Nobody’s sure exactly when the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait shifted in China’s favor, but in recent years it has become increasingly clear that in the unlikely event that the two countries decided to slug it out, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have a definite, if not overwhelming, advantage.
That reality — China spends at least 10 times more on defense than Taiwan — has had a tangible impact on troop morale in Taiwan, leading many to conclude that the nation would surrender the moment the first Chinese combat aircraft screamed above their heads. This, in turn, has encouraged a small number of academics and government officials abroad to conclude that since it has already “lost,” Taipei ought to strike the best deal it can before Beijing loses patience on “reunification” and decides to use force to settle the matter once and for all.
Related to such perceptions is the argument, again made by some experts, that the US, Taiwan’s principal guarantor of security and the source of its modern weapons, should cease arms sales to Taipei, as their impact on Taiwan’s ability to change the outcome of a war would likely be marginal at best, while causing damage to relations between Washington and Beijing (some of the major forces behind efforts to end US arms sales to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act are members of the so-called “Sanya Initiative,” which serves as a platform for exchanges between retired US and Chinese military officers).
While Taiwan finds itself in an unenviable position in relation to China, its defense prospects are actually not that grim, at least if the necessary adjustments are made to how one defines victory.
In recent years, while the PLA was in the midst of its remarkable modernization drive, Taiwan gradually abandoned the old military doctrine that called for an overwhelming defeat of Chinese forces and instead shifted toward a defense posture that prioritizes survival and deterrence, implementing concepts such as the “porcupine strategy” (seen by some as an argument against future US arms sales) and the “hard ROC” (Republic of China) posture. Military planners have realized that Taiwan does not have to completely defeat the PLA to be successful — in fact, as the 2011 National Defense Report indicates, the government now defines victory as preventing landing forces from establishing a foothold on Taiwan, an objective that is more realistic — and achievable — than defeating the PLA.
Additionally, despite early opposition by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to an “offensive defense” strategy and his efforts to improve relations with China, Taiwan has accelerated the pace of development and production of counterforce capabilities, mainly land-attack cruise missiles (LACM). This latter development lends credibility to Taiwan’s deterrent by threatening a high, perhaps unbearable, cost should China launch military operations against Taiwan. Another benefit is that such a strategy does not require Taiwan to compete with China on a boat-versus-boat, plane-versus-plane model.
How Taiwan would fare under its revised rules of engagement remains to be seen, but there is every reason to believe that the best way ahead for Taiwan is to prepare to meet those limited, and by the same token more realistic, objectives.
Secrecy over Taipei’s means and strategy notwithstanding, it is possible to make informed speculation about how it may perform during conflict with China. Taiwan’s adjusted defense posture really hinges around two key principles: survivability and, as previously mentioned, “offensive defense.” (A third, which space limitations prevent full discussion of at present, is security cooperation with regional allies, which quietly has also accelerated in the past two years, as countries readjust to Beijing’s growing assertiveness.)
Survivability comports a number of elements, many of which have begun to be implemented over the years. Hardening targets, such as command-and-control centers, aircraft hangars and port facilities, while investing in quick airstrip repair kits are part of the program. Diversifying targets by spreading key defense items, such as combat aircraft and surface ships, has the twin advantage of requiring more resources on the part of the attacker, while increasing the survivability rate of the defender.
Doing so makes even more sense given that, despite an increasingly impressive air force and navy, China remains extremely reluctant to commit such high-profile items to a direct assault on Taiwan. Beijing’s strategy to attack the nation, therefore, is to rely on the Second Artillery Corps’ short and medium-range ballistic missiles to degrade Taiwan’s defense by attacking its Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaisance (C4ISR) architecture, ports, airports and other critical infrastructure. The more such high-value targets are spread out, and the greater the investment in redundancy, the less likely it is that Beijing would be able to strike an incapacitating blow.
