Taiwan faces a more precise foe

By Richard Fisher  / 

Sun, Nov 19, 2006 - Page 8

On Nov. 9, Mainland Affairs Council Director Joseph Wu revealed that China now has more than 900 missiles targeted against Taiwan. Could the People's Liberation Army top this threat? Yes, and it is doing so: An imminent deployment of thousands more highly accurate precision guided bombs by its air forces.

Since the 1995 demonstration firing of Dongfeng-15 short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) north of Taiwan, and the 1996 firings to locations off Keelung and Kaohsiung ports, the PLA's capacity to terrorize Taiwan has been conceptualized mainly in terms of missiles. In the last two years the PLA's Second Artillery has started deploying Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs) along with its 800 Dongfeng-15 and Dongfeng-11 Mod 1 SRBMs.

Ballistic missiles have been made increasingly accurate, but due to their lower speed and use of satellite navigation systems, LACMs are even more accurate, able to target the specific floor of a building. The more recent employment of non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warheads allows the PLA missiles to more broadly target Taiwan's military and civilian electronic infrastructure.

However, though the PLA missile arsenal is able to deliver terror, shock and a fair amount of damage, it also has its limits. Once fired missiles cannot be used again. Also, without satellite navigation signal guidance, missiles are not capable of the intimate precision needed to provide high assurance of target destruction. The PLA may have to use multiple missiles to achieve this assurance, meaning fewer missiles for other pressing targets. Furthermore, missiles are expensive.

Another route to both accuracy and efficiency, sought by militaries since World War II after Germany proved it possible, has been to try to make bombs and artillery shells increasingly accurate. Since the 1960s the US and the former Soviet Union developed a series of increasingly accurate bombs, first using television seekers and then seekers able to home in on reflected laser energy. Laser guided bombs became effective during the 1980s and proved their worth during the first Iraq War.

But laser guided bombs have their drawbacks. Low fog or smoke countermeasures dissipate laser signals and the relatively low altitude of the delivering aircraft invites attack from increasingly sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses. These disadvantages were mitigated with the advent of the revolutionary US Navstar Satellite Global Positioning System in the 1980s, which provided signals virtually unaffected by weather, to determine position and velocity. In 1999 the GBU-31/32 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) entered US service, giving aircraft an all-weather precision guided weapon capable of striking within 30m of a target versus 200m for a "dumb" bomb.

Often called the "JDAM Revolution," satellite guided bombs, and soon, artillery shells, have become the spear-tip of "network centric warfare," or the collation of all source intelligence -- human to unmanned aircraft to satellite -- with computers and data links, to enable pinpoint target take-out very soon after discovery. Tactical fighters like Lockheed Martin F-16s to former single role strategic nuclear bombers like the Boeing B-52 can now loiter as roving artillery, on call to destroy houses or larger military targets with minimal collateral damage. In its recent air campaign against Hezbollah forces that relied on satellites, unmanned aircraft and JDAMs, Israel was able to reduce the sensor to shooter "kill chain" down to one minute.

China's "JDAM Revolution" was on display at the recent Oct. 31 to Nov. 5 Zhuhai Airshow, as two Chinese companies, CASIC and Louyang, revealed their own families of satellite-guided bombs. Louyang's LS-6 is fitted with folding wings, which enable a range of up to 60km when launched at altitude and high speed, but outside the range of Taiwan's HAWK anti-aircraft missiles. The LS-6 can also strike within 30m of its target. CASIC revealed its 700kg FT-1 and the smaller FT-3.

Brochures and photos released during Zhuhai show the PLA Air Force is preparing to outfit its Shenyang J-8II fighters and JH-7 fighter-bombers with Louyang's precision guided bombs. In addition, Louyang revealed its LT-2 laser-guided bomb, which benefits from Russian technology. According to reports, these weapons have been in development for years and should now be in production.

Zhuhai also saw the PLA making progress in gathering an important "network" of sensors, satellites, unmanned aircraft and linkages to support its new precision guided weapons. It was announced that China would proceed with its own 30 satellite navigation constellation, sometimes called Compass, which would build on an expanded five-satellite Beidou network of navigation satellites.

This decision is a blow to Europe's Galileo navsat program, which had hoped to benefit from extensive Chinese involvement. Zhuhai also saw the PLA reveal that its Russian technology based HJ-1C radar satellites may fly in a "twin" formation, allowing production of a constant 360o 1m digital image of targeted areas.

Videos at Zhuhai showed at least one unmanned aircraft similar in size to the US Predator revealed in 2004 has reached the prototype stage. Previous Zhuhai shows have also demonstrated the PLA interest in data links, and digital command and control systems now pervade the PLA.

All of this would allow the PLA Air Force to turn its thousands of tactical fighters and ancient Xian H-6 bombers, which have just re-entered production, into repeat precision strike systems. For a sustained campaign against Taiwan, they will become the weapon of choice for attacking key political, command and tactical targets.

Their accuracy even allows the Chinese leadership to consider combining a political "purge" of Taiwan with an initial bombing campaign; voter registration lists will allow precision targeting of families with Taiwan Independence sympathies.

While the PLA is preparing for that invasion, Taiwan's polarized politics prevents necessary defense preparations and gives the impression that Taiwan lacks the determination to survive.

Richard Fisher is a vice president at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.