After Donald Trump’s now historic call with the President of Taiwan, it seems relations between Beijing and Taipei are now back as one the most important international issues of the day.
And so it should be.
With China and Taiwan seeing a spike in tensions after years of relative calm—with the Asia-Pacific region already swimming in its own sea of troubles thanks to tensions in the South and East China Seas—there is once again the danger of a crisis that could bring Washington and Beijing to blows. And as both nations are armed with nuclear weapons, the stakes could not get any higher.
But what would happen if Taipei and Beijing actually ended up in some sort of conflict? What would be the military systems and strategies used? What weapons in China's arsenal would Taiwan fear the most? What would Beijing fear? And most importantly: who would win?
We have explored this issue in depth and have packaged together in this one post articles by Michal Thim and J. Michael Cole, written back in 2014, that should help answer these important questions. Let the debate begin.
It has become conventional wisdom when referring to the current state of ties between Taipei and Beijing to offer something similar to the following: “cross-Strait Relations have significantly improved under the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou.” While such a, statement is not totally unjustified, security-minded observers would opine that the Taiwan Strait remains highly militarized, and that Ma’s rapprochement has not stopped Beijing from deploying more—and increasingly sophisticated—weapons pointed at Taiwan. And no mid-level-official-branded-high-level meeting is going to change that.
In many ways, Taiwan shares similar challenges currently faced by U.S. forces in the Western Pacific. Therefore, do platforms that you can see on a recent list by Kyle Mizokami, “Five Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear”, apply to Taiwan as well? Not necessarily. The DF-21D, the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile or ASBM, is specifically designed to counter U.S. Navy carrier groups. The PLA and its air and naval branches will have other means at its disposal to deal with the Taiwanese navy in a more symmetrical manner. The J-20, China’s first 5th generation fighter—which is still in development—could hypothetically be deployed against Taiwan but it is more likely that Chinese planners would leave J-20s to deal with U.S. F-22s and U.S./Japanese F-35s, should they come to Taipei’s defense. On the other side, offensive cyber operations and new Chinese landing ships are of course very relevant to Taiwan. Bearing all that in mind, the purpose of this piece is to present major combat platforms that would either play a significant part in a full-scale attack on Taiwan or those against which Taipei does not have an adequate counterpart.
So what weapons are at Beijing’s disposal for a possible Taiwan contingency? Now without further ado, the four Chinese weapons of war Taiwan should fear:
The number of missiles pointed at Taiwan has become embedded in the consciousness of the Taiwanese population. In fact, it is fairly likely that if you happen to be involved in a conversation with a street vendor in one of the plentiful night markets, they could very well know an approximation of the number of short- and mid-range ballistic missiles that have been deployed across the Taiwan Strait. Numbers by experts vary, but most estimates place the number of short and mid-range ballistic missiles at around 1,600 or more.
The PLA is also acquiring various types of Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM) and Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM), which can be launched from various platforms and domains (land, sea and air). This gives China greater ability to attack key infrastructure and military targets from different angles with the added advantage of launching saturation strikes that would stretch Taiwan’s limited missile defense capability beyond its limits.
Advanced Air-Defense Systems:
The Russian S-300—which China has purchased and refined in the HQ family of systems—are generally considered among the best one can get for securing a nation’s air space. However, barring a suicidal attack inside Chinese territory, why should Taiwanese pilots be afraid of this sophisticated air-defense system? Well, the tyranny of Taiwan’s geography could erase any differences between offensive and defensive systems. The situation may get even worse with the much rumored purchase of the more advanced S-400 with a range of 400km.Virtually all of Taiwan would be within the range of the S-400, although Taiwanese bases on the east coast enjoy some protection thanks to Taiwan’s mountain ranges. Therefore, defensive systems could turn offensive as any plane taking off from air bases in western Taiwan would become a target once reaching altitude of approximately 20,000 feet, forcing Taiwanese pilots to either fly low or expose themselves to deadly fire.
