Given China’s ability to simply produce more fighters and anti-aircraft missiles, some in Washington consider a commitment to Taiwan’s air superiority to be futile, and the purchase of more fighter aircraft a waste. But new US developments could equip them with relatively inexpensive “asymmetric” advantages that could greatly increase Taiwan’s deterrent potential.
For much of this decade American defense officials and some US experts have been counselling their counterparts in Taiwan to embrace “asymmetric” responses to China’s growing military threats. These usually stress less expensive weapon systems that can be acquired in greater numbers, instead of more expensive and less numerous systems like new jet fighters, submarines and heavy armor systems.
Taiwan’s response has been two-fold. Some aspects of Taiwan’s new Overall Defense Concept (ODC) strategy reflects some of these goals, such as producing a large number of small, less expensive ships armed with anti-ship missiles, and new ships to more rapidly deploy sea mines to deter a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) amphibious invasion. But Taiwan’s military leaders also have insisted on retaining “symmetric” capabilities by acquiring new conventional weapons.
Back in 2016 a US RAND Corporation report suggested that Taiwan’s air defense could better be secured by purchasing larger numbers of surface-to-air missiles instead of expensive jet fighters. While this report was consistent with the US theme of “more and cheaper,” it did not persuade Taiwan’s military planners. They persisted in their requirement for 66 new Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, which the Trump Administration agreed to fulfill this past August.
RAND did not consider that the new F-16V could become the basis for a new “asymmetric” capability for Taiwan. Otherwise known as the F-16 Block 70, it is equipped with a modern active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, and computers able to detect and guide air-to-air missiles (AAMs) against more targets simultaneously than Taiwan’s F-16As purchased in 1992. The Taiwan Air Force’s current 140+ F-16s are also being upgraded with a new AESA radar, increasing their simultaneous interception capabilities.
A new asymmetric advantage can come from doubling the number of AAMs that Taiwan’s F-16s can carry. Equipped with two large, wing-mounted fuel tanks to extend combat endurance, the F-16 can carry up to eight Raytheon AIM-120 medium-range AAMs and two helmet-display sighted Raytheon AIM-9X short-range AAMs. The US Air Force is now developing a new AAM that is half the size of the AIM-120 but with the same range; the Lockheed-Martin Cuda and the Raytheon Peregrine are the main contenders.
The F-16V can be equipped with fuselage-mounted “conformal” fuel tanks, thus reducing the need for wing-mounted tanks, and providing two more weapons hardpoints and allowing it to carry up to 28 of the new half-size medium-range AAMs. Without the wing-tanks the earlier F-16s can carry the same number, but with wing-tanks it can carry up to 16 half-size AAMs. As a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Brigade is reportedly equipped with 36 fighters, one or two Taiwan F-16s could dispatch most of an entire PLAAF fighter Brigade. This is the very essence of an asymmetric response.
Or consider if all 200 Taiwan F-16s carried their respective maximum loadout of half-size medium range AAMs — a total of over 4,000 AAMs. Today the PLA has about 1,300 modern combat aircraft. A large number of such AAMs not only revives the prospects for Taiwan’s air defense, but also could enable Taiwan to be the first country in Asia to have an effective defense against the PLA’s land-attack cruise missiles.
But if Washington is really interested in helping Taiwan to sustain the air superiority over the Taiwan Strait necessary to deter a PLA invasion, it will also help Taipei to push back the PLA’s increasing number of 200km range, and now 400km range, Russian S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. Without the protection of these SAMs, attacking PLA aircraft would be much more vulnerable to Taiwan’s F-16s armed with large numbers of AAMs.
For example, Taiwan’s Army would like to purchase about 100 BAE Land Systems’ M109A6 Paladin 155mm cannon-armed mobile artillery systems, to replace much older M109s. This purchase is criticized by some well-meaning US defense officials as favoring fewer expensive over more, but less expensive, asymmetric systems.
But new US programs could make the M109 the basis for a significant asymmetric advantage. The US Army is now developing a ramjet-powered 155mm artillery shell that may be capable of a range of 150 kilometers, whereas a conventional shell may only reach 30 to 40km. A 150km range shell could prevent the PLA from launching an amphibious invasion, as its amphibious armored vehicles and hovercraft could not launch from that range.
The US Army is also working on a cannon with a stunning 1,600km range with a shell that may cost US$0.5 million. Even if Washington were to limit the range of such an artillery shell to 500km, roughly the range of a new short-range ballistic missile the US is also developing, it still would enable Taiwan to push back the PLA SAMs in addition to posing a decisive threat to PLA invasion fleets.
While Taiwan is now considering developing a 300km range version of its Thunder 2000 artillery rocket system, Washington is now developing ballistic and cruise missiles with a 500km range and greater, now that it no longer must follow the 500km range limits of the former Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The US should sell or help its allies and partners, like Taiwan, to develop 500km range missiles.
Helping Taiwan achieve new asymmetric capabilities is the key to sustaining deterrence on the Taiwan Strait, but this can also be done by enhancing the symmetric or conventional systems that Taiwan also requires. Doing so will help to counter China’s propaganda goal of instilling fear amongst Taiwanese that a Chinese military conquest is inevitable, which is a key Chinese requirement if its strategies for coercing Taiwan to surrender its freedoms via “Peaceful Reunification” are to succeed.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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