For many years, the military’s defense of the Taiwan Strait has been centered around the doctrine of establishing “air and maritime supremacy and repulsing landing forces.”
However, after the legislature passed the Sea-Air Combat Power Improvement Plan Purchase Special Regulation (海空戰力提升計畫採購特別條例) last year, the doctrine was altered to “air defense, counterattack, and establish air and maritime supremacy,” with repelling landing forces removed from the equation.
Despite the changes to the defense doctrine, landing operations and anti-landing operations still feature at the core of the military’s plans for the defense of the nation.
The primary reason that peace in the Taiwan Strait has prevailed despite long-term tensions and a significant military standoff is because the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lacks the ability to traverse the natural defenses of the Taiwan Strait and execute an amphibious invasion.
The PLA’s capability gap exists in the maritime environment — transporting troops and equipment by sea — as well as the air environment — conducting airdrops of assault troops and equipment.
Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” remains relevant today. Beijing could initiate a limited air and sea engagement, or a battle over one or more of Taiwan’s outlying islands.
However, this action would fail to satisfy Beijing’s political objectives, as it would not bring about a regime change in Taiwan, nor would it provide Beijing with effective administrative control over it. Furthermore, a limited conflict runs the risk of snowballing into a wider war with unpredictable political and economic consequences, both internal and external, for China.
Examined through a Clausewitzian lens, the threat of a war breaking out in the Taiwan Strait increases as the PLA steps up its preparations for an amphibious assault. It is also to a large extent determined by the PLA’s evaluation of its own strength.
Taiwan’s pursuit of an asymmetric warfare strategy is designed to close the gap in overall defense spending between Taiwan and China. The strategy calls to prioritize investment in capabilities that would allow Taipei to prevent Beijing from landing forces in Taiwan, as well as the provision of large quantities of small precision weapons systems to frustrate Chinese occupation forces, should the PLA manage to gain a foothold.
The direction of travel is correct, although there is room for discussion on the sequencing of individual objectives and specific approaches.
Taiwan’s and China’s respective militaries place equal value on contesting sea and air power: the PLA with a view to launching an amphibious invasion, and Taiwan’s military with a view to repelling an invading force.
Suppose that war broke out and Taiwan’s military was able to pre-emptively destroy China’s amphibious invasion capability before it had been fielded in theater: Taiwan would be in an invincible position. In such a scenario, it would be futile for the PLA to continue conducting air and naval battles, or to attack Taiwan’s outlying islands. There would be a real possibility of the war being brought to an early conclusion.
Therefore, the number one priority in building Taiwan’s military along the lines of asymmetrical warfare should be to build capabilities that can be used to prevent the PLA navy from traversing the Strait, and the ability of its air force to transport and land paratroopers and supporting equipment on Taiwanese soil.
The military must also focus on robustly defending potential landing sites, whether approached from the sea or from the air, and ensure it possesses the ability to repel small-scale surprise attacks by PLA special forces.
The pre-emptive annihilation of the PLA’s invasion force would be far preferable to waiting for the armada to cross the Strait and engaging with enemy forces until Taiwan’s navy and air force are exhausted and stockpiles of missiles have been depleted.
In this scenario, PLA landing forces would be able to establish beachheads and Taiwan’s military would have to fall back on urban warfare. Taiwan could prevail, but victory would be exacted at a severe cost.
To achieve the desired outcome, the military must possess sufficient quantities of anti-ship, air defense and ground attack missiles. It should also consider further improving its detection, surveillance, electronic warfare and other intelligence-gathering capabilities, as well as increasing cooperation with friendly foreign militaries, so that it has a complete picture of the movements of relevant PLA assets at bases in China.
This would allow Taiwan to conduct targeted “fountainhead” strikes at the earliest opportunity, using tactical missile systems operated by the army, navy and air force.
Finally, the army must optimize its anti-landing tactics and coastal deployments to ensure that it possesses the ability to repel potential surprise attacks.
With the right reforms and investment, Taiwan can put itself in an unassailable position and defeat the PLA, should Beijing cross the Rubicon.
Steven Wu is a researcher and manager in the fields of biotechnology and medicine.
Translated by Edward Jones
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