White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan

  • Published

White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan by Mick Ryan. Casemate Publishers, 2023, 352 pp.

In what may prove to be one of the most widely-read novels since P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet (2015), Mick Ryan has provided a fictional account of what China’s invasion of Taiwan might look like in White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan. Ryan is highly qualified to write this novel for a number of reasons. The recently retired Australian Army major general served out his last assignment as commander of the Australian Defence College, building on his previous efforts to reform his nation’s professional military education. He also published War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great Power Competition and Conflict (2022) on the future of war. As a keen observer of the Russian war in Ukraine, Ryan takes many lessons from the conflict and applies them to White Sun.

Interestingly, Ryan initially intended to write a historical case study of Operation Causeway, the Joint Staff Study plan to invade Taiwan (then Formosa) during World War II. But, believing that fiction can “prompt different and more creative responses,” Ryan eschewed such an analysis of the myriad challenges of launching the invasion for an imagined approach to a future war (vi). As an important aside, a recent war game raises questions as to the possibility of a future amphibious invasion given the erosion of key beaches on Taiwan due to climate change.1

Set in 2028, the novel highlights the arrival of a US Marine unit augmented by a smaller but more technologically advanced Army cavalry unit to Taiwan’s shores. Notably commanded by an extremely capable female Army captain, Dana Lee, the Soldiers outshine the Marines because of their highly sophisticated manned-unmanned teaming. The cavalry unit’s air and ground robots outnumber its human soldiers by about 100 to 1. In line with Ryan’s own military background, long-range missiles and the like play a small role in the novel. Rather, Ryan unsurprisingly takes the traditional view of the land domain: the most important warfare occurs on the ground, especially in close combat. Still, the reader gets the sense that White Sun’s combatants fight at a more distant range than traditional close combat. Along with the continued importance of close combat, Ryan also highlights the fundamental historical interchange between lethality and dispersal. Ryan doubts that there is an easy solution for hiding electronic signatures; he does suggest, however, that the key to survival is to reduce enough electronic signature for a unit to become a “low-priority target” (106).

The detachment of US Soldiers and Marines works alongside their Taiwanese partners. With Chinese leadership intent on invasion, deterrence fails, and Lee’s key counterpart—who equally embraces the possibilities of manned-unmanned teaming—arrives on the scene. This People’s Liberation Army marine colonel theorized and then helped to develop the first attack wave against Taiwan, which consisted of “low-signature autonomous systems that could aggregate to swarm and disaggregate when required” that worked to decimate Taiwanese defenses before the landing of amphibious vehicles with more irreplaceable soldiers aboard (129).

At this point, readers may want to skip to the next paragraph if they want to save an element of surprise in the novel. It is worth highlighting a number of recurring themes in this book. First, Ryan is critical of those who argue that an invasion of Taiwan would be an almost foregone success for China. Without giving away the ending, Ryan highlights how the United States and Taiwan benefit from several key advantages that they bring together to decimate Chinese command and control on Taiwan. In a related vein, this success rests on the continuing role of deception “even when sensors can see almost all the battlefield” (emphasis in original) (294).

Another repeated theme of interest to the military professional is the importance of the adaptation/counter-adaptation tendency of warfare. The novel repeatedly shows leaders seeking to learn and share lessons intra- and inter-unit.

Finally, despite Ryan’s keen interest in future warfare, he is no technological determinist. He insists that his readers keep in mind that people, not machines, fight and will fight wars. But, on the flip side, those same people will have to figure out how to employ new technology and think differently because of it. In one scene, for example, artificial intelligence is crucial in helping Lee understand how the enemy is attacking and how to avoid friendly fire. But there are limits to that technology, especially once the battle turns into a “confused mess of interspersed enemy and friendly vehicles people, and autonomous systems.” As Ryan writes, “All the technology in the world was not going to help sort that out” (182). Still, as the war unfolds, the novel shows an increasing trend of more autonomous and robotic weapons and less humans.

For Air Force readers in particular, White Sun will be useful precisely because of Ryan’s land-centric focus. The novel provides a ground-level look at how China might use combined arms in seeking to take Taiwan. While this approach is mostly a strength, it also leads to some domains—mainly air and sea—getting far less focus than land and space. It is important to remember that Ryan seeks to provide a corrective to what he thinks is the inattention paid to the land domain’s role in a potential conflict with China. Still, at times the book seems to be more about how multidomain operations can enable the ground than about true multidomain operations. A notable exception to this trend can be found in the novel’s fictional afterword, where the author explains that “all five domains were vital for warfighting” (335). The book also somewhat privileges conventional approaches to warfighting above nonkinetic ones.

Indeed, White Sun is not the last word on what is needed for Taiwan to successfully defend itself if attacked. Even more importantly, if Ryan is correct that fiction helps spark new thinking, then the strengths and limitations of this novel set the stage for a wave of follow-on works—both short stories and novels—that build on and challenge his story to provide a range of creative thinking regarding future warfare. And for Æther’s readers in particular, those stories may likely involve more airpower than the vague and infrequent mentions it receives in White Sun.

Heather P. Venable, PhD

1 Silva Shih, “What Can We Learn from Taiwan's First Civilian-Led War Game?,” CommonWealth Magazine, November 7, 2023, https://english.cw.com.tw/


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."