The focus of European policymakers over the past several weeks has been on dealing with arguably the biggest military crisis on European soil since the end of World War II. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has triggered what the German government has called a Zeitenwende, a turning point in history, when it comes to Europe’s defense procurement and policies. Country after country in Europe has pledged to increase defense expenditure. Germany alone has announced its intention to spend 100 billion euros in a special fund to address urgent capability shortages of the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces.
In laying out plans for future defense policies on the continent, European policymakers need to consider contingencies beyond Russia’s recent aggression. As the ongoing war in Ukraine has shown, “unthinkable” geopolitical scenarios are tragically thinkable and far less comfort can be taken in the assumption that potential adversaries will make decisions in ways we would understand as rational. Given this, the potential need for European contributions to a U.S. military campaign against China in the Western Pacific needs to be understood.
While European states do not have a formal military commitment to Taiwan akin to the Taiwan Relations Act in the United States, they are nonetheless likely to come under considerable pressure from allies and regional partners, in particular the United States, to contribute to the collective defense of Taiwan in the event of a military confrontation with the People’s Republic of China.
The principal burden of any such contribution is likely to fall upon a relatively small number of European militaries. Seven countries (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Poland) account for the bulk of the continent’s expeditionary military capability. The scale of any military commitment made at present is also likely to be limited by at least two significant competing demand signals in Europe’s near abroad: a significantly increased deterrence requirement against Russia in Eastern Europe following Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and ongoing insurgent and jihadist violence in the Sahel and the Middle East.
From a military-operational perspective, the capabilities and forces most useful in a Taiwan conflict scenario are, by and large, the same capabilities that would be of key importance in a high-intensity conflict with Russia in Eastern Europe. This includes, among other things, Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, cyber reconnaissance capabilities, precision-guided munitions, long-range air and maritime strike capabilities, medium- and long-range air defense systems, and electronic warfare systems, as well as suppression of enemy air defense and destruction of enemy air defense (SEAD/DEAD) aircraft and weapons. As a result, any European move to significantly support the United States and Taiwan militarily in a conflict with China would to some extent weaken their capacity to deal with a Russian contingency at the same time, unless there is a fundamental shift toward détente relations between Russia and the West, which appears highly unlikely in the near term.
Despite this, it is clear that European militaries can contribute to the defense of Taiwan if required, even if only to a limited degree. Many European states still possess capable expeditionary forces, along with enabling capabilities that would facilitate their deployment to the Indo-Pacific theater, although the lack of established forward operating locations poses significant challenges to European power projection capabilities to the region.
Perhaps the most challenging issue for European military planners in the event of a Taiwan conflict would not, however, be generating their own forces for deployment, but the likely reduction in available U.S. reinforcements for a simultaneous contingency in Europe or its near abroad.
The precise nature of any “ask” upon European militaries in a hypothetical Taiwan contingency is dependent on the operational approach, or approaches, adopted by China. The U.S. Department of Defense identifies four principal options open to Beijing: a coercive cyber and information operations campaign, a dedicated air and maritime blockade of Taiwan, a stand-off campaign of air and missile strikes, and an invasion of Taiwan’s outlying islands and/or the main island itself.
Each of these options would potentially require a different mixture of capabilities to be deployed in response.
Scenario 1: Grey-zone Activities
In this scenario, China will likely use sub-threshold coercion in the grey-zone – clearly hostile activities below the threshold of armed attack – directed at non-military targets but also across warfighting domains including air, sea, cyber, and space.
Any European support to help combat Chinese grey zone activities would need to begin in advance of a military crisis. First, European partners along with Taiwan could actively cooperate in helping establish norms of behavior that could help stigmatize Chinese grey zone coercion. European countries, given their norm-setting powers and institutional influence in international organizations, would be ideally suited for this task.
Second, select European powers and Taiwan could informally conduct bilateral exchanges and partnerships between their respective coast guards with a special emphasis on countering coercion in the grey zone. This could include joint exercises of European and Taiwanese special operations forces on how to counter grey zone coercion in the maritime domain in and around Taiwan as part of regular military exchanges.
