As the world races to find a vaccine for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) facilitated Wuhan Coronavirus, Taiwan and the United States are rushing to assemble the antidote to Xi Jinping’s (習近平) “China Dream” nightmare for Taiwan. Part of that antidote may be a revival of Strategic Artillery.
At least on a symbolic level Taiwanese have never left the era of strategic artillery, as some were reminded in a February 24, 2020 article in the Kinmen Daily News online newspaper. This article reported that some excess transport gear for the M1, an American-made 240mm (8-inch) artillery system placed in Kinmen Island in 1958 at the height of a military crisis with China, may soon be made available for auction.
At the time of its introduction in 1944, the M1 howitzer was impressive in that it could fire a 160kg (360lb) shell out to 23km (14.4miles). While difficult to move at nearly 30 tons, the M1 was most effective against heavily fortified targets, and was even brought out of “mothballs” to attack Chinese tunnel fortifications during the Korean War. Taiwan is the last country to employ the M1 on Kinmen and Matsu Islands.
But today their effect is largely symbolic, as they can be easily out-ranged and destroyed by the 1,200 or so 300 to 600km range short-range ballistic missiles of China’s People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. In addition, they are vulnerable to the hundreds of air-launched precision cruise missiles and many more precision-guided bombs of the PLA Air Force.
But most likely they will be ignored as the PLA’s most crucial objective will be to seize the many Taiwanese ports and airfields needed to allow thousands of ferries, barges and civilian airliners to transport the troops and equipment required to overwhelm Taiwan’s Army. This is the essence of Xi Jinping’s China Dream, first impose the CCP’s dictatorship on the people of Taiwan, and then eventually constrain all other democracies as they too will be cast as much an enemy as Taiwan’s democracy.
During the month of February, even as the CCP was failing to protect Chinese and neighbors like Taiwan from the Wuhan Coronavirus, the CCP also had the gall to order three coercive military exercises against Taiwan with nuclear weapon-capable Xian H-6K bombers. Writing in the Chinese web portal Guancha.com on February 11, well-known academic propagandist Jin Canrong (金燦榮) urged that having achieved military superiority on the Taiwan Strait, China had to demonstrate its power to Taipei and Washington.
But Jin and his comrades should also be put on notice: the balance of power is now shifting against China, threatening its dreams of global hegemony. First, after much lobbying by Washington, Taiwan has shifted its strategy under its new Overall Defense Concept (ODC) to address the near-term threat of PLA invasion by concentrating on an off-shore decisive battle. Small attack ships, precision guided anti-ship missiles and other smart munitions will seek to defeat the PLA before it can land on Taiwan.
One near-term PLA response has been to invest in many new autonomous unmanned air, sea, undersea and land combat systems, that can still fight in dense electronic warfare environments. For example, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation’s JARI multirole unmanned combat ship may seek to exploit new levels of Artificial Intelligence (AI), to enable autonomous combat against Taiwan’s defending small attack ships. Autonomous unmanned combat systems can force Taiwan to expend its expensive smart weapons, increasing its vulnerability to invasion forces.
The Trump Administration’s most important near-term response to the PLA’s overall threat has been to invest in the development of many new cruise and ballistic missiles, some armed with new hypersonic warheads and some armed with new tactical nuclear warheads. By 2024 these may equip US Navy, Air Force and Army forces and may also be deployed in Asia.
But in addition, the US Army has indicated, first cryptically in late 2019, but more recently with leaked images, that it intends to develop a new Strategic Long-Range Cannon (SLRC) by 2023. The SLRC will revive strategic artillery in that it will have a range of over 1,800km (1,150 miles), with a shell that may only cost US$500,000, potentially much cheaper than a missile of similar range. Also, many more rounds can be stored for potential use.
Mounted on a mobile large truck trailer, the SLRC may fit into the C-17 heavy transport aircraft, meaning it could be rapidly moved to many locations. While the US Army has not revealed how the SLRC is able to achieve such fantastic range, the Army is known to be interested in ramjet-powered artillery shells. But future versions of these shells could be designed to intercept aircraft or to deploy stratospheric pseudo-satellites, should the PLA attack Low Earth Orbit surveillance and targeting satellites.
The SLRC could essentially defeat PLA aggression before it begins and make toothless PLA coercive exercises against Taiwan. From Japan’s Ishigaki Island, the SLRC could immediately attack all PLA naval, air, space and missile forces on Hainan Island. It could also attack all PLA invasion nodes gathering from Hainan to the Bohai Sea. From Kadena Airbase on Okinawa, the SLRC could potentially cover all of North Korea and defeat PLA and Russian bombers operating from the Sea of Okhotsk to Hong Kong.
From potential bases in South Korea, the SLRC could fire non-nuclear shells at most of China’s nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) bases, especially those placed in relatively new extensive underground tunnels. When added to ongoing US theater ballistic, hypersonic and cruise missile programs, the SLRC will produce more incentive for Beijing to consider arms control dialogues with Washington.
Of course, the SLRC is not yet a reality, but this could change as soon as 2024. It is not a complete antidote to Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” for Taiwan, but it could guarantee the failure of a PLA attempt to invade Taiwan. As such, it is clear warning to Xi that his “China Dream” requires a far different and much happier ending.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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