To its credit, the Ma Ying-jeou administration started acquiring a fleet capable of executing such a strategy. A flotilla of Tuo Chiang-class stealthy missile corvettes has been building for the past decade. Tsai Ing-wen has carried the initiative forward during her tenure in the Presidential Office. The new-construction boats are impressive on an individual basis. What the new contingent lacks is mass—and numbers of hulls matter a great deal in naval warfare. Just a dozen Tuo Chiangs will reportedly be built. They will join the fleet by 2025. (They will keep company with 31 older—and far less battleworthy—Kuang Hua VI boats.) Twelve corvettes does not a swarm make. It would take far more than that to stem a PLA cross-strait surge, or so enfeeble it that the Taiwan Army can hold the beaches.
Taiwan could buy lots of Tuo Chiangs for the $8 billion now earmarked for a luxury fleet of fighter jets that have some political value but doubtful combat value. (The lead vessel in the Tuo Chiang class reportedly cost all of $66.39 million. Crudely speaking, that’s the price of one F-16V.) On balance, Taipei would be better off investing in armaments that would help the island ride out an assault—and achieve its strategic and political aims. President Tsai swept into her second term in a landslide. She should spend some of that political capital weaning the military and populace away from the conceit that the island’s air force and navy can win a stand-up fight against PLA air and sea forces.
Once the precept that sea denial is both necessary and sufficient takes hold, setting priorities for force acquisitions and selling the electorate on them should prove straightforward enough. And the alliance factor? If Taipei shows Washington that porcupine measures could stall a cross-strait offensive, that would actually make it easier for a U.S. president to order the U.S. Pacific Fleet and affiliated joint forces into battle. It would grant the White House time to deliberate and formulate effective war plans rather than feel compelled to hurl forces headlong into the fray. Plus, it would show Americans that Taiwanese are stalwart about helping themselves and are not passively awaiting rescue.
Such a people is a good cause.
In the end, then, the strategy and politics of the situation would profit more from a clutch of unglamorous missile boats and truck-launched missiles than from squadrons of high-tech fighters. And strategic and political success is what it’s all about.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.