Hope on the Horizon: Taiwan’s Radical New Defense Concept
Taiwan is doomed. The numbers prove it. Or so we are told. Every year the U.S. Department of Defense publishes the statistics. Taiwan’s defense budget is $10 billion. China’s is $154 billion. There are almost a million active duty soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army versus 140,000 ground troops across the strait. Taiwan has 420 fighters versus China’s 1,490 and 23 ships versus China’s 240. Taiwan has two modern attack submarines, while China has 52. The cross-strait military balance seems hopeless and the conventional wisdom is that the threat of U.S. intervention in the event of an invasion is the only thing deterring Beijing from reunifying the island by force. In the face of such overwhelming odds, however, Taiwan’s military has not given up. In fact, they’ve greatly improved their chances for survival.
Last year, Taiwan’s Chief of the General Staff, Adm. Lee Hsi-ming quietly proposed a revolutionary new approach to Taiwan’s defense, called the Overall Defense Concept. This new concept, if effectively implemented, could turn the tables and give Taiwan a fighting chance of preventing China from being able to take it by force.
China considers Taiwan a rogue province — an unresolved remnant of the civil war that otherwise ended in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated forces retreated to Taiwan under the protection of the U.S. Navy. The U.S. military maintained a presence in Taiwan until the normalization of diplomatic relations with China in 1979. China has stated its intent to reunify Taiwan by force if necessary, and built up its military with the aim of both invading Taiwan and preventing the U.S. military from coming to the island’s defense in time.
Taiwan has historically been dependent on the United States to deter China through both the threat of intervention and the provision of arms. The Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to maintain the ability to defend Taiwan and provide it with “arms of a defensive character.” Taiwan’s military has closely mirrored its U.S. counterpart, in miniature, for years, sending its officers to U.S. military school houses, training together, and acquiring both new and used military platforms sold by the U.S. government. Taiwan’s military is now a hodgepodge of U.S and indigenously built systems. Its American systems range from the cutting edge to the antique. Taiwan’s AH-64E Apache attack helicopter is newer than the model fielded by the U.S. Army in the United States Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility. Taiwan’s F-16s are being retrofitted to include new capabilities that U.S. Air Force pilots are jealous of. However, Vietnam-era systems like M-60 tanks, Knox-class frigates, and F-5 fighters are also found in Taiwan’s arsenal. Each of Taiwan’s services is in desperate need of recapitalization and it is tempting to look at U.S.-made next-gen frigates, M1A2 Abrams tanks, and F-35s as logical candidates.
The problem with buying U.S. systems wholesale is that they are expensive, designed to project power over great distances, and maximize mobility and networks to take the fight to the enemy with overwhelming superiority. Taiwan on the other hand, needs the opposite: systems that are short-range and defensive, able to survive an initial bombardment from a larger adversary, and suitable for deployment close to home in defense of the island should it come under blockade or attack. Despite mirror-imaging the U.S. military in its doctrine, training, and capabilities for decades, Taiwan has begun to chart its own course.
Taiwan’s new defense concept employs an asymmetric defense strategy, where Taiwan maximizes its defense advantages, and targets an invading force when it is at its weakest. Whereas Taiwan’s previous strategy focused on fighting across the entire Taiwan Strait and defeating the enemy through attrition, the new concept divides Taiwan’s defense operations into two phases, both closer to Taiwan’s shores where the lines of communication are short and Taiwan’s forces can benefit from land-based air denial and more effective surveillance and reconnaissance.
The first phase is the decisive battle in the littoral, extending up to 100 kilometers from the island. Key capabilities at this phase will include sea mines, and large surface vessels equipped with Taiwan’s capable, domestically manufactured anti-ship cruise missiles, the Hsiung Feng 2 and 3. Taiwan’s surface fleet includes larger vessels from the legacy force, such as French-built Lafayette class frigates, U.S.-built Kidd-class destroyers, and U.S.-designed Perry class frigates armed with both Hsiung Feng and Harpoon missiles, as well as a new class of fast attack Tuojiang class catamarans that carry 16 missiles. Taiwan also fields anti-ship Hsiung Feng missiles mounted on trucks that will disperse in order to survive initial strikes. While evading detection in Taiwan’s urban and mountainous terrain, they will launch strikes at surface ships throughout an invasion.
The second phase seeks to annihilate the enemy at the beach area, which extends approximately 40 kilometers outwards from anticipated invasion beaches. This phase calls for Taiwan’s navy to lay mines in deep and shallow waters off suspected landing beaches. A new fleet of automated, fast minelaying ships are being built for that mission. In the interim, mine-launching rails can be installed on several classes of surface vessels. While invading ships are slowed by mine fields, swarms of small fast attack boats and truck-launched anti-ship cruise missiles will target key ships in the invasion force, particularly amphibious landing ships carrying the initial wave of PLA assault troops as well as roll-on-roll-off vessels carrying follow-on vehicles and armor.
