .

See: The Size of Fleets in the South China Sea, Part 1 | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

And: Size of Fleets around the South China Sea, Part 2 | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

The U.S. Navy is here: U.S. Navy Compared to Russian Navy | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Therefore, over the next 20 years, any significant build-up of naval capabilities will be a strong indicator of intention. The build-up has to be more than another small carrier or two and more than a few more destroyers. They have to build up a capability to at least seal the Straits of Formosa from U.S. naval intervention for at least a month. Now that can be done with air, missiles, smaller surface ships, submarines, etc., but without a deep water navy, they will have lots of other problems (economic interdiction, interdiction of oil supplies, loss of the Spratly Islands, etc.). It is not a pretty picture for them no matter how they look at it, and building up a navy that can take on our deep water fleet is a very tough task to do in next 20 years. Kind of reminds me of Kaiser Willy’s attempt before the Great War to build a battlefleet to challenge the British. That did not work out well either.

And then there is the air. Now according to an article Clinton Reilly just posted in the comments (and I saw not reason to cross-check their data) the U.S. Air Force has nearly 2,300 warplanes in service and 1,422 aircraft for the U.S. Navy and Marines. So, 3,700 + Taiwan’s air force (300+) + anyone else that wants to help (S. Korea, Japan and Australia come to mind). China has 1,264 airplanes. Furthermore, among the most advanced planes are 19 J-20s, 50 J-16s, and 235 J-11s (a variant of the Su-27), 24 Su-34s, 76 Su-30s or 404 airplanes that hold my attention. In contrast the United States Air Force has 432 F-15s, 939 F-16s, 186 F-22s, and 283 F-35s or 1,840. The U.S. Navy has 532 F-18s and 18 F-35s while the USMC has 273 F-18s and 57 F-35s. Taiwan has 113 F-16s and 46 Mirage 2000. So a total of 2,720 vice 404. 

So while one can talk about differing world-wide missions and obligations for the U.S. air forces; for a short period of time, it ain’t that hard to quickly shift a lot of the planes to the defense of Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China (Red China) kind of needs to be able to take on over 2,000 hostile modern fighter aircraft. Hard to do with only 400 of their own.

So, for China to be able to establish permanent control of the airspace around Taiwan, do they need at least another 1,000 planes? May be…probably. Not sure how they do so otherwise. So, then means a pretty serious building program over the next 20 years. We will see this coming. 

So, to have a serious threat to invade and maintain that invasion force they are really going to have go through a serious build-up of both naval and air assets. Far more than what they are doing right now. Furthermore, we will see it coming for years. Added to that, we can also respond in kind. So…..

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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6 Comments

  1. So . . . it’s not likely that PRC will take Taiwan unless tempted to do so by USA not clearly communicating a credible deterrence.

  2. And yet the speeches, especially by the President for Life, on the 1 July 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party indicated a strong commitment to to taking over Taiwan. Are they just bluff or could this be a real threat?

    • Well, I am not a Sinologist, but what did they say about Taiwan in the 30th anniversary speech, their 40th, their 50th, their 60th, their 70th, their 80th and their 90th? Are they saying something very different now than they have said in the past, or are they kind of saying the same thing they have been saying for the last 70 years?

      • Alion is at least interested enough in such matters that the firm is seeking to hire a part-time employee who provides national security and defense policy analysis for combatant commands, service component commands, and the Joint Force; monitors elements of national power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) and foreign policy activity; and keeps the client informed of developments; develops strategies and programs to support client mission sets and plans related to regional and global security challenges, and strategic competition with China.

  3. “Talk is cheap.” Financing an army, navy and air force (and nuclear force?) capable of invading Taiwan (and successfully deterring or wining a nuclear war with the USA) is a more expensive proposition. Still, words going unopposed can lead to misunderstanding about the likely consequences to acting upon those words.

  4. “China has 1,264 airplanes. Furthermore, among the most advanced planes are 19 J-20s, 50 J-16s, and 235 J-11s (a variant of the Su-27) 24 Su-35s, 76 Su-30s or 404 airplanes that hold my attention.”

    I recognize the source of your numbers for Chinese air force strength as the WDMMA website, which grossly undercounts the size of the Chinese air force and is completely out of whack with any other estimate I can find elsewhere. In fact, they have not even updated those figures once in the two years since this post was made.

    Discounting the J-10 is absolutely a mistake – it is a fourth generation fighter comparable with the F-16, and its latest variants certainly overmatch the F-CK-1 and Mirage 2000 flown by the Taiwanese. WDMMA says China has 235 of them – everyone else says they have a lot more, from around 400 at the lower end estimates to nearly 600 at the higher.

    50 airframes is a serious undercount on the J-16 – estimates elsewhere are 180 to 250, in addition to anywhere from 250-450 of the J-11 (plus 50-80 of the J-15 carrier variant).

    19 J-20’s is a joke, an absolutely discredited figure. Everyone reckons on at least 200 of them in service right now and construction at the pace of several dozen a year.

    Taking middle of the road estimates on each, China currently has over 1200 modern fighters in service – three times the figure you have credited them with. You estimate China as having only 15% of the airpower its adversaries have at their disposal, but the actual figure right now is between 45-50%.

    I agree with your overall assessment that invasion in the next five years is improbable, but I think China is on track to close most of the remaining gap in airpower by the mid-2030s.

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