1000 Paper Tigers: China’s Conventional Missile Forces


The supposed threat of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Second Artillery Corps (SAC) and its “capability” to bring about capitulation by way of devastating conventional bombardment is a topic of concern among policy makers and military experts. But how does this affect the strategic dynamics of the region?

Tan Weihong, commander of the SAC believes that “conventional missiles are a trump card in modern warfare.” This belief in the coercive capability of PLA conventional strategic missile forces can be traced throughout defense scholarship of the past decade. Official U.S. documents raise similar concerns describing a potential missile campaign targeting Taiwan’s political, military, and economic infrastructure “to induce fear in Taiwan and degrade the populace’s confidence” in their leadership. This fear of the SAC’s ability to produce a fait accompli has resonated within the defense community, encouraging procurement of expensive—yet possibly unneeded—platforms to penetrate China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial systems and suppress these supposed threats. It is not my intention to make any major overtures in the current China war strategy debate. Instead, I simply apply a proven theoretical construct to assess the SAC’s conventional capability, or lack thereof, to attain a strategic victory by means of coercion. That is, I aim to prove that while the PLA’s SAC may pose a tactical threat to large installations, it lacks the conventional capability to bring about a quick strategic victory in any conflict scenario. My hope is that this analysis will better inform those interested in both AirSea Battle and Off-Shore Control.

The numerous reports citing the strategic threats posed by conventional missile forces seem to ignore the history surrounding military coercion. Military coercion is a method used by states in order to affect the behavior of an opponent by manipulating the costs and benefits of maintaining the status quo. Coercion differs from a military campaign of conquest because it seeks to persuade the target state to acquiesce to the coercer’s demands while the target still retains the ability to mount an organized military resistance against the coercer.  In Explaining Military Coercion, Robert Pape identifies three methods of coercion: risk, punishment, and denial. Risk coercion involves the use of progressively increasing target sets, consisting of population centers and infrastructure, in order to convince the target state that concessions should be made to prevent the further intensification of violence and damage. Punishment is a dialed up version of risk coercion, whereby a large target set is attacked in order to maximize civilian causalities, incentivizing swift conflict termination due to concern for its citizen’s well-being or fear of revolt.  Lastly, a denial coercive strategy aims to deny the target state the hope that it can achieve its military goals by eliminating only the capabilities essential for carrying out the target state’s military strategy.

Pape hypothesizes that the denial theory of coercion has the highest rate of success in interstate conflicts. This hypothesis is based on the flawed logic of the risk and punishment theories of coercion. According to Pape, the former is useless if attempted by conventional forces due to the lack of destructive output and the target state’s ability to mitigate costs to its population through relocation or civil defense. The latter, being an intensified version of the former, simply hardens a population’s resolve and support for its government. History has shown that civilian punishment has never caused revolt against the target state’s government or motivated the target state to surrender. Denial theory’s logic is based on rational utility calculations made by the target state; that is, when the target state’s military is incapable of achieving its strategic objective, continued military action becomes irrational due to its inefficiency; it is therefore rational to surrender and prevent further loss of recourses.

China’s main strategic objective in cross-strait conflict is presumably the complete reintegration of Taiwan. China will likely attempt to accomplish this objective through coercion as opposed to total military conquest due to the logistical infeasibility of an amphibious and airborne invasion. Thus, the PRC can only attempt to coerce Taiwan’s reintegration before U.S. forces arrive in theatre. As stated in the aforementioned paragraph, the coercer must destroy enough of the target’s military capability to make further resistance irrational. However, though popularly speculated or even expected, a conventional strike campaign cannot accomplish this objective. The sheer volume of ballistic and land attack cruise missiles would be more than enough to over saturate any sea- or land-based missile defense system.  Still, their relative inaccuracy (i.e. circular area probability of 100 meters) makes the destruction of hardened targets (e.g., integrated air defense systems, command and control nodes, and armored/mechanized troop formations) difficult, if not impossible. For the PLA to effectively execute a denial strategy, they would have to reduce Taiwan’s forces—nearly two million combined active duty and reservist troops—to the point that less than six PLA divisions could conduct an effective landing and hold a beachhead against a fully mechanized opposition force for the approximately 20  hours it would take for Chinese reinforcements arrive. The implausibility of this scenario makes a denial strategy that many analysts fear almost laughable.

