Map was created for Taiwan in Perspective by Evan Centanni, author of Political Geography Now

Map was created for Taiwan in Perspective by Evan Centanni, author of Political Geography Now

The fundamentally transformed strategic environment in Asia has forced policy planners in Taipei, and domestic and foreign experts, to explore innovative defense options that reflect the growing asymmetry—both qualitative and quantitative—between Taiwan and China. The need to “go asymmetrical” is firmly reflected in the first Quadrennial Defense Review, released in 2009, and will likely be reiterated in its latest edition due to be published next month. In terms of arms procurement, Taiwan is significantly limited by three major constraints: (1) Taiwan is dependent on the United States as its only source of advanced weapons systems, because (2) no other country appears to be willing to upset Beijing by offering to sell weapons to Taiwan, and (3) Washington limits arms sales to defensive articles only. Perhaps the only remaining avenue of enhancing Taiwan’s portfolio of asymmetrical countermeasures are its indigenous weapon programs, the most successful of which is the missile program led by the Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST). Most recently, part of the CSIST missile portfolio was enlarged by surface-to-surface cruise missiles that can hit targets in China. Taiwan’s decision makers should not exclude the option of a pre-emptive strike unless they want to risk turning these systems into what defense strategists term “wasting assets”: obsolete methods of projecting power.

  • Counter-offensive debate

The debate over developing Taiwan’s counter-offensive capabilities has been raging since the late 1990s, and despite the decrease in cross-strait tensions since 2008, efforts to acquire surface-to-surface missiles have not disappeared. Shortly after the 2008 polls, newly elected President Ma Ying-jeou ordered the production of 300 Hsiung Feng (Brave Wind) 2E land-attack cruise missiles with a range of 600 kilometers (plans for the 800km version were reportedly scrapped). Although the United States appeared to be blocking sales of crucial parts for the HF-2E missiles, it did not effectively stop production, as HF-2Es are being deployed to combat units.

Development has not stopped with the Hsiung Feng missile family, however, and Taiwan’s nascent surface-to-surface missile force is set to receive a significant capability boost after 2014. The new Cloud Peak (Yunfeng) missile is reported to be able to hit targets as far as 1,200km, with a possible extended range of 2,000km. It was reported in Defense News that mass production of 50-60 missiles would start in 2014, with the first units deployed as early as 2015. Little is known about the technical details of the HF-2E and Yunfeng missiles—unlike its anti-ship sisters the HF-2 and HF-3, the HF-2E has never been put on public display, but it is clear that Taiwan’s defense industry has made significant improvements in its ability to produce missiles domestically.

Indeed, less than a month after China officially launched its first and only aircraft carrier the Liaoning CV 16, the Republic of China (ROC) military conducted a test of its longest-range anti-ship missile to date, an HF-3 variant dubbed the “aircraft carrier killer.” The missile can achieve a velocity of Mach 3 and reach its target from as far away as 400km.

Examining the hypothetical scenario of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon stated confidently in a piece published in 2000 that “China could not take Taiwan, even if US combat forces did not intervene in a conflict. Nor will China be able to invade Taiwan for at least a decade, if not much longer.” Given Beijing’s unparalleled economic and military growth over the past decade, few would share that same optimism today. Yet the case for Taiwan’s defense is not lost, rather it requires exploring innovative options that would allow for a cost-effective and efficient defense.

One of the avenues available for Taiwan is to turn China’s missile-centered, anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) doctrine to Beijing’s disadvantage. Taiwan should be able to develop sufficient A2AD capabilities that would transform the Taiwan Strait and adjacent waters into a dangerous zone either for invading forces or for an attempted blockade. Among the most vocal proponents of a greater role for asymmetric measures (and A2AD is a truly asymmetric response for states that face a stronger naval power) in Taiwan’s defense plans are James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College, who advocate development of a fleet of stealth-capable, high-speed vessels armed with anti-ship cruise missiles.

One of the prominent concepts being promoted by various scholars is the “porcupine strategy.” William S. Murray suggests that key components of equipping Taiwan to adopt such a strategy—so named for the animal’s defensive quills—lies in a whole range of passive defense measures: stockpiling supplies, hardening shelters, preparing for an army-based defense with short-range defensive weapons, and designed-in redundancies in terms of communications and infrastructure. Proponents of the porcupine strategy oppose the purchase of excessively expensive platforms such as the Patriot PAC-3 air/ballistic missile defense system, and even prolonged attempts to buy 66 F-16C/D fighter jets. These are sound proposals, but if implemented in its entirety, Taiwan would strip itself of the ability to conduct any effective operations on the sea and in the air.

No proposal is without flaws, and most of them have their merits: the key issue for decision makers is to combine what is available with what is desirable. Taiwan’s ballistic-missile defense can be boosted by railguns that would provide a much more cost-effective, low-tier option, and shore-based missile defense can be supported by multiple rocket launcher systems.

