In a War Over Taiwan, First Step Needs to Be Sinking Chinese Ships, Air Force General Says

Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of Pacific Air Forces, speaks during the 2023 Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colo., March 8, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)

The U.S. military would have to focus on sinking Chinese ships if a war broke out over Taiwan, according to the commander of the United States' Pacific Air Forces.

That's one of the lessons Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach took from the scramble of military activity that accompanied a visit by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the island in August 2022.

"You saw when Speaker Pelosi went to Taiwan, what [China] did with their ships," Wilsbach told reporters at the Air & Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colorado, on Wednesday. "They put them on the east side of Taiwan" -- the side opposite China -- "as a sort of blockade."

Surface-to-air missiles onboard the ships would give the Chinese military the ability to create what Wilsbach called an "anti-access/area denial engagement zone" -- a zone where its enemies might not want to fly because of the risk of getting shot down.

While U.S. officials continue to prioritize deterring China from trying to invade Taiwan -- "we would encourage the Chinese not to attempt to take that island by force" -- the question remains what to do if deterrence doesn't work, Wilsbach said.

The first order of business?

"We've got to sink the ships," Wilsbach said. "Sinking ships is a main objective of not only PACAF [Pacific Air Forces] but really anyone that's going to be involved in a conflict like this."

To prepare for a potential conflict in the region, Wilsbach said the U.S. and its international partner militaries are planning and practicing together a lot more; and that wings within his command frequently practice the Air Force's strategy of dispersing crews and aircraft across "many, many islands."

The last year has seen an escalation of hostilities between the U.S. and China, culminating in the spy balloon that crossed North America before being shot down off the Atlantic coast of South Carolina.

In intercepting a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft in December 2022, a Chinese fighter "got very dangerously close ... where that pilot did not ensure that there was his-tail-to-our-wing clearance, and our aircraft actually had to maneuver to keep a collision from happening," Wilsbach said.

Before that, an Australian P-8 maritime patrol aircraft had a run-in with a Chinese fighter in May 2022, and the Chinese fighter "dispensed chaff that went down the engine and then also bounced off of the leading edge of the wing," damaging the P-8.

Just last month, Wilsbach said, the Chinese Coast Guard performed a "lasing" of a Philippine Coast Guard aircraft "with a military-grade laser which could very well have caused physical harm to the crew."

The U.S. could "amass firepower" in the region by arming drones, Wilsbach said, and the upcoming new B-21 Raider bomber, which just rolled out of its hangar to be viewed for the first time in December, could "be helpful in our mission here."

-- Amanda Miller can be reached at

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