Forget the Subs: What Taipei Can Learn from Tehran About Asymmetric Defense


Ahead of the Donald Trump-Xi Jinping summit this week at Mar-a-Lago, Taiwan is understandably anxious. Trump’s ascendance to the American presidency has injected uncertainty into the U.S. approach to China and Taiwan — an element of foreign policy that is traditionally carefully calibrated to avoid upsetting the precarious cross-strait arrangement. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s unprecedented phone call with then-President -elect Trump in early December seemed to herald a new, more muscularly pro-Taiwan approach. This impression was subsequently belied by Trump’s suggestion that Taiwan could be traded away as part of a grand bargain with China. Speculation about Trump’s interest in upending this long-standing U.S. policy died down after the president affirmed his support for the “one China policy” in his first conversation with Xi. The next month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adopted China’s verbiage regarding a “new model of great power relations” during his trip to Beijing.

Whether and how Trump and Xi will address the one China policy remains to be seen. “We are preparing for every scenario,” one unnamed Taiwanese official told The Washington Post. Yet the underlying problem is clear. As Taiwan’s recently released Quadrennial Defense Review argues, Chinese military power is increasing at the same time as the new administration’s plans for “the United States’ Asia-Pacific strategic direction and troop deployment” remain uncertain. These shifting geopolitical currents come at the same time as growing strain between Taiwan and China. Beijing regards Tsai’s traditionally pro-independence political party as antagonistic to its interests and, since her inauguration last May, has undertaken a campaign of increased economic, political, and military pressure.

The confluence of escalating cross-strait tensions and uncertainty regarding the Trump administration’s policy underlines the need for Taiwan to think seriously and strategically about its defense policy. The cross-strait military balance has shifted dramatically in China’s favor over the past decade and Taiwan’s defense investments have not kept pace with the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Although it remains likely that the United States would intervene in the event of a Chinese attack, Taiwan must nevertheless maintain sufficient forces to prevent China from achieving a fait accompli before the United States mobilizes politically and/or militarily to respond. For Taiwan to credibly deter China, it must abandon any hopes of parity with China’s capabilities — including its expensive new submarine program — and instead invest in a force capable of executing an asymmetrical defense strategy.

The Challenge of Taiwanese Grand Strategy: Deterrence and Dependence

Prior to the PLA’s recent modernization campaign, a successful cross-strait assault used to seem like a pipe dream, derided by military analysts as a “million man swim.” But, increasingly, Taiwan is confronted by a China capable of executing the threat, codified in its 2005 Anti-Secession Law, to use military force to prevent Taiwan from establishing formal independence. Under the previous Kuomintang Party administration in Taipei, President Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of rapprochement with China seemed to attenuate this danger, with positive bilateral relations diminishing the risk of a confrontation. But with the traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party back in control of the presidency and Legislative Yuan, threats across the Taiwan Strait have returned to the limelight.

A Growing Cross-Strait Threat

Beijing has been quite clear in publicly communicating its enduring strategic priorities: maintaining Chinese Communist Party rule, sustaining internal economic reforms, achieving global recognition as a great power, and reunification with Taiwan. Despite the contention by some pundits that China’s sluggish economy and epic corruption has prompted Xi Jinping to turn his attention inward, reducing the actual military threat to Taiwan, China’s leaders remain sharply focused on Taiwan.

Recent steps by Beijing to pressure Tsai through non-military actions seem to reflect the PLA’s so-called “three warfares” doctrine — the legal, economic and psychological methods China uses to achieve its desired objectives without resorting to military force. After a hiatus during the Ma years, Beijing is once again pressuring Taiwan’s few international friends to drop recognition of Taiwan in favor of China. After successfully winning over Sao Tome and Principe in December, media reports indicate China is turning its attention to Taiwan’s remaining twenty-one partners. To further diminish Taiwan’s international status, China successfully pressured the International Civil Aviation Organization into excluding Taiwan. Taiwan could be shut out of further participation as an observer at the World Health Organization’s 2017 World Health Assembly. Given the centrality of international recognition to Taiwan’s claims of political legitimacy, these are serious diplomatic losses for Taipei.

Beijing has also increased economic, political and military pressure in an effort to sway Taiwanese public opinion in the direction of rapprochement with China. Through visa regulation China has decreased the number of mainland tourists to Taiwan by over one third this year, leading to empty malls and beaches in towns that were crowded with visitors during the Ma years. During the election last year, the Taiwan Political Warfare Bureau also assessed that China engaged in a public opinion war by flooding social media websites with coordinated, well-organized arguments to dominate the narrative and influence public opinion.

