Despite improved cross-Strait relations, China is continuing massive spending to build up its military capability, with Taiwan remaining prominently in the PLA’s crosshairs. Can advanced weapons procurement and the implementation of “asymmetrical strategies” enable Taiwan to meet the challenge of providing sufficient defensive strength?
On the face of it, Taiwan’s chances of prevailing in an outright military conflict with China would not seem very promising. China’s economic might, with a GDP of US$10.36 trillion – US$17.63 trillion in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, according to the CIA – enables it to afford a defense budget that is now the second largest in the world, behind only the United States. Beijing’s announced defense budget will rise by 10% in 2015, to about US$145 billion, the fifth straight year of double-digit increases.
The true expenditure is likely far higher, and China has launched modernization programs throughout its forces in order to “fight and win short-duration, high-intensity, regional contingencies,” according to the 2014 China Report of the U.S. Department of Defense, which states that China’s weapons buildup includes fifth-generation fighter aircraft, advanced missile technology, and even the launch of an aircraft carrier.
In line with the longstanding aim of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to bring Taiwan under its rule, the report adds that “preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, which includes deterring or defeating third-party intervention,” – that is, the United States – “remains the focus and primary driver of China’s military investment.”
In stark contrast, Taiwan’s defense budget stands at a mere NT$319.3 billion (US$10.7 billion), according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND). Taiwan struggles to keep its aging air force airborne, with nearly a quarter of the fleet comprised of Vietnam War-era F-5 fighter jets or hard-to-maintain French-built Mirage 2000s, while two of the nation’s four submarines date back to World War II and the other two are not much newer. At one time Taiwan could offset its smaller size with advanced weaponry, but China has closed the technological gap in many regards and now employs many weapons systems that are newer, more sophisticated, and more numerous than what Taiwan has available.
Military analysts in Taiwan say a Chinese invasion could be staved off for weeks or a month, providing time for the United States to come to the rescue. But many pundits question whether the United States would have the stomach for an armed conflict with China. They say that China’s advances in ballistic missile technology would now enable it to hit U.S. air bases in Okinawa and even Guam, along with aircraft carriers and other naval vessels. In 2009, defense research organization RAND Corporation concluded that with its Russian-made Su-27 and domestically produced J-10 multi-role fighter jets, along with PL-12 air-to-air missiles and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM), China could prevail against even the latest in U.S. technology, the F-22 stealth tactical fighter jet. RAND estimates that despite higher kill ratios for U.S. fighters (as high as 27:1 for the F-22), China would be able to launch 3.7 times more sorties and win the war of attrition.
At one time Taiwan could offset its smaller size with advanced weaponry, but China has closed the technological gap.
Since that report was issued, the threat from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force and Second Artillery, the unit in charge of the missile arsenal, has only increased as even more advanced weapons have come online.
“The stark reality is that these days, there is not much the U.S. can realistically do to help Taipei stand up to serious pressure from Beijing,” argues Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, in a widely circulated op-ed piece in the South China Morning Post.“China is simply too important economically, and too powerful militarily, for anyone to confront it on Taiwan’s behalf.”
The above is the bleak assessment of Taiwan’s defense situation given by many experts in military and international affairs. But are Taiwan’s chances in a military confrontation really so hopeless? There are several reasons to think not. In fact, despite the massive arsenal poised against Taiwan, recent history suggests that in an “asymmetrical war,” in which one power is far stronger than the other, the weaker power is often likely to come out on top.
Chinese military theorist Yang Shaohua, in a paper for the Chinese Journal of International Politics entitled “How Can Weaker Powers Win,” observes several factors that can contribute to success for the weaker side. Higher motivation and great willingness to suffer on the part of weaker powers in defense of their autonomy are critical factors, as is the lack of resolve or willingness to bear the costs of a confrontation on the part of the strong state, particularly if the strong state is a democracy. Help for the weak actor from more powerful friends is also a factor.
But Yang notes that the most critical element is the strategy employed by the weak power. “The type of strategy the weaker power selects is critical to determining the final outcome of an asymmetric conflict,” Yang writes. “When the weak power opts for an asymmetric strategy, its ratio of victory reaches 91.7%.”
Though the term “asymmetric strategy” is often used to refer to guerrilla warfare or terrorism, it can actually mean a number of different kinds of approaches. In 2008, William Murray, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, published a paper entitled “Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense Strategy” that shook up the defense world by saying that rather than invest in high-profile weaponry aimed at countering a Chinese aerial bombardment head-on, Taiwan should invest more in weapon systems aimed at repelling an invasion near Taiwan’s shores.