This leaves the punishment and risk coercive strategies on the table. The SAC’s conventional forces certainly have the capability to target the Taiwanese population, hoping they force the Republic of China to surrender or face mass uprisings. History has shown this to be a naïve and baseless expectation. During the Second World War, Germany was unsuccessful in forcing the British to surrender despite conventional missile attacks against London. Allied European strategic bombing campaigns saw a total of 2,770,540 tons of ordnance dropped in Europe, causing some 600,000 deaths. Japan saw the destruction of 67 cities by way of 503,000 tons of ordnance, leaving 500,000 dead and five million displaced. Despite these lengthy and destructive campaigns, neither state capitulated until it faced total defeat after years of conventional force-on-force conflict. Some 30 years later, American and allied forces expended 864,000 tons of munitions during the strategic bombing campaigns targeting North Vietnam, yet the Communists continued their war and eventually attained victory. Even with the advent of precision guided munitions, strategic bombing failed to produce a victory in Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom. Both the First and Second Gulf Wars were only won after the destruction of Iraq’s military forces made further resistance irrational or impossible.

China has approximately 1,200 conventional SRBMs—each capable of delivering 500kg warheads—and 200 launch vehicles. This translates to a mere 110 tons of deliverable ordnance per launch cycle of 30 minutes. With history as a guide, it is safe to assume that China’s conventional missile capability is not the trump card many believe it to be. In the event that a cross-strait crisis occurs and PLA missiles bombard Taiwan, history suggests that the Taiwanese will rally around their leaders, their military will mobilize, and the fight will continue despite the inevitable destruction of large surface-area targets such as airfields. With the threat of a fait accompli almost inconceivable, there would be no need for a quick kinetic response to suppress short range ballistic missile launchers located in mainland China.

What does this mean for Taiwanese and U.S. strategy in the event of cross-strait conflict? Taiwan’s ability to passively absorb a conventional missile attack allows the island to implement a deterrent strategy transcending this tactical threat. Such a plan would cease procurement of expensive fixed-wing aircraft due to its vulnerability to a first strike and low survivability in the event of follow-on strikes by the qualitatively and quantitatively superior PLA Air Force. Instead, defense spending should be allocated for mobile missiles and the continued hardeningof existing missile batteries, coastal defensive positions, C2 nodes, logistical infrastructure, and its newly operational phased array early warning system. This more efficient strategy not only costs less, but enhances Taiwanese integrated air defense system (IADS) survivability and effectiveness. Such a strategic shift will fundamentally alter China’s strategic calculus due to its inability to accurately destroy mobile and hardened targets with a conventional missile strike. A robust and hardened IADS – expanding upon the eleven electronic warfare facilities (including the powerful PAVE PAWS) conducting air surveillance and the twenty-two fixed missile batteries employing HAWK, Patriot, and Tien Kung SAM systems –  could decrease the utility of a follow-on air attack to the point that Chinese leadership deem they would lose too many assets in a bid for air superiority, thus creating a successful deterrent.

Nation states do not capitulate easily, especially when surrender means annexation or destruction. Strategic conventional bombing is more of a nuisance than an existential threat to modern states. While the Second Artillery Corps’ tactical capabilities should be taken seriously, U.S. policy makers and strategists should not allocate exceedingly scarce resources to countering what amounts to a paper tiger. A strategy based on rationality and fiscal responsibility should be adopted. That is, instead of focusing on penetrating a defense-in-depth, the U.S. should encourage Taiwan to procure its own Anti-Access/Area Denial capability.


Joshua Shapiro is senior at American University’s School of International Service. He lived abroad in Amman, Jordan where he studied Middle Eastern security and economic issues. Joshua is currently interning at the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at the National Defense University. 

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