Submarines have to make it on the list, partly because Taiwan only has two combat capable submarines and the acquisition of new boats is nowhere on the horizon. Yet that is not the only reason why Taiwan should be concerned. The Chinese ‘silent service’ could play a role in missions such as a maritime blockade of Taiwan, as well as conducting operations against Taiwanese surface vessels under full-out war conditions.
Taiwan’s navy is generally no underdog, yet its major disadvantage is that it has to cope with a growing and highly capable Chinese navy. The PLAN has benefited greatly from a rapid modernization program. One of the newest PLAN acquisitions is the Type 052D guided-missile destroyer. Similar to submarines, the Type 052D would play a role in any blockade scenario, as well as any full-scale attack. Missions would include destruction of Taiwanese surface combatants and offensive anti-air operations against Taiwan’s air force, complementing the threat posed by advances in Chinese air-defense systems.
Needless to say, there are other items in China’s arsenal that could challenge Taiwan’s defences and cause serious headaches in a wartime scenario. The modernization of China’s armed forces has been impressive both in terms of quantity and quality. That being said, Taiwan need not despair, as its geographic setting would pose significant challenges for any PLA military operation that would attempt in seizing the island. Ultimately, the PLA would have to cross the treacherous Taiwan Strait and therein lies Taipei’s advantage. To successfully stage an amphibious invasion in the age of high-precision strike has become more difficult, not easier than 70 years ago.
The initial response to an article titled “Five Taiwanese Weapons of War that China Should Fear” would be to ask why such weapons would be necessary in the first place. After all, relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait since 2008 have been, at some level at least, the best they’ve been since the conclusion of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Over that period, many agreements have been signed between Taipei and Beijing; millions of Chinese tourists flock to Taiwan every year; and interactions between Chinese and Taiwanese politicians—including the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party—have reach levels that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Why, then, should Taiwan seek to develop or acquire weapons that would strike fear in Beijing?
The answer to that question lies in the extent to which rapprochement can continue, and the prospects that an end to this trend could result in a decision by China to resort to martial measures to resolve the “Taiwan question” once and for all. Recent developments in Taiwan, chief among them the Sunflower Movement’s 21-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March and April this year, have highlighted the formidable ideological divide that exists between the two societies and the deep fears that are felt by Taiwanese even as their country normalizes relations with China. To be succinct: the majority of Taiwanese are all for economic exchanges with China, and most understand the futility of ignoring the elephant in the room; but parallel to that realization is the deeply ingrained aversion to seeing a reversal of Taiwan’s liberal democracy and way of life. Ongoing events in Hong Kong, tensions that were in part exacerbated by Beijing’s release of its white paper on “one country, two systems,” have further awakened Taiwanese society to the huge costs that are to be paid in sovereignty transactions with China.
How Beijing responds when it realizes that normalization will not go on forever or in the direction hoped for by the Chinese Communist Party is anyone’s guess, but current trends under President Xi Jinping, whose leadership style is perhaps best described as daring and impatient, signify that the military option—which was never taken off the table—remains possible, especially if the civilian and military leadership in Beijing believes that this could be accomplished quickly and, just as important, at minimal cost to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Taiwan’s answer to that possible future is to convince Beijing that a quick, “clean” and relatively cost-free war would be anything but (they rarely are anyway, but hubris tends to cloud otherwise perceptive minds). The nature of our five weapons stems from one simple truth: The time has long passed when the Taiwanese military could hope to meet the PLA on symmetrical terms and defeat it in a conventional way. In fact, the definition of military victory itself must be altered to reflect reality. For the PLA, victory is, in its maximalist form, the annihilation of the Taiwanese armed forces; in a less extreme form, it is the subjugation of the island through coercion or limited kinetic action. Conversely for Taiwan’s military, victory is neither the total destruction of the PLA nor occupation of China, two objectives that are as infeasible as they are unpractical. Instead, victory for Taiwan lies in deterrence—the promise of pain; and failing that, the imposition of substantial costs to the PLA for an attempted invasion. The five weapons, to which we shall turn in a second, must also be practical. In other words, their acquisition or indigenous development must be within the realm of the possible but at the same time must not threaten the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait to such an extent as to provoke preemptive action by Beijing. For example: Nothing would strike fear in China more than a Taiwanese nuclear program and the means to deliver one or several nuclear-tipped warheads against Chinese military installations, industrial centers, or cities. And yet, nuclear weapons do not make the list, as they would be impractical. Given the scope of Chinese intelligence activity in Taiwan, such a program could not remain covert long enough to ensure its completion and would be considered casus belli among the Chinese leadership, inviting aggression rather than deterring it. Another example would be the procurement of many more PAC-3 air-defense systems, but the aggregate costs would be prohibitive, and furthermore no amount of air-defense batteries would be sufficient to counter the 1,500-plus ballistic missiles currently aimed at the island (not all 1,500 missiles can be launched at once, as volleys are limited by the amount of launchers, but nevertheless, China could with relative ease overwhelm Taiwan’s air defense capabilities should it choose to do so).