“China’s recent military modernization has fundamentally altered Taiwan’s security options,” he wrote, citing China’s submarine capabilities and advanced missiles. He added that China’s ability to encircle the island with its navy and hit targets accurately with ballistic and cruise missiles have deprived the island of the advantage of geographic distance from China. Murray therefore suggests that Taiwan can no longer counter these threats in a “symmetrical manner” with anti-missile defense systems, submarines, warships, fighter jets, and P-3 maritime patrol aircraft. Instead, he wrote, Taiwan must “rethink and redesign its defense strategy, emphasizing the asymmetrical advantage of being the defender, seeking to deny the People’s
Republic its strategic objectives rather than attempting to destroy its weapons systems.”
Murray contends that such a “porcupine strategy” would provide Taiwan with greater security at a far lower price tag. But the concept has hardly been universally accepted. Ian Easton, for example, research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a U.S.-based defense think-tank, told Taiwan Business TOPICS by email that “porcupine strategies are for countries that will lose in a war.” Wrote Easton: “It’s an idea better fit for North Korea and Iran.”
“When the weak power opts for an asymmetric strategy, its ratio of victory reaches 91.7%.”
On the other hand, defense specialist Richard Fisher says that many analysts consider Murray’s proposals to be “common sense,” and that Taiwan – with the encouragement of the U.S. Department of Defense – has undertaken many of Murray’s recommendations such as the procurement of small, fast attack boats and Rapid Runway Repair kits, the hardening of critical facilities such as airbase hangars and Command and Control (2C) centers, and the development of indigenous asymmetric weapons. Fisher, along with many analysts, considers the debate between high- and low-tech “a false choice for Taiwan.”
“To be sure, Taiwan requires an Army and Militia powerful enough to repel an invader but it also requires the ability to repel missile and air attacks and counter air and seaborne invasion forces before they reach the island,” he notes in an email. “The goal of Porcupine is to achieve deterrence by convincing Beijing that an invasion will surely fail, but by removing high-tech long-range combat systems, there is a danger that Beijing’s leadership will regard any reductions in high-tech defenses as an invitation to accelerate their invasion plans.”
The ROC armed forces operate under the doctrine of “resolute defense, credible deterrent,” and many knowledgeable commentators in Taiwan and the United States consider that Taiwan in fact is well-equipped to mount a staunch defense against a PRC attack. “Contrary to reports, Taiwan has the capacity to deny air superiority to China, and it is likely to maintain this capability well into the future,” Easton wrote last year in a paper for Project 2049 entitled “Able Archers: Taiwan Defense Strategy in an Age of Precision Strikes.” “By denying China uncontested control over the air domain, Taiwan can raise the costs of a maritime blockade or amphibious invasion attempt to a prohibitive level.”
According to Easton, Taiwan, with help from the United States, is building “what may be the world’s most robust air and missile defense network,” including early-warning radar, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, missile defense systems, fighter jet upgrades, airbase hardening and resiliency, and even UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Taiwan also plans to acquire next-generation stealth combat aircraft and seems intent in building its own submarines. “Improved air and missile defense is crucial to undermining potential PRC aggression,” Easton notes.
More needs to be done, though. Despite the clear threat presented by China, Taiwan’s defense spending between 2009 and 2014 declined by an average of -1.6% annually, while the 2015 defense budget submitted by MND calls for a modest 2.6% increase. With a GDP of US$505 billion (US$1.02 trillion PPP), a small fraction of the PRC’s, Taiwan cannot afford to bridge the gap in defense spending. Still, the relative declines in Taiwan’s military spending worry international defense experts for several reasons.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and the Center for Strategic and International Studies last year jointly published a paper entitled, “Taiwan’s Defense Spending: Security Consequences of Choosing Butter over Guns.” The theme is that reduced defense spending could “provide incentives for Beijing to pressure Taiwan” for unification by “diminishing Taiwan’s ability to maintain a credible deterrent against an attack.” Low defense spending also “raises questions about Taiwan’s commitment to its own defense,” which the paper suggests could have “implications” for U.S. willingness to respond to an attack upon Taiwan.
Has Taiwan become too complacent in the face of such a powerful threat?
