D-Day, 80 years later, contains lessons for defending Taiwan (2024)

Eighty years ago today, soldiers from ten nations hit the beaches in northern France.

Five thousand assault craft carried 160,000 soldiers onto Normandy’s shores.They were supported by seven battleships, dozens of cruisers and destroyers, and extensive ground-based air cover.

They followed closely behind around 30,000 American and British paratroopers and glider infantry, who had been dropped in the night before to disrupt German defenses. All of this took place after years of mass bombing against Germany, months of aerial reconnaissance, and equally critical, six months of carefully planned deception operations to spoil German planning and preparation.

Even then, the D-Day landings were a very close call.The U.S. should take a distinct lesson from this as it faces an adversary contemplating an operation of similar complexity in the Pacific. No single element will deter or defeat China and its intentions against Taiwan.Instead, only the comprehensive application of national military power and alliances can succeed.This should include military integration with Taiwan.

The D-Day landings were not the largest military operation in history, at least not by number of participants.That distinction belongs to Operation Barbarossa, the nearly four-million-man German offensive into the Soviet Union.Despite its tactical successes, Barbarossa failed strategically to knock the Soviets out of the war.

Operation Overlord, although much smaller in numbers, was decidedly more sophisticated in operational needs.It required synchronization not only of infantry, artillery, and armor, but their delivery to enemy-held shoreline, and their support by tactical airpower, bomber interdiction, and naval gunfire.The Allies, using their collective industrial and technical capacity, needed not only to man and equip an enormous ground force, but also to invent wholly new machines. This included the well-known Higgins Boat and its cousins, as well as “Hobart’s Funnies,” a series of bespoke armored vehicles armed with flamethrowers, heavy mortars, and mine-clearing weapons to push through tenacious German defenses.

Much of the technical difficulty of D-Day stemmed from its unprecedented character.The Allies had conducted several amphibious assaults in the European theater before D-Day, including landings in Sicily and Italy.But no prior amphibious assault had been so central to the war effort.Failure in Sicily or Italy would have been a strategic reversal, but German resistance in Western Europe could not have been broken without a successful crossing of the channel.Had D-Day failed, Germany could have again turned eastward. This would have extended the war until 1946 at least, before the U.S. would have developed enough nuclear weapons to beat the Nazis into submission. A rupture might have also occurred between London and Washington, since the Americans had decided on the Normandy landings, ruling out British alternatives in Scandinavia and the Mediterranean.

China is currently contemplating a cross-strait attack of equal complexity to the Normandy landings. The strategic roles have been reversed — Taiwan, a nominal U.S. ally, faces attack, meaning that the U.S. will be preventing a Chinese landing. Such an operation has enormous complexities, and even if successful, will involve tens of thousands of Chinese casualties in its first day, alongside the risk of a wider war.Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party is setting the conditions to manipulate Taiwan into submission without an invasion, and to keep the U.S. and its allies politically separated from Taipei.But China has to prepare for a cross-strait attack simply as a matter of political calculation, in case Taiwan will not come willingly.

Germany’s experience offers some help to U.S. planners.The Germans were ultimately overwhelmed after D-Day for two reasons: proper deceptive planning and cumulative attrition. The Allied deception effort ensured that critical German reserves were out of position.In turn, the Allied bomber offensive, despite failing to cripple German industry, did erode German fighter strength over the front line. Combined with general combat exhaustion and declining fuel reserves, this hampered German mobility.

At the operational level, the Germans still fought well, or at least better than the Allies.German officers noted that Allied forces lacked the operational talent or, in most cases, the tactical competence to exploit opportunities as they developed, instead relying on heavy firepower and methodical advances.The result was a heavily delayed timetable. It took the Allies six days to link their beachheads, another 20 days to take the port of Cherbourg, and nearly two full months to capture an intact port, Caen.

The central lesson for the defense of Taiwan is the need to slow down the enemy operation. Taiwan should, of course, be armed with a host of mobile anti-ship missiles to sink Chinese troop transports. But considering the amount of mass that China can bring to bear against its island neighbor, this will not stop a landing by itself.

A number of publicly available wargames indicate that China will be able to land on Taiwan’s beaches, despite heavy losses.It is the next phase that will be crucial: Taiwan, assisted by the U.S. and its allies, must prevent the PLA from breaking out of one or more landing sites and taking a major port along the coast, while also countering a near-continuous missile and drone barrage.

The longer each phase of the cross-strait operation takes, the more critical assets China will lose, progressively degrading its ability to employ its operational concepts and plans.By corroding Chinese forces and slowing the operation, the U.S. and Taiwan can ensure that a People’s Liberation Army assault grinds to a halt without achieving its strategic objective.

This implies that anti-ship missiles alone are not enough. No single capability is enough. Taiwan cannot be made a “bristling porcupine” independently. For even with enough forward-deployed weapons to resist for weeks or even months, Taiwan is at risk unless the U.S. and its allies fight.

The result is a need for a truly integrated command structure that puts Taiwanese, American, and Japanese officers together to plan and fight true combined and joint operations.This requires a radical culture change in the U.S. military in particular, which is used to picking and choosing Pacific partners in a compartmentalized series of alliances, rather than integrating allied capabilities.It will also require a proper political and intelligence support effort for Taiwan to mitigate the threat of Chinese subversion of Taiwan’s officer corps.

Put more broadly, it requires direct engagement with Taiwan, alongside Japan, in a manner that treats Taiwan as a de facto state ally. This would amount to a radical revision of our Taiwan policy.But it must be done if the U.S. seeks to defeat a Chinese attack on its democratic neighbor.

The Normandy landings occurred after two and a half years of war for the U.S., nearly five years of war for the UK, and arguably seven years into the world crisis that we now term the Second World War. Putin’s war against Ukraine began in 2014, and shifted to a new, more brutal phase in 2022.The U.S. must recognize that it has wasted its gifted time. Decisions that seem radical or provocative in peacetime are not so in wartime. While the U.S. is not yet at war, the world is certainly close enough to it.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author ofMaydayandSeablindness.

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D-Day, 80 years later, contains lessons for defending Taiwan (2024)


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