However, any actions taken to limit missile ranges to short distances in order to avoid having the capability to strike targets within Chinese territory would not serve the cause of Taiwan’s defense. It appears that the government agrees with this conclusion, as evidenced by its push for HF-2E and Yunhong production.

Andrew Krepinevich, a proponent of the Air-Sea Battle operational concept that seeks to overcome Chinese A2AD measures, argues that “the large air bases in the region that host the US Air Force’s short range strike aircraft and support aircraft are similarly under increased threat [of Chinese A2AD]. All thus risk becoming wasting assets.” There are several platforms in Taiwan’s arsenal that face the same dilemma: Big surface ships and fighter jets among the most prominent. Surface-to-surface cruise missiles could become wasting assets too, due to potential doctrinal constraints. Naturally, it serves Taiwan politically to declare that Taiwan will not be the one that strikes first. The porcupine strategy follows that policy line well. Most of the suggestions are aimed at fencing off an incoming ballistic missile onslaught. However, excluding the pre-emptive strike option means risking the aforementioned platforms becoming wasting assets by exposing them to an initial Chinese missile strike—the move widely considered to be the most likely opening salvo in any military scenario.

  • A problematic option

Actually engaging in a pre-emptive strike is, of course, a problematic option, as the initiator of such a move risks condemnation from the international community. The controversy surrounding Israel’s pre-emptive strike in the Six-Day War of 1967 is but one example. However, it seems prudent to assume that Taiwan’s decision makers would green-light a pre-emptive strike only in the presence of strong evidence of the inevitability of a Chinese attack, and that this evidence would be communicated with the United States (Taiwan’s new Early Warning Radar station in Hsinchu would be instrumental in providing such evidence). Needless to say, a pre-emptive strike is under any circumstances an extremely risky proposition for Taiwan, yet simply giving up on any capability to hit military targets in China does not make Taiwan any safer. In any case, a counter-strike ability should have its place in Taiwan’s defense planning, even if pre-emptive options are off the table. Refraining from having such capabilities would only further exacerbate Taiwan’s disadvantages, effectively sending the message to Beijing that its military infrastructure would not be affected should it decide to take Taiwan by force.

Although pre-emption is not often discussed publicly, it is not foreign to academic circles. In 2011, an article in the academic journal Issues & Studies discussed the option of pre-emptive strikes under five different scenarios. The evidence offered by author Heng-yu Lee suggests that it would always be in Taiwan’s interest to strike first when it becomes clear that conflict is inevitable.

  • Pandora’s box

From the US perspective, Taiwan’s missile program is something of a Pandora’s box, allowing Taiwan to embark on a first strike before formally declaring independence is a scenario that is highly undesirable from Washington’s perspective. Yet the logic of such a move would be unclear: First, Taiwan would not be able to inflict enough damage on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to prevent an immediate retaliation. Second, any such action would legitimize the full range of subsequent Chinese military actions, including amphibious invasion. Third, Taiwan’s decision makers would risk losing US support, which is increasingly conditioned upon an unprovoked attack by China. Thus, it should be clear that a pre-emptive strike would be only the first in a whole range of last resort options.

Once the decision to develop and deploy cruise missiles with a range of 800km-2,000km was taken, removing the option to launch a first strike in the  presence of clear evidence of an imminent PLA attack would make those platforms vulnerable to incoming missiles, even if they are deployed on trucks and are thus mobile. Second, it is understandable that Taiwan’s government seeks to nurture its image of the party that would not attack first. It may very well keep on declaring that. The risk of losing face as a consequence of a pre-emptive strike is not negligible, but considering the alternative option, it is still acceptable. Third, Taipei is at a disadvantage vis-à-vis Beijing, and it simply cannot afford to dismiss any chance to gain leverage. This does not exclude careful selection of potential targets. There are already several limitations that stem from the democratic nature of the Taipei regime that prevents Taiwan from fully maximizing its military options. Deliberately striking targets that would cause civilian casualties is simply unacceptable. However, striking military assets in China right before Beijing launches its own attack is perfectly legitimate.

This article was originally published in the Strategic Vision for Taiwan Security (Vol. 2, Issue 7, February 2013) published jointly by National Defense University and Institute of International Relations (IIR) at National Chengchi University (whole issue can be accessed here and here in PDF) and posted at author’s personal blog Taiwan in Perspective.

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Michal Thim is Taiwan Studies PhD candidate at University of Nottingham and concurrently research fellow at Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs (AMO). His research interest mainly focuses on foreign, defence and security policy of Taiwan, territorial disputes in South and East China Seas, foreign policy of China, and the role of the USA in East Asia. His PhD research deals with Taiwan’s defence and asymmetrical defence strategies. He owns blog Taiwan in Perspective, follow him at @michalthim.
Michal Thim has 6 post(s) on Asia Security Watch