Finally, Beijing has exerted a level of military pressure on Taipei that arguably exceeds anything China has attempted since the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis. The PLA has allegedly increased cyber-attacks on Taiwanese government and private information technology infrastructure since Tsai has taken office, ranging from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations to website defacement. In moves interpreted by the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense as shows of force, H6K long range bombers circled Taiwan in late November last year, and China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed through the Taiwan Strait with five escort ships earlier this year. All of these actions are clearly part of a planned, orchestrated campaign to coerce the Democratic Progressive Party to soften its position and compel Tsai to publicly accept the “one China, different interpretations” formulation associated with the “1992 Consensus.” If this campaign fails to keep Taipei inside China’s red lines, direct military action may grow more attractive for Beijing.

Preparing for War

Despite changes in the cross-Strait military balance, war between China and Taiwan remains unlikely in the near future. Tsai has consistently expressed her preference to maintain the political status quo of cross-strait peace and stability. Assuming she maintains this position, Taipei will remain within the redlines China laid out in its 2005 Anti-Secession Law: military force would be used in the event “Taiwan secessionists” made a move for independence. Despite this uneasy equilibrium, the prospect for war cannot be reduced to zero — even an accidental confrontation could spark a crisis that spirals out of control. What is more, Taipei’s ability to resist Chinese coercion requires that the Taiwanese military retain the capabilities required for deterrence. Taiwan must therefore anticipate, and prepare for, the most probable scenarios for a PLA attack.

Consider one possible campaign, based on the Taiwanese QDR’s threat assessment and China’s military literature: Following a Taiwanese move that Beijing interprets as crossing one of its redlines, China issues an ultimatum and establishes an air defense identification zone out to the first island chain. China then conducts naval and aerial blockade operations — the siege of Taiwan — that incorporate surface and subsurface assets, mainland short-range ballistic and cruise missiles, and aerial patrols to enforce the blockade. With only a partial blockade, after the first lethal action, the spike in insurance cost alone forces international aviation and maritime shippers to halt operations into Taiwan.

Depending on how Taiwan and the region respond to this first action, China could quickly escalate from blockade to the establishment of local air and sea dominance through the destruction of critical Taiwanese military and leadership targets via an air and missile bombardment. An air campaign would likely be accompanied by Chinese sabotage, cyberspace attacks on critical infrastructure targets, and irregular warfare efforts. If both of these actions fail to achieve Taiwanese submission to Chinese demands, Beijing may then consider a cross-Strait amphibious invasion. An annual or ad hoc military exercise could provide initial cover for the requisite military buildup.

Avoiding a Cross-Strait Fait Accompli

Anything approximating such a scenario would be a nightmare for Taiwan, yet its military strategy is remarkably ill-matched to deter or respond to this threat. As China and Taiwan both recognize, the critical factor in the defense of Taiwan would be intervention by the U.S. military. Each action in the hypothetical scenario above reflects China’s designs to compel Taiwan to legally remain a part of China while keeping world opinion on China’s side and preventing outside intervention. Any escalation in military force, which might happen over the course of anywhere from 10 to 30 days, would depend on China’s assessment of the Taiwanese government’s and population’s willingness and ability to resist, the assessed timeline for the U.S. military to respond effectively (if at all), and the PLA’s own ability to sustain joint operations.

Taiwan’s central deterrence challenge is thus convincing China that it could not successfully execute a fait accompli prior to American intervention. In practice, that means Taiwan must increase its ability to resist aggression long enough for regional powers or the United States to intervene. Given its geography, Taiwan benefits from the natural advantages of island defense. Even so, a cross-strait fight would require sustained resistance, and it is not clear what level of costs the Taiwanese population would tolerate. In 2010, Taiwan’s defense minister, Admiral Li Jie, stated on Taiwanese television that Taiwan might hold off an offshore assault by the PLA for a maximum of two weeks, illustrating how domestic pressure to end the conflict could force Taiwan’s capitulation to the China’s political objectives prior to any ground invasion.