The Taiwan Army comes into play at this phase, laying beach mines, and targeting enemy ships with precision fires, including minesweepers. Precision artillery will target any vessels and troops reaching shore, using area effects weapons such as indigenously built multiple launch rocket systems with cluster munitions, and attack helicopters including AH-64E Apaches. The Taiwan Air Force will seek to deny Chinese fighters, bombers and drones from Taiwan’s battlespace by deploying integrated air defenses, including Patriot PAC-3 batteries and domestically manufactured Tian Kung-2 surface to air missiles that are assigned to defend air bases and critical infrastructure, and smaller mobile air defense systems, such as U.S.-provided Avenger systems to prevent the PLA Air Force from providing close-in air support to their invading forces.
Mines and Missiles
Sea mines are a critical capability at the heart of the Overall Defense Concept. Historically, sea mines have proven difficult to counter, and effective at slowing invasion forces. In the Korean War, the U.S. invasion force at Incheon landed before North Koreans could deploy sea mines. U.S. forces landed quickly, met heavy resistance ashore, and found warehouses full of mines after they cleared the beach. At the attack on Wonson a month later, sea mines were deployed offshore before the planned invasion. Two minesweepers were destroyed by mines while under fire from shore-based artillery, and clearing operations took two weeks. U.S. Marine and Army units embarked on transports had to wait five days offshore for lanes to be cleared, which only happened after North Korean forces abandoned their positions.
The government-led National Chung Shan Institute for Science and Technology (NCSIST), Taiwan’s main designer and manufacturer of defense articles, is currently developing two new types of shallow and deep-water influence mines, which they plan to deploy by 2021. They are also developing a self-propelled mine with a planned deployment date around 2025. Until then, Taiwan has been refurbishing its current mine inventory, which includes domestically manufactured Wan Xiang mines, and MK-6 mines acquired from the United States. Taiwan has also sought U.S.-manufactured MK62 Quickstrike air-deployed mines, which could be rapidly deployed by C-130s or P-3Cs, but the sale of that critical capability has not yet been approved by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The Hsiung Feng 2 and 3 missiles are the other weapons at the heart of the Overall Defense Concept. These missiles are fielded by surface ships and fired ashore from a handful of vulnerable fixed batteries, and from batteries of truck launchers. With the expectation that large surface ships will be primary targets neutralized early in a conflict, the Overall Defense Concept also relies on small fast attack vessels, such as the 112-foot long Kuang Hwa which mounts four Hsiung Feng missiles, and can be quickly reloaded in austere locations such as small fishing ports that dot Taiwan’s coastline. The Taiwan Navy is reportedly acquiring an even smaller vessel that carries two missiles. NCSIST is upgrading missiles and increasing production of anti-ship cruise missiles, land attack cruise missiles, and surface-to-air missiles to arm new ships and launchers, deepen magazines, and ensure that Taiwan’s armed forces have sufficient munitions to hold out for an extended period.
Force preservation is a critical aspect of the Overall Defense Concept. Survivability and continued effectiveness following initial PLA strikes have taken on greater urgency, especially as China’s investments in anti-access/area-denial and power projection capabilities are anticipated to slow a U.S. response force. Taiwan is already experienced in hardening its military infrastructure to withstand attacks, and the Overall Defense Concept calls on the military to increase investments in key capabilities including mobility, deception, camouflage, concealment, jamming, redundancy, rapid repair, and reconstitution. While these attributes are often neglected by militaries around the world because they are not visible or prestigious, the new defense concept recognizes that they are a critical aspect of Taiwan’s credible deterrence and prioritizes them in the competition for scarce defense dollars.
Orphans of the Overall Defense Concept
The new concept is animated by the most critical mission of the Taiwan military: denying China the ability to land and resupply an invasion force. Beijing can use blockades, coercion, hybrid warfare, or “gray zone” pressure, but the only thing that guarantees Beijing can achieve its political objective of Taiwan’s surrender is putting Chinese boots on the ground and physically seizing control of the island. Preventing that outcome is therefore the most fundamental mission. Taiwan’s military also has a multitude of peacetime missions and other potential contingencies that it must man, train, and equip for. Taiwan will therefore continue to invest in platforms that do not directly support the concept, or are unlikely to survive the initial waves of fire strikes that are expected to precede an invasion.
