America’s latest arms sales to Taiwan offer real hope: it is possible to prevent a major war in Asia for most of the 2020s. However, Taiwan, the United States and its allies must win an ongoing missile race with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In doing so the democracies can also counter the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship’s ambition to impose a cruel hegemony first on Asia and then the world.
The Chinese Communist Party’s horizon for a war against Taiwan recently received a new date: the year 2027, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). At the October 29, 2020, conclusion of the 5th Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP, which reviewed the next 14th Five Year Plan (2021 to 2025) and development goals for 2035, a communique was issued stating the “…goal … of one hundred years of building the army will be achieved by 2027.”
CCP controlled media immediately turned this into a weapon against Taiwan, with the Global Times on October 31, stating, “By 2027, Chinese military will have the ability to effectively deal with threats brought by the hegemonism and power politics in western pacific region, including issues relating to Taiwan question and South China Sea, as well as border tensions between China and India…”
Does this mean that 2027 is a goal for invading Taiwan, that by then the PLA will be able to deter or defeat US forces seeking to prevent such and invasion? As he will turn 74 in 2027, CCP leader-for-life Xi Jinping (習近平) could be approaching his mortal limits for forcing “unification,” hence some pressure to achieve this and advance CCP goals for hegemony.
Destroying Taiwan could unravel the US-led defense network in Asia, dash any hope India may have for decisive defense cooperation with Washington, and allow the CCP to turn Taiwan into a massive base for nuclear and naval global power projection. By 2027 the PLA should be building its first nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
To deter US intervention the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) will have to rapidly expand its land-based and sea-based intercontinental nuclear missiles. Most open sources credit the PLA with 300 to 400 nuclear warheads, but given the CCP-PLA’s pervasive lack of transparency and historic commitment to deception, this number could already be much larger. It will be much larger by 2027 if only because the PLA is building or developing two types of submarine launched ballistic missiles and five to six types of land-based nuclear missiles that can attack the United States.
These will complement a number greater than the current 2,200 theater-range PLARF and PLA Air Force missiles. Land-launched, air-launched and ship-launched difficult-to-shoot-down hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) armed medium (MRBM) and intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) will target US, Taiwan and Japanese naval forces.
Recent PRC reports indicate that by 2027 the PLA Navy (PLAN) may have three aircraft carrier battle groups ready for combat. It is reasonable to expect the PLAN to have 16 or more large amphibious assault ships. They will transport more heavily mechanized PLA Ground Force, PLA Marine Corps units, far more able to conduct joint operations with PLA Airborne Corps, PLAAF and PLAN units. By 2027 the PLA will have further honed the integration of 3,000 or more civil airliners and hundreds of large civilian sea ferries to move the bulk of PLA invasion forces.
But it is also possible to deter China from waging war against Taiwan for most of the 2020s. By doing so, it is also possible to prevent China from using Taiwan to project its military power globally to protect and expand its global political-economic and military power base building, advanced by projects like its Belt and Road Initiative. The key is to win the ongoing missile race with the PLA, which Washington has begun by taking two major steps.
The first step was the Trump Administration’s August 2019 decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, which prevented the US from building land-based missiles with a range greater than 550km. The US is now developing the new 550km Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) that could be deployed by 2023. A new 1,800km MRBM could enter US Army service by 2025. By that year the US Army and US Navy could have a new HGV-armed 5,000km range IRBM.
In addition, the US is developing anti-ship capabilities for its land-based SRBMs, IRBMs, and presumably, MRBMs. These will complement the estimated 1,000km to 2,000km range ship-based SM-6 Block 1B anti-ship ballistic missile, derived from an earlier anti-aircraft and anti-missile capable version of the SM-6. There are about 1,000 vertical launchers on US Navy destroyers and cruisers forward deployed in the Western Pacific to handle this missile. By 2024 US Air Force and Navy attack aircraft may be armed with the reportedly 1,800km range AGM-158D Joint Air to Surface Stand-Off Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER). Then both the Air Force and Navy are developing a number of new hypersonic speed long-range attack missiles.
A second step taken by the Trump Administration was its recently announced decision to sell new missiles to Taiwan, including 64 of the 300km range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) ground-launched SRBM, 135 of the air-launched AGM-84H Standoff Land Attack Missile Extended Response (SLAM-ER) to be carried by Taiwan’s F-16 fighters and 400 of the ground-launched version of the 130km to 150km range RGM-84-L Harpoon anti-ship missile. The Taiwan Air Force and Navy already have earlier versions of the Harpoon.
These nearly 600 new missiles for Taiwan can attack gathering invasion forces in Fujian Province and they can attack large PLAN assault ships and civil ferries carrying PLA invasion forces, greatly increasing the chances a PLA invasion will fail. Xi Jinping is less likely to attempt an invasion if he knows it will fail. Without the threat of invasion, the CCP-PLA’s ongoing military intimidation campaign against Taiwan is futile. Xi and the CCP will need a new strategy, like living in peace with Taiwan.
But the one issue that will test American and Taiwanese leadership going forward is timing. How can the sales of new missiles to Taiwan result in accelerated delivery? Should some missiles be taken out of US stocks for near immediate delivery? In addition, can Washington increase funding to accelerate the development and deployment of new land, sea and air-launched missiles to US forces in Asia?
Can Taiwan have its 600 new missiles by 2023 to 2024 to allow for faster training and deployment? Can Washington increase funding to deploy 1,000 new attack missiles in Asia by 2025, making some available to allies and partners like Taiwan? The price of winning this missile race is worth the benefits of peace from deterring CCP-PLA aggression.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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