Taiwan’s Strategy-Threat Mismatch

Despite such harsh cross-strait realities, Taiwan continues to pursue a military strategy that errantly assumes an effective independent defense differs from one that only preserves time and space while waiting for external support in a cross-strait conflict. In fact, there is only one effective strategy: an asymmetric defense that can keep the fight offshore. The 2017 Taiwanese QDR takes initial steps in the right direction by introducing the strategic concept of multiple deterrence — the use of “innovative, asymmetric” means to complement its historic reliance on “credible deterrence,” a reference to conventional military power. But the QDR does not translate this concept into clear guidance for implementation. Instead, its requests for foreign capabilities and platforms, focus on indigenous development of advanced platforms, and force employment concepts reflect an incoherent approach.

There is no clear strategy guiding Taiwanese development or acquisition of sophisticated stealth aircraft (even the short-take-off/vertical landing F-35B), naval projects such as the helicopter carrier, indigenous diesel submarines, and land-attack cruise missiles. Though costly, these acquisitions do not change the Chinese calculus regarding any potential use of force. Instead, they create more targets for Chinese missiles and submarine hunters. Each of these platforms relies on static systems for support such as fuel, ammunition, maintenance, airfields, and piers. These are all easily targeted by missiles from the mainland.

At best, these “prestige” capabilities offer Taiwan international recognition as a developed conventional military. At worst, they will seduce Taiwan into decades-long cash sumps with no tangible benefit in deterrence or war. System testing, professional crew education and training, infrastructure construction, and continuous maintenance all ensure that these capabilities will not be operational for a decade after acquisition. At a time when Taiwan needs deterrent capabilities and needs them now, a 10-plus-year wait for a few squadrons of F-35s or 5-10 submarines is far too long. Instead, development of a resilient, survivable force with the ability to asymmetrically counter-attack is Taiwan’s best option for deterrence as well as defense.

A Possible Alternative: The Iran Template

In developing a more asymmetric strategy, Taiwan would do well to study the Iranian example. Like Taiwan, Iran faces the challenge of deterring the United States, an objectively stronger military power — albeit one much farther from Iranian shores than China is from Taiwan’s — from using regional maritime and air superiority to impose its will. Iran has managed to change the U.S. and regional Arab military calculus primarily through the development and employment of asymmetric capabilities integrated with conventional military forces.

Iran employs fast attack craft swarms armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles to deter U.S. naval access to the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, in conjunction with cheap armed unmanned aerial systems that can overwhelm an attacker’s air defenses. Iran has also focused on improving its naval mine capability and its speed of employment. Iranian coastal defense cruise missiles are now mobile, have expanded range and accuracy, and have improved target identification which makes them more lethal and harder to find and eliminate. Iranian short range ballistic missiles are easily camouflaged and can accurately strike U.S. forces staging at ports and airfields in partner countries, preventing a scenario similar to the 2002 to 2003 force build-up prior to the invasion of Iraq. Iran’s investment in Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems complements its asymmetric strategy with relatively inexpensive yet effective fifth generation capabilities.

Iran’s entire deterrent strategy seeks to create an ambiguous situation — one in which U.S. planners and policymakers doubt that use of military force would be successful. This strategy has forced the United States and its allies to reconsider its formerly-taken-for-granted access to the Arabian Gulf in the event of a conflict with Iran and expend resources designing counter-capabilities. Thus far, as a deterrent to conventional military attack — especially from the sea or air — the Iranian strategy has been remarkably effective.

Although the comparison is imperfect — the United States seeks to project power across the world to the Persian Gulf, whereas China is a mere 110 miles from Taiwan — the Iranian model nevertheless offers several specific lessons for Taiwan. First, Taipei’s military strategy should place asymmetric options above all conventional courses of action. This is a hard fact for any professional, conventionally-trained, aspiring modern military to accept, but a necessary pill to swallow. Luckily, since the program is not yet off the ground, it is not too late for Tsai to quietly backtrack on her commitment to homegrown submarines. Second, Taiwan should focus the implementation of its 2017 QDR strategy on manning, training, and equipping a joint force capable of thinking and operating asymmetrically. This means developing tactics to ensure a resilient force (taking elements of the well-debated 2008 to 2009 era “Porcupine Strategy”) by hardening existing military infrastructure, employing next generation camouflage and concealment, and continuing the development of capable, mobile, indigenous surface-to-air weapons systems.