Also working in Taiwan’s favor in this regard are its early warning radars (EWR), such as the one that came online earlier this month on Leshan (樂山), Hsinchu County. Coupled with its PAC-3 and Tien Kung II air defense systems, Taiwan would probably survive an initial missile attack, or at least have enough advance warning to ensure its combat aircraft and anchored vessels take off or disperse before airstrips and ports are attacked.
As high-value targets such as the Leshan EWR would likely be the first items on the PLA’s list (in this specific case, probably by overwhelming it with anti-radiation missiles), Taiwan will want to further increase redundancy and dispersal of its surveillance capability, something that can be achieved through greater investments in unmanned aerial vehicles and satellite-based technology.
Meanwhile, its domestic intelligence agencies will need to work harder to counter Chinese espionage, which remains especially focused on Taiwan’s C4ISR systems and how it communicates with US systems based in the region. All of this can be achieved without the kind of capital injections associated with high-profile arms acquisitions, such as modern destroyers and advanced aircraft.
Similarly, Taiwan’s far less capital-intensive “offensive defense” posture also requires increased survivability and dispersal, something that can be achieved by basing launchers on Taiwan proper, as well as on outlying islands. Taipei can also take a lesson straight out of the PLA handbook by increasing the number of road-mobile launchers for its cruise missiles, which by far represent the current greatest deterrent in its arsenal.
Meanwhile, a number of smaller, faster and radar-evasive vessels have or are in the process of being equipped with Hsiung Feng-2 (HF-2) and HF-3 anti-ship missiles, with rumors of a longer-range variant of the latter being in development. Additionally, ground-based HF-2E LACMs, which have a range of about 650km, have entered mass production, with deployment at three known sites.
Reports also indicate that Taiwan may be developing a 1,200km missile capable of reaching Shanghai and Beijing. The military has also begun using high mountain ranges in central and northern parts of the country as cover for HF-3 missile bases to make it harder for the Second Artillery to detect and attack them. From such protected positions, Taiwan’s military can lob missiles over the mountains and attack sea vessels in the Taiwan Strait.
Rather than regard its missile force as an instrument of terror with which to attack civilians, Taiwan has focused on developing a counterstrike capability through its LACMs to attack Chinese military bases and infrastructure. Sources say they are confident the military has a good understanding of the weaknesses in the Second Artillery’s command-and-control systems, which could be disabled through LACM attacks. Its investment in anti-radiation missiles to disable Chinese radars along the coast would support such a strategy.
Taiwan also has an active offensive electronic warfare component that could also be used to disable the Second Artillery’s command-and-control architecture, and thereby undermine one of the major components of China’s war strategy against the nation.
All of this is contingent on Taiwan’s radar and missile forces surviving an initial attack by China, which again emphasizes the importance of investing in the first aspect of Taiwan’s defense modernization.
Aside from the high costs of infrastructure and lives associated with strikes against the Second Artillery, doing so would confront Beijing with very difficult choices: either de-escalate and “lose face,” or escalate by using its air force and navy, which greatly increases the likelihood of mass casualties and US (and perhaps Japanese) entry into the conflict (not to mention leaving China exposed on other fronts).
The days of masses of PLA soldiers serving as cannon fodder are gone — the Chinese military today is a slimmer, more technologically intensive force and the training of its soldiers is, like that of other modern armies, increasingly expensive. Chances are, therefore, that Beijing would be very reluctant to launch operations that promise a prohibitive human cost, even for Taiwan and the sake of national “reunification,” a reality that may in fact have been compounded by China’s one-child policy.
Once we reassess what Taiwan can accomplish militarily and combine this with domestic factors in China that mitigate against massive military campaigns, Taiwan’s defense prospects no longer seem so bleak.
The earlier Taiwanese and their allies in the US realize this, the more able they will be to adjust Taiwan’s defense strategy and focus investments where they are needed the most.
What needs to be done does not call for the several billion-dollar investments associated with fifth-generation aircraft or state-of-the-art destroyers.
J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.