Third, Europe could support Taiwan and help fend off Chinese attacks in the cyber domain. Despite lagging behind the United States, select European countries – most notably the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands – retain strong military cyber capabilities. They would also bring operational experience in cyberwarfare. Both France and the U.K. have conducted successful military cyber campaigns against terrorist groups in the Sahel and the Sahara as well as against the terrorist organization Islamic State in Iraq and Syria respectively. A recent net assessment by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has put the U.K. and France on par with China and Russia in terms of its overall cyber capabilities.
Select European powers would not need to necessarily go on the offensive against the People’s Liberation Army in the cyber domain. They could confine their role to helping defend Taiwanese networks. For example, Germany is known to operate effective computer emergency response teams (CERTs); specifically, their military CERTBw (Computer Emergency Response Team Bundeswehr) could help protect Taiwanese networks and support Taiwanese network defense operations. This would require deeper peacetime cooperation between Taiwan and Germany and would need to include a willingness to share critical intelligence in a timely manner, which could prove tricky given high profile intelligence leaks within Taiwan’s armed forces.
Scenario 2: Air and Maritime Blockade
For stronger coercive effect, China could choose to implement an air and maritime blockade, potentially paired with information warfare operations to force political concessions on the part of Taipei.
In this scenario, European countries would seek to avoid the situation escalating to direct militarily confrontation if possible. Instead, they could choose to organize or participate in an international airlift to break the blockade by requisitioning civilian cargo planes.
In order to emphasize its non-military nature, this could be coordinated by the European Union’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) or through ad-hoc arrangement between participating European nations. This would require an agreement between commercial operators and respective European governments. This could be part of EUERCC contingency planning. Agreements between the U.S. Department of Defense and commercial operators around the U.S. Civil Reserve Air Fleet could serve as useful blueprints in this regard.
As long as this activity is not overly military in nature, China, having chosen to pursue a sub-threshold approach, may be unwilling to escalate to direct military action by attacking civilian cargo planes en route to Taiwan. Such a logistical operation could be accompanied by coercive diplomacy and the threat of imposition of economic sanctions and a boycott of a select number of Chinese goods.
Scenario 3: Air and Missile Strikes
Under the Joint Fire Strike Campaign concept, the PLA could choose to conduct missile attacks and air strikes against select targets in combination with offensive cyber operations to degrade Taiwan’s defenses and force the island into submission.
While European militaries could choose to join Taiwanese (and potentially U.S.) forces in attacking Chinese targets such a move would be highly escalatory and is therefore only likely to be considered if PLA invasion preparations are already underway.
A potentially less escalatory way to offer military assistance in such a scenario would be by airlifting air and missile defense systems and ground-based electronic warfare systems (EW) into Taiwan in the run-up to a military conflict. While European countries only possess a limited number of long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, they have, in the past, been able to deploy some of these abroad for operations, most notably in NATO’s Active Fence mission in Turkey from 2013.
High demand for these assets in a potential Russia contingency would result in only a small number being made available for deployment, perhaps four to five Patriot batteries from Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain collectively. Additionally, given that a portion of France’s SAM forces will be allocated to protecting elements of Paris’ nuclear deterrent, France and Italy could likely add two to three SAMP/T batteries to this total, although this might pose interoperability challenges with existing U.S.-origin Taiwanese systems.
Even moving a relatively small force such as this, however, would consume large portions of Europe strategic airlift capabilities. Such a deployment would also likely be even more constrained by inadequate warning time, perhaps more so than transport capacity.
If a deployment to Taiwan itself is deemed to be impractical for operational or political reasons, European militaries could instead offer to reinforce U.S. military bases in the region, as well as those of regional allies, although this would require bilateral agreements between the respective European countries and the host governments.
Should air-based and maritime EW capabilities be required, this would also require access agreements to facilitate the use of air and naval bases in the region. The relative lack of current European forward operating locations will put a significant constraint on European power projection capabilities in the event of a crisis.
Scenario 4: Invasion
PLA planning for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan and its outlying islands primarily falls under its Joint Island Landing concept. This would require air and naval superiority for the duration of PLA operations against Taiwan and involve military operations across all warfighting domains.
Whilst a successful fait accompli conducted against an outlying island might not prompt any direct military response against China, either by Taipei or by its external allies, a full-scale invasion almost certainly would. Although warning times for a full-scale invasion would likely be longer than under the previous two scenarios, this would be counterbalanced by the increased range of capabilities that would need to be deployed in response.