The five weapons that China would fear must therefore be feasible and intelligent. They are, in no particular order:
5. Long-range armed unmanned aerial vehicles
The vulnerability of Taiwanese airfields and aircraft hangars to ballistic missiles from China’s Second Artillery Corps threatens to render conventional combat aircraft obsolete. The small size of Taiwan and the island’s proximity to China impose physical limits on where the Taiwanese Air Force (TAF) can base its aircraft, making dispersal a formidable challenge that hardened hangars and runway repair kits cannot compensate for. One answer to this challenge would be the acquisition or development of fixed-wing unnamed aerial vehicles (UAV) armed with air-to-ground missiles and with operational ranges long enough to permit intrusions deep into Chinese airspace. Using the General Atomics MQ-9 “Reaper” as a model, the relative small size of such UAVs, as well as their diminished footprint (e.g., ground support), would greatly enhance Taiwan’s dispersal capabilities (they could be based on outlying islands, where airfields would be vulnerable to PLA strikes, or on navy ships and modified “carriers”) and thus ensure survival in an initial attack by China.
Small, elusive, and low-signature enough to exploit identified weak points or “blind spots” in China’s air-defense architecture, Taiwanese UAVs could penetrate Chinese airspace and deliver a variety of offensive packages intended to disrupt airfields, radar sites, command-and-control nodes, naval bases, Second Artillery bases, and other critical infrastructure. Armed with air-to-ground missiles such as the “Wan Chien” (“Ten Thousand Swords”) developed by Taiwan’s Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST), UAVs could cause severe damage to PLA Air Force (PLAAF) airfields and undermine the ability of the PLAAF to sustain air operations over the Taiwan Strait. Other ordnance could include anti-radiation missiles to disable Chinese radar systems in preparation for bombing runs by conventional aircraft or a second wave of UAV sorties. Another option would be the use of “suicide” UAVs akin to Israel’s “Harpy” drone, which again could be suitable for disabling attacks against PLA radar installations.
Besides dispersal, a large-scale attack UAV program would be much less costly than the acquisition or development of fifth-generation aircraft and thus allow of the relatively quick introduction of several wings into the TAF. Moreover, the losses incurred using those systems during offensive operations over China would be moderate, both in terms of tax expenditure and deaths of highly trained combat pilots. Enough UAVs could therefore be “sacrificed” in order to overwhelm PLA air-defense systems, especially if multiple sorties were used in combination with other operations meant to disrupt China’s C4ISR and radar systems, such as offensive electronic warfare and cruise missiles (see below).
4. Short takeoff/landing multirole fighter aircraft
Although armed or “suicide” UAVs could perform multiple offensive operations inside China and have the added advantage of dispersibility, some functions—including air superiority—continue to ensure a role for manned conventional aircraft. Whatever people say, Taiwan cannot afford to cede control of its airspace to the PLAAF, as doing so would jeopardize the many ground-based systems that are needed for defense of the territory, including the Army’s state-of-the-art AH-64E “Guardian” Apache helicopters, which formidable weapons they may be, would be mere sitting ducks absent air cover.