Taiwan’s vulnerable runways and the inability to disperse outside the range of Chinese strikes makes the Taiwan Air Force’s fixed-wing assets unlikely to play a decisive role in a conflict. The president of Taiwan has expressed interest in acquiring F-35B short-takeoff fighters, but even that capable aircraft is unlikely to be able to operate effectively following PLA strikes that will devastate Taiwan’s airbases. The Taiwan Air Force’s future fighter will primarily serve a deterrent role defending Taiwan’s airspace in peacetime. The Air Force will make its wartime contributions with mobile air defenses, small drones, and maintaining critical infrastructure to enable a joint defense. The Taiwan Navy is building large amphibious transport vessels and a future large air defense destroyer, which are also likely to be targeted and sunk in the early phases of a conflict. It is unclear what role Taiwan’s future Indigenous Defense Submarine will play targeting the surface ships of an invasion force since it is assumed it will be a large, conventional diesel electric design similar to its existing two submarines, optimized for deep, open water, rather than the shallows found in the Taiwan Strait.
Investments in submarines, large surface vessels, and fighter aircraft are necessary for Taiwan to re-capitalize its aging legacy force so the Air Force and Navy can continue to provide peacetime deterrence. The challenge for Taiwan is ensuring that there is adequate defense funding for these large, prestige-enhancing platforms (that are the darlings of their service chiefs), as well as the small, maneuverable, and survivable asymmetric systems that are critical to Taiwan’s survival.
Cooperation with the United States
Taiwan’s new defense concept presents both challenges and opportunities for cooperation with the U.S. military. Sales of large, expensive U.S.-made arms have certain benefits — they are a visible and tangible signal of U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense, which boosts morale in Taiwan and uncertainty in Beijing, and they are a critical form of political deterrence in that respect. U.S.-supplied systems also provide the potential for interoperability with the U.S. military, and potentially other countries in the region. Taiwan’s proximity to China is an advantage that could benefit networked U.S. forces operating at greater stand-off distances. For example, a sensor operated by Taiwan could feed data to networked U.S. planes and ships operating at a distance to increase their awareness of threats and improve targeting.
One challenge is that Taiwan’s defense needs are diverging from the expertise and systems the U.S. military can provide. For example, the U.S. Marine Corps does not have a dedicated opposing force that Taiwan could train with to hone their skills in defending beaches. Commanders of Taiwan’s squadrons of small fast attack boats can find no counterpart in the U.S. Navy to train with. U.S. Navy mine warfare is under-resourced, unappreciated and mines are considered a problem, not a solution. Offensive mining may be making a comeback, however, in light of the U.S. strategy identifying China as a key threat. The U.S. Navy has recently signaled its developing interest in mine warfare, publicly demonstrating the deployment of Quickstrike mines from a B-52 in September during exercise Valiant Shield 18. With every challenge comes opportunity. As the U.S. Army develops its multi-domain battle concept and applies it to the Indo-Pacific, it will increasingly realize that China is the challenge, and the battlespace is Taiwan. Adm. Harry Harris, then commanding Pacific Command, spoke at the Association of the U.S. Army conference in 2016, reduced the task to, “Army’s got to be able to sink ships.” U.S. Army could find solutions and opportunities for expanding their reach into the maritime domain by studying and innovating alongside their counterparts in Taiwan.
The beauty of Adm. Lee’s Overall Defense Concept is that it embraces an asymmetric strategy, does not seek to compete with China’s larger military head on, and focuses Taiwan’s resources on targeting the greatest threat, while surviving long enough for third-party intervention. It eschews traditional symmetrical warfighting of surface action groups, fighter planes, or tanks slugging it out head-to-head. Instead, it takes a page from guerilla warfare and envisions large numbers of small, affordable, highly mobile units taking advantage of the terrain to defeat a larger enemy. U.S. defense experts should consider these concepts as well as they contemplate how the U.S. military can address the threat from increasingly capable adversaries. With its new Overall Defense Concept, opportunities for collaboration with Taiwan to address asymmetric challenges will increase.
Deterring China from seeking to reunify Taiwan by force will continue to be a complex equation. The threat of U.S. intervention remains the most critical factor, but as the People’s Liberation Army continues to modernize and expand, including anti-access/area denial capabilities designed to challenge a U.S. intervention, Taiwan’s own defense capabilities become increasingly important. The survivability of Taiwan’s military, particularly its combat effectiveness weeks after a conflict begins, and the ability to slow and attrite an invading force is critical to buy time for the U.S. to intervene. Adm. Lee has made a courageous proposal to set Taiwan on that crucial course which will continue to assure cross-strait stability despite the threat from an increasingly capable adversary.
Drew Thompson was the Director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2018. He is now a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He can be followed on Twitter: @TangAnZhu.