Amphibious forces would be at their most vulnerable in the initial phases of an operation; either in transit, or before an initial beachhead is secured. The success of such an operation would largely be predicated on the PLA achieving air and sea control around Taiwan for the duration. Key capability “asks” of European militaries under this scenario are therefore likely to center on providing part of the air and maritime combat power necessary to challenge this control as well as the requisite enablers and support capabilities required to sustain these forces.
European air forces lack dedicated long-range bomber aircraft. Instead, Europe’s combat air power consists of short-range tactical aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafale, or F-16 Fighting Falcon armed with air-launched cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions. The majority of these squadrons would likely not be available for a Taiwan contingency, being earmarked instead for retention in the European theater, or, in France’s case, for the nuclear deterrent role. Even the largest recent deployment of European combat air power, the 2011 Libyan air campaign, only saw the equivalent of 10 squadrons deployed by European militaries at its peak, including naval aviation. Nonetheless, it is possible that select European countries could collectively supply a smaller, but still substantial air power to the Indo-Pacific, perhaps six squadrons, as long as adequate basing capacity and enabling support is available in the region.
The availability of these bases and enablers is far from clear, however. Relying on short-range combat aircraft would require the use of substantial air-to-air refueling capabilities, which European air forces have only to a limited degree, both to transfer these aircraft from Europe to the Western Pacific and to support their operations once deployed.
In addition to combat air power, European countries could also deploy surface naval forces in the vicinity of Taiwan for surface warfare operations against the PLA Navy, land-attack missions, or ballistic missile defense. Attack submarines could be used against PLA naval assets and to conduct sea-launched land-attack strikes. The combined navies of Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands feature a considerable number of large surface combatants, yet their suitability for high-intensity warfare missions remains in doubt. Furthermore , only a fraction of these hulls could likely deploy for short-notice operations in the Western Pacific, given commitments under NATO and existing maintenance and repair cycles.
A joint European aircraft carrier group, and possibly an accompanying amphibious group, with accompanying submarine escort, could likely be assembled for a major Taiwan contingency, comprising perhaps a dozen hulls in total. However, the quantity and quality of Chinese anti-ship capabilities would mean that this would be an extremely risky prospect early on in a conflict. In the maritime strike role, a stand-off posture employing land attack cruise missiles is therefore likely to be prioritized. Only a very small number of European hulls are currently armed with such systems, however.
If these offensive limitations are deemed to overly limit the utility of a major European maritime task force in the Western Pacific, an alternative might be for European countries to offer to replace U.S. naval assets currently assigned to the 5th Fleet in the Middle East in the event of a conflict, allowing the United States to more rapidly reinforce its own naval forces in the Western Pacific, as well as reducing the potential logistical burden on European navies, given their greater existing support infrastructure in the Middle East and Indian Ocean.
Select European powers could provide limited military support to the United States and Taiwan in the event of a military conflict in the Western Pacific. European contributions, depending on the specific cross-strait conflict scenario, could include providing cyber intelligence and defense capabilities, conducting a civilian strategic airlift, dispatching naval task forces and combat aircraft for SEAD/DEAD missions, as well as air lifting air-defense capabilities into theater.
A key assumption in all of the above scenarios is that Europe would not be acting alone, but as part of a U.S.-led coalition, probably including regional partners. The U.S. would be widely expected to contribute the majority of military capability to any external action in support of Taiwan. Given that, any high-intensity conflict with China in the Western Pacific would significantly reduce U.S. military capacity in Europe and other regions of the world in key areas, which could result in a further headache for European military planners.
Should European countries be required to dispatch their most capable military assets to the Western Pacific to support U.S. military operations, this would further reduce European capacity to respond to a military crisis along NATO’s eastern flank or in the Mediterranean. Overall, unless there is an accelerated push to procure capabilities for high-intensity warfare in large quantities, a conflict in Taiwan would significantly weaken conventional deterrence in Europe vis-à-vis other near-peer adversaries such as Russia. European policymakers and planners will therefore need to urgently grapple not just with generating the forces necessary for a Taiwan contingency but also with increasing their own contributions to the defense of Europe itself.
This is an excerpt of the report “Taiwan Cross-Strait Stability and European Security: Implications and Response Options” published by the Institute for International Strategic Studies (IISS) on March 30.