However, China’s ability to render airfields inoperable through missile strikes poses a serious challenge to this type of platform. In fact, such a scenario has been used in some circles as an argument against Taiwan acquiring F-16C/D aircraft from the U.S. An answer to this would be the acquisition, or indigenous development, of short takeoff and landing (STOL) or vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, which would mitigate the threat from the Second Artillery. Already, Taiwan has manifested its “interest” in the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35B, though for political, budgetary (and one could add development) reasons, such intentions are unlikely to translate into political will in Washington to make such a system available to Taiwan. Other options remain, however, including procurement of the JAS 39 “Gripen,” a STOL multi-role combat aircraft produced by SAAB, or the domestic development of a similar type of aircraft.
While Taiwanese pilots, many of whom are trained in the U.S., continue to enjoy a qualitative advantage over their PLAAF opponents, that gap is slowly being narrowed as China acquires and develops 4.5th- and 5th-generation aircraft and may in the not-so-distant-future gain actual combat experience. By investing in modern air-superiority and combat aircraft, Taiwan would undermine China’s ability to own the airspace in the Taiwan Strait — a critical early-phase component in a major campaign to invade the island that, given the TAF’s ageing fleet, is becoming increasingly achievable.
Besides air superiority, a modern multi-role fighter with low radar signature and a longer combat range than the TAF’s legacy F-16A/B would be a major boost to Taiwan’s ability to conduct bombing runs over Chinese territory as part of a multilayered power-projection strategy that involves electronic warfare, cruise missiles and, as discussed, long-range combat UAVs.
3. Medium/long-range land-attack cruise missiles
Despite the rapprochement that has occurred between Beijing and Taipei since 2008, Taiwan’s defense strategy has adopted an increasingly offensive nature. Nothing better encapsulates this seemingly contradictory development than the Hsiung Feng (“Brave Wind”) family of cruise missiles, which provides the Taiwanese military with anti-ship and land-attack (LACM, e.g., HF-2E) options. Developed by the CSIST, Taiwan’s premier weapons research institute, the HF missiles have in recent years absorbed a larger share of the defense budgets allocated for R&D and production. According to reports, CSIST may be in the process of developing a medium-range (1,200km) surface-to-surface cruise missile.
Although Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has been vague on whether such a program is in the works, such an endeavor would make perfect sense. The introduction of medium/long-range, terrain-contouring cruise missiles (hypersonic would be a plus but probably is beyond the ability of Taiwan to develop for the time being) would complement the HF-2E, which has an estimated range of 650km, and make it possible for the Taiwanese military to target C4ISR, radar, Second Artillery (e.g., Dong Feng-15 launchers), airfields, and other critical sites in the PLA architecture deeper inside China. Equipped with either conventional or anti-radiation warheads, extended-range HF LACMs could exploit weaknesses in the Second Artillery Corps and disable its ability to initiate missile attacks against Taiwan or regional allies. Using well-placed intelligence sources, Taiwan could also threaten to disable China’s ability to initiate nuclear strikes by targeting critical command and control (C2) sites and thus disable its nuclear deterrent against the U.S. (arguably this would be an extreme measure, to be take only as a last resort during high-intensity conflict).
Through a combination of fixed and mobile launchers, Taiwan could ensure the survival of enough launch sites to maintain an ability to strike high-value targets inside China. Ship-launched variants of a medium/long-range cruise missile would boost the dispersal/survivability value of what is, beyond doubt, an indispensible means of retaliation.
Although Washington has voiced reservations about Taiwan extending the range of offensive weapons under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a changing regional context fueled by Chinese belligerence and possible renewed interest in including Taiwan as a regional security partner could convince the U.S. government of the virtues of assisting Taiwan with its missile program through cooperation or relaxed rules on the transfer of key technologies.
