White Sun War; The Campaign for Taiwan

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White Sun War; The Campaign for Taiwan. By Mick Ryan. Casemate, Philadelphia and Oxford, 2023.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

Mick Ryan as a retired Australian Army major-general who has established himself as a strategic analyst prominent in writing and presenting on contemporary regional and global security issues. Paramount in this is the challenge from the People’s Republic of China and its determination to regain Taiwan and replace the United States as a regional hegemon.

The  ‘White Sun’ of the book’s title is the symbol in the upper left canton of the Taiwan flag (Its self-imposed more grandiose title – the Republic of China – is rarely referred to). Since 1949 the PRC has regarded Taiwan as a rebellious province which must be returned to the motherland – by force of necessary. It is seen by the US and allies as a bastion of democracy whose democracy must be maintained against an emergent authoritarian superpower. Apart from extinguishing Taiwanese democracy, a PRC-dominated Taiwan would open the wider Pacific region to unfettered Chinese expansionism.

Many analysts subscribe to the ‘Davidson Window’ timeline. Admiral Phillip Davidson, the former US Indo-Pacific commander, warned against the decline in US Navy capability against the People’s Liberation Army, particularly its navy; he assessed that the PLA could attack Taiwan between 2021 and 2027.

The White Sun War was fought between May and August 2028. In his Foreword, dated June 2038, Ryan outlines his reasons for documenting the war, not as a structured academic history but as a novel. He had intended to write a formal history of the war armed with research and interviews with veterans and commanders and launched in the traditional manner with speaking tours at war colleges and universities before moving on to other projects. Instead, he elected to write the history in a manner more accessible to a wider audience. He concluded that most people hadn’t much interest in formal histories with copious endnotes and ‘memoires’ of senior officers and official assessments. Consequently, his novel concentrates on individuals on both sides, in various forces and agencies, who fought the war from a personal perspective.

These individuals comprise a US Army Cavalry company commander, assigned to a US Marine Corps Littoral Regiment, and the regiment’s commander, a US Space Force Technical Sergeant and her supervisor, a PLA Marine brigade commander, a Taiwanese private first class, the US Indo-Pacific commander and the PRC president.

From our 2024 mindset we are invited to advance our contemporary knowledge of the PRC’s strategic posture and its aims towards Taiwan. The exponential rise of autonomous land, air and maritime systems see their extensive deployment in the 2028 campaign. However, Ryan emphasises that wars are fought by humans and not machines. He concludes that military successes stem from adaptations in the field, innovative thinking across joint forces and seizing upon ‘left field’ environmental opportunities. Overarching the campaign is the military truism that amphibious assaults against defended shores are fraught.

In May 2028 the United States was experiencing environmental devastation on the east and west coasts. Enormous hurricanes battered the east coast and vast areas of the west coast were burning under catastrophic wildfires. The PRC, having honed the PLA air, land, sea and space forces to a high level of capability, had experienced a political upheaval through the assassination of the president. The new president, determined to restore Party authority and unite the nation, decided to capitalise on the US internal distractions by invading Taiwan.

Ryan alternates between following the tactical formations of the Marine Littoral Regiment and its attached US Army cavalry company engaged with the PLA forces and the wider strategic command elements of Indo-Pacific Command, Space Force and Cyber Command, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the PRC leadership. The campaign culminates in the battles around Taichang City, on the Taiwan west coast. Situation maps from June 2028 (declassified in 2035) show the US (III Corps), Taiwanese (I Corp) and Australian (1st Division) ground formations dispositions for the battle against three PLA group armies.

Vast fleets of autonomous platforms are engaged – the Chinese ‘beetles’ (combat autonomous land systems of which the US was unaware) and US drones, the latter deployed by the Army Cavalry unit attached to the Marine Regiment. The PLA Marine regiments, commanded by a general who was instrumental in developing the beetles and other uncrewed platforms, performs effectively in the field against US and Taiwanese forces. Unexpectedly for the PLA, Taiwanese citizens rise in support of their forces and engage in partisan warfare. PLA amphibious assault forces, tasked with invasion of the Taiwanese north-west, are blunted by US and Japanese naval forces. PLA airborne assaults were similarly repulsed; however, the PLA secured lodgements in force at Kaohsiung City in the south-west and advanced as far as Taichung City where they are held and defeated.

Fighting is evenly matched, capitalising on autonomous platforms, aggravated by bad weather. The weather deteriorates into a catastrophic typhoon headed for Taiwan and a deception plan is hatched by Space and Cyber Commands, together with FEMA, to manipulate the typhoon  data and deny it to the PLA. The outcome is environmental disaster for the PLA and its logistics train, capitalised on by the allies, causing a PLA withdrawal.

Maritime and air enthusiasts may be disappointed that Ryan eschews the naval and air components of the campaign, dispensing with the northern amphibious forces as defeated by the allies in a naval battle, and concentrates on the southern campaign following the successful PLA lodgements there.  White Sun War is written from the viewpoint of a land campaign following an amphibious assault, using near-future autonomous technology and space warfare. Lessons from the Russo-Ukraine war are drawn upon as bases for the deployment and effectiveness of the autonomous systems.

This topic is foremost in strategic contingency planning and many scenarios, articles, assessments and books will continue to be offered: from the geo-political through the operational to the tactical levels with emphases on distributed joint force flexibility. In White Sun War Ryan offers a thoroughly dramatic narrative which, despite the level of technology employed, is fundamentally a human-driven campaign. The PRC characters have the additional burden of having to answer to political ideology and the authoritarian PRC structure which brooks no criticism and condemns perceived recalcitrants to removal and disgrace.

While the allied forces triumph in August 2028, Ryan posits that the PRC will not resile from the ideological necessity of redeeming Taiwan. This is a parallel consideration for the contemporary Russo-Ukraine war: failing regime change from within, can we expect Russia to accept an independent Ukraine even if defeated in the short to medium term?

White Sun War is tightly written by an internationally respected strategic analyst; it is imaginative, realistically narrated and a real thriller.

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