In its Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China, the US Department of Defense recommended that Taiwan set its sights on various high value targets such as the Three Gorges Dam. This would act as a deterrent to any possible military attack against Taiwan on the part of China. In my opinion the US report is not without reasons for saying this. Attack is, after all, one of the best means of defense. However, there is much room for discussion on whether construction projects such as the Three Gorges Dam or densely populated areas should be targeted.
The Three Gorges Dam is not a military facility presenting a direct threat to this nation. A strike against the dam would not be aimed at destroying a military installation from which the Chinese army could launch an attack in the hope of gaining military superiority on the battlefield. The intention would instead be to deter China from starting a war on the basis of the amount of potential damage that could be wreaked upon them. However, the effectiveness of such intimidation depends on three criteria, namely whether China perceives Taiwan to have the ability to do it, whether they believe Taiwan would actually carry it out and how much damage they estimate could be done to the dam.
If Beijing doubts Taiwan would do such a thing, the deterrence would not work. Vice Minister of Defense Tsai Ming-hsien (蔡明憲) recently said that the government had no such plans, and that given the current political situation it was impossible to reveal the military's ability to strike the dam. Given this, there is no way that Taiwan can use this as a deterrent.
In the event that China does in fact start military action, the priority would naturally be to take out the largest enemy targets and facilities, and any strike against the dam would come in due course. Unless it could be de-stroyed by underground agents embedded behind enemy lines, such an operation would merely be a diversion of manpower for what would really be very little gain.
Given the distance between Taiwan and the dam, an F-16 jet would barely make the journey relying on its own fuel capacity, and it would burn even more fuel by flying at the low altitudes needed to evade radar. Given this, the task would be an impossible mission unless the fighters were able to refuel in mid-air. However, the idea of a refueling plane waiting for Taiwanese jets to arrive in Chinese airspace is something from 101 Arabian Nights. Even if the strike were carried out using surface-to-surface missiles, anything short of a nuclear warhead would do limited damage and would only be able to destroy the rim of the dam or take out individual power stations.
Even if the jets were able to reach the dam, they would require missiles specially made for the task. Britain, in destroying the dams along the Ruhr in Germany during World War II, used heavy bombers flying at low altitudes and releasing specially made bombs 400m before the dam. When a bomb hit the water surface it would bounce, passing over the defensive netting placed under the water near the dams, and finally sink below the surface. Detonation was triggered by the hydraulic pressure, and the hole torn in the wall of the dam by the explosion was widened by the water pressure, eventually breaking up the entire dam.
The bomb that was eventually developed was codenamed "Department Store." It was 1.27m in diameter, 1.52m long and weighed up to 4.2 tonnes. How-ever, the success of the bombing mission depended on the water level in the dam. Therefore the Royal Air Force conducted detailed surveys of the targets for a period of seven weeks prior to the strike.
So why does the US wish to make such recommendations when attacking the Three Gorges Dam presents so many strategic difficulties and has very little worth in terms of a deterrence? Given the current cross-strait situation, it is clear that the US is trying to remind Taipei of the importance of deterrence and counter measures, and showing us some political means in which they can be achieved.
First, the capacity to intimidate one's opponent and provide counter measures has more demands than merely concentrating on defense, and for this reason the armed forces need to step up the overhaul of their military affairs, just as the US has repeatedly asked.
In the past the military has focused its war preparations on defense, which, in the eyes of the US, is becoming increasingly inadequate in the face of the growing threat posed by the Chinese military. This situation will necessarily increase the possibility of an attack on Taiwan by China and a corresponding rise in the cost of US intervention.
Second, even if the armed forces do have some ability to retaliate, this has never been explicitly stated in the past and it has just been tacitly understood that China knew of it. This being the case, we not only risk China initiating an attack based on a misreading of the situation, but it also makes it difficult to have an effective deterrent. This will have an effect on cross-strait relations and the morale of the people.
Taiwan should pay heed to the real meaning behind the US recommendations, and not restrict its thinking to the feasibility of an attack on the Three Gorges Dam. This will be the greatest guarantee for national security.
Bill Chang is former deputy director of the Democratic Progressive Party's Chinese Affairs Department.
TRANSLATED BY Paul Cooper
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