Some people have given up, but continued interest in—and support for—Taiwan’s acquisition of diesel-electric submarines is a clear indication of their utility. Above all, the introduction of new submarines in the Taiwan Navy (only two of Taiwan’s total of four submarines are combat-ready; the other two belong to a museum) would pose a major headache for China, whose anti-submarine warfare capabilities remain limited. Anything that can go undetected and that can threaten PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels in the Taiwan Strait or in the Western Pacific (in Taiwan’s “rear”) will make Beijing pause.
Several plans have been floated for a Taiwanese submarine program. Although U.S. naval yards no longer make diesel-electric subs (and must therefore rent them from other countries, at high cost, for annual exercises), a number of European countries continue to build them and could provide highly useful know-how for the domestic development of medium-displacement ships by Taiwan. Japan, which is in the process of revising not only its rules of engagement but also the regulations overseeing the transfer of dual-use technologies, would also make a natural ally of Taiwan for an indigenous submarine program. A well-placed source told this author that under current laws, Japanese technicians could be temporarily “retired” and in turn hired by Taiwanese shipyards to help with hull designs, ostensibly the most challenging aspect of a submarine program. Evidently, any cooperation between Japan and Taiwan on defense matters would be hugely controversial and predicated on Tokyo’s (and Taipei’s) willingness to risk the ire of Beijing. Another option, which also remains distant for the time being, would be the acquisition of “old” Japanese submarines, which are taken out of service after only 18 years. U.S. defense contractors, provided that they can obtain the go-ahead from U.S. authorities, would play a key role in integrating sensors and weapons systems.
A handful of “quiet” submarines armed with torpedoes (anti-ship and coastal suppression), and possibly with cruise missiles (e.g., HF-3), would go a long way in deterring PLAN efforts to cross the Taiwan Strait or to attack it from its rear in the West Pacific, not to mention in protecting Taiwan’s sea lines of communication, cargo, and energy shipments.
1. Special forces and ‘elite reserves’
“Man as weapon” qualifies as our fifth, and not necessarily the least important, means of deterring China. Special forces would be the last line of defense during a major armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and the only part of a layered defense strategy whose activities would take place solely on Taiwanese soil. Everything else having failed and as the PLA approaches Taiwan’s beaches—including Taiwan proper as well as Penghu—special forces and elite reserves would kick in by attacking landing units. Working closely with the Army, which would ideally be equipped with an array of weapons including the Lockheed-Martin MGM-140 ATACMS short-range ballistic missile (to target staging areas along the Fujian coast) and various anti-armor/counter-landing weaponry, special forces and elite reserves would have the means to ensure high mobility, quick dispersal and survivability. Although Taiwan already has special forces units, many more bodies are needed to constitute a credible deterrent against PLA landing and occupation forces. To make up for that quantitative handicap, a small percentage of Taiwan’s estimated 2 million-plus reserves who qualify for enhanced training should be readied (and compensated) for high-intensity combat operations, urban warfare, sabotage, and non-conventional operations. The object is to ensure that PLA soldiers that seek to establish a foothold on Taiwan would come under sustained attack by forces that can disappear as quickly as they materialize and which could not be easily targeted by PLAAF air cover (by this phase in a conflict, we could assume that the Chinese air force has won control of the airspace in the Taiwan Strait). Investments in night-vision equipment, sniper rifles, anti-armor weapons, rapid-mobile transportation and devices enhancing situational awareness and communication would take up a marginal share of future defense budgets while greatly ameliorating the ability of Taiwanese ground forces to inflict unacceptable damage on PLA soldiers venturing on Taiwanese soil.
The point of all this would be to force Beijing to think not only about the cost of reaching Taiwan, but of what would happen to its soldiers once they got there. As recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have made perfectly clear, winning the conventional phase of a war is the easiest part. It’s what comes next—the pacification of foreign land—that can cause the most serious headaches. If low-tech forces like Iraqi guerrillas or Taliban militants can take on the U.S. military and the world’s premier military alliance, surely well-trained, tech-savvy and properly equipped Taiwanese guerrillas could accomplish similar feats, if not do better.
Image Credit: GFDL License.