After the tumultuous presidency of the Democratic Progressive Party’s Chen Shui-bian from 2000 to 2008, the Kuomintang administration of Ma Ying-jeou has striven for détente across the Strait. The opening of direct aviation links and signing of an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) exemplify the increased economic and social ties of the past seven years. China is now Taiwan’s largest trade partner and also sends the biggest contingent of tourists to the island, surely signs of continuing good relations. With American and Philippine forces engaged in war games described as a show of force against China’s increasingly aggressive assertion of maritime claims in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait has drifted into the background as a potential flashpoint of late.
Low defense spending “raises questions about Taiwan’s commitment to its own defense,” which could have “implications” for U.S. willingness to respond.
Another significant factor in shaping public attitudes in Taiwan is undoubtedly the seemingly huge scale of the challenge. China reportedly has 1,100 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) and 200-500 land attack cruise missiles (LACM) aimed at Taiwan, along with a small number of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM). The PRC is also deploying armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), which Easton theorizes might be used as decoys to create gaps in Taiwan’s defense network, and has dramatically increased its anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) capabilities, many of which are launched from submarine platforms.
China’s missile arsenal provides it with the ability to launch a devastating first-round attack against Taiwan’s airbases, naval ports, and command-and-control centers. SRBMs launched from coastal China, with a 300-kilometer range that includes nearly all of Taiwan, could reach their targets within less than six minutes.
The most likely scenario for an attack on Taiwan involves a lightning missile strike on naval ports and airfields. In view of that threat, Taiwan in recent years has hardened its airbases by burying hangars under mountains or tons of reinforced concrete. Taiwan’s fleet of 480 aircraft – including 64 Mirage-2000 fighters, 160 F-16s, and 123 locally made IDFs – might survive the bombardment, but if runways are unavailable they could not take off, or if already in the air, would have nowhere to land. The multi-layered saturation bombing would likely be followed by further aerial bombardment from fighter jets and bombers, and then ultimately the landing of Chinese troops.
Taiwan has in fact taken major steps to counter these potential threats. The first step is intelligence, including signal intelligence (SIGINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT), radar systems, cyber reconnaissance, and human intelligence networks. In 2012 Taiwan introduced a new ultra-high frequency (UHF) radar into its early warning system. Strategically situated in a mountain in northwest Taiwan, this radar system reportedly is a modified version of the U.S. “Pave Paws” ballistic missile defense radar. Easton observes that it may be “the most powerful ground-based radar system ever built.”
Missile defense systems
Taiwan is also investing heavily in its ballistic-missile defense systems, including SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) and especially Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile defense systems from the United States. Three of these units have already been deployed in northern Taiwan, and six more will soon be acquired for the central and southern parts of the island. Taiwan also has its own indigenously produced Tien Kung (Skybow) SAM systems. The Legislative Yuan recently appropriated NT$74.8 billion (US$2.5 billion) for upgrading to the third-generation Tien Kung (TK-3), which is considered comparable to the PAC system. Other antimissile weaponry in the Taiwan arsenal include missiles mounted on destroyers and frigates, on helicopters, and on the ground.
To counter the inevitable prospect of at least some SRBM warheads reaching their targeted airfields, Taiwan has further invested heavily in U.S.-developed Rapid Runway Repair kits, and Taiwanese troops have been trained by American contractors on how to use them effectively.
The numerous armchair defense analysts pervading the blogosphere and the comment section of any news story on Taiwan’s defense often start from the assumption that Taiwan is not strategically significant to U.S. foreign policy concerns and that China’s military power is insurmountable.
Even genuine military experts stress the cost that the United States would have to bear in coming to Taiwan’s rescue, and many wonder whether the American public would support the effort. In a paper for the U.S. Naval War College entitled “Anti-Access/Area Denial: The Evolution of Modern Warfare,” U.S. Air Force Major Christopher J. McCarthy notes that while China’s defense budget and fighting capabilities trail those of the United States, the defense umbrella it has built up – comprised of surface- and submarine-launched missiles that can reach as far into the Western Pacific as Guam – represents “a level of defensive capability not experienced by any military in the history of warfare, including the U.S.”
U.S. “attempts to deploy into the theater and gain air and maritime superiority (over China) likely will result in loss of life and material to levels not experienced since World War II.”