Taking a chapter from Iran’s asymmetric playbook would also entail focusing on inexpensive, asymmetric means to break the effectiveness of a PLA blockade, or at a minimum exact pain on PLA naval forces, without having to resort to mainland strikes that might lead to automatic Chinese escalation. Capabilities such as improved, highly mobile, easily disguised coastal defense cruise missiles should take priority over land attack cruise missiles. Taiwan should prioritize investments in hundred-plus fleets of high speed, low profile, medium range attack craft that are armed with torpedoes, shallow or deep water mines, or short-range missile systems such as the Israeli-made Spike NLOS. These types of capabilities are far more useful than a large and slow helicopter carrier. Taiwan should think even smaller than its new, indigenously-produced Tuo-class river corvette.

When it comes to air power, Taiwan should focus on relatively inexpensive, semi-autonomous unmanned aerial systems, armed or unarmed, that can conduct simple distributed operations and do not rely on easily-degraded airfields. These capabilities ought to take precedence over the purchase of F35Bs or the acquisition of the high-performance turbofans required to create an indigenous 5th generation strike fighter. F-16 upgrades should continue in the near future as other capabilities reach operating capacity, but the manned fighter platforms should be seriously considered for future reduction. Submarine development should focus on inexpensive, semi or fully submersible, lightly-crewed electric craft with 5-7 day endurance, 2-4 torpedoes, and a minelaying capability.

Taiwan should rapidly acquire these capabilities and integrate them into its deterrence and warfighting strategies as they come online. Given American agreement to sell the aforementioned systems, these acquisitions could become fully operational in two to three years. A deterrent or defensive plan that properly integrates them would be more likely than current plans to change the China’s assessment of its own strategy to use force against Taiwan.

Implementing an Asymmetric Strategy

Unfortunately, there are reasons to question whether Taiwan will pursue the recommended asymmetric strategy absent pressure from the United States. Although the new QDR affirms Taipei’s commitment to spend 3 percent of GDP on defense, Taiwan has not met this target since 1999. Tsai is already struggling with low approval ratings and a sagging economy; in advance of local elections in 2018, the Democratic Progressive Party may be tempted to allocate resources to domestic programs. Moreover, national security officials are unenthusiastic about the prospect of adopting an asymmetric defense strategy. Although they acknowledge China’s growing military advantage, they nevertheless continue to focus on prestige weapons systems as well as indigenous production of extremely costly platforms such as submarines or fifth generation strikefighters. Luckily, since the program is not yet off the ground, it is not too late for Tsai to quietly backtrack on her commitment to homegrown submarines.

Whether as a part of a comprehensive “One China” policy review or as a series of independent actions, the Trump administration has both opportunity and options to assist in the implementation of an asymmetric strategy. With a large arms package reportedly in the works for Taiwan, the United States can shape Taipei’s procurement priorities while offsetting any potential disappointment that a “limited” package might induce. Emphasis on the types of acquisitions described above should be a centerpiece of negotiations with Taipei, and the Trump Administration should seek assurances that such systems will be top defense-spending priorities in the coming years. In addition, the arms package should resource non-materiel solutions that develop Taiwan’s manning and training for an asymmetric fight.

The United States is well positioned to offer advice as Taiwan develops and implements its asymmetric strategy. Planners from Special Operations Command Pacific could work with their Taiwanese counterparts and, if the Trump Administration decides to proceed with the senior military exchanges authorized by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, sending the component commander would convey a clear intent to focus on asymmetric strategy implementation. In addition, planners from the US Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group could help Taiwan develop a fuller picture of the Iran model. The administration could continue to pursue Taiwanese involvement as an observer and eventual participant in multilateral exercises such as Red Flag and RIMPAC. Moreover, it can encourage regional allies such as South Korea, Japan and the Philippines to investigate bilateral or regional military exercises with Taiwan that emphasize training in asymmetric defensive tactics.

These U.S. options are not without risk. China could continue to escalate non-military pressure against Taiwan in an effort to undermine the Tsai administration. Indeed, China’s official English-language Global Times already registered its displeasure with the QDR’s emphasis on building new military capabilities to deter the mainland. In determining its reaction, Beijing will likely assess any American moves in the context of Washington’s broader approach to Asia. Consequently, any policy changes by the Trump Administration should be carefully reviewed, intentionally sequenced, and strategically considered in the context of the United States’ overarching objectives in the region.



Colin Carroll works for the U.S. Marine Corps and has spent five years supporting U.S. Pacific Command planning efforts. Dr. Rebecca Friedman Lissner is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article draws on findings from their recent trip to Taipei, where they met with senior government officials. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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