McCarthy concludes that while it is possible to successfully engage China, “attempts to deploy into the theater and gain air and maritime superiority likely will result in loss of life and material to levels not experienced since World War II.” This defensive shield strategy, dubbed “Anti-Access/Area Denial” (A2/D2) by military analysts, was born of China’s observation of the ease with which the United States invaded Iraq during Desert Storm in 1990-91, due to the full control U.S. forces exercised over the air and maritime space. “Military leaders concluded that in the event of a war with the United States, the U.S. military deployment process must be disrupted or neutralized, and have successfully developed and fielded military capabilities designed to fulfill this need,” writes McCarthy. China has been so successful in deploying these strategic resources that “just as Blitzkrieg changed combat in 1940, anti-access/area denial technologies and strategies have re-defined the character of modern warfare,” he argues.
In line with analysts’ observations of the nature of asymmetrical warfare, a democratic power such as the United States would have great difficulty sustaining such losses from a conflict whose strategic value was questionable. Defending democracy in Asia might not be enough motivation to continue such operations.
Pro-Taiwan analysts, however, note that in fact Taiwan remains a core strategic asset for the United States and that abandoning Taiwan to Chinese aggression, rather than serving to appease the rising superpower, would in fact fuel its appetite for further expansionism, destabilizing the region.
“Abandoning Taiwan would likely encourage Chinese expansionism while giving it more tools to do so,” warns defense expert J. Michael Cole in the recent article, “Don’t Let China Swallow Taiwan,” for The National Interest. “The annexation of Taiwan would further contribute to China’s might by adding the world’s 19th largest economy to its national power while providing Beijing with an ‘unsinkable carrier’ facing an open Western Pacific.” Cole, a senior officer of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation led by DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, views this eventuality as providing “China with a new front from which to confront Japan and the Philippines, not to mention U.S. forces deployed in the region.”
Richard Fisher sees abandoning Taiwan as a significant destabilizing event in East Asia that would have direct implications for the security of the United States. “Destroying Taiwan’s democracy could mark the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to counter democracy globally,” he noted in an email, observing that China “is already allying itself with most of the world’s dictatorships.”
Even more significantly, Taiwan’s fall could thrust the region into a new nuclear arms race. “After taking Taiwan, China will then turn it into a nuclear weapons base and a base for global power projection,” he wrote. Consequently, “Japan and South Korea would build their own nuclear weapons, followed by Australia, Vietnam, and perhaps others. China will then redouble its nuclear weapon building, thinking it could win a nuclear exchange, making such conflicts far more possible.”
“Destroying Taiwan’s democracy could mark the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to counter democracy globally.”
At that point, the United States would have to decide “whether to help its allies to nuclearize or to abandon them,” Fisher continued. It would be faced with the challenge of how to defend American interests “in a period of strategic chaos in Asia which its leadership had prevented since 1945.”
China’s rising power has made a strong impression on the world, but many in the pro-Taiwan camp say that Chinese propaganda has led to a major over-estimation of its war-fighting capacity, and consequently diminished expectations regarding the ROC military.
“Sustained propaganda/political warfare campaigns unleashed by Beijing” toward Taiwan are intended to “undermine morale in the troops, destroy the reputation of the military at home and abroad, and convince the Taiwanese population, as well as Taiwan’s allies, that resistance is futile,” Cole wrote in a special report for Thinking Taiwan, “Taiwanese Military Reform and PLA Political Warfare.”
Easton added in email correspondence that China is actually far less confident than it seeks to appear. “To really know how the PLA sees Taiwan, you have to dig deeper,” he advised. “When you do, you find that the PLA is scared of the ROC military, and they are scared of the U.S. Pacific Command.”
An overestimation of China’s war-fighting capability might explain why commentators tend to expect China to emerge victorious, both in asymmetrical war scenarios in which China is the weaker power, as in a conflict with the United States, or when it is the stronger power, as in a conflict with Taiwan. Certainly a democratic United States would be far more sensitive to losses than authoritarian China, but is China immune from public reaction? How would China’s hyper-connected, increasingly middle-class society react when images of body bags offloaded from Chinese naval vessels start circulating on Weibo and other social media platforms during a conflict with Taiwan, particularly in light of the one-child policy?
Ultimately, the question comes down not to China’s restraint but to its long-term strategic goals. Alexander Huang, a professor of strategic studies at Taipei’s Tamkang University, says that despite appearances, China has not reached authentic superpower status, and its leadership knows it. He points to extreme disparities in regional development as indicative of China’s incomplete economic rise. “China understands that to maintain one-party rule and make sure people ‘enjoy’ a dictatorship, you need to bring continual economic growth,” he observes. “Military conflict will kill foreign direct investment and business opportunities.”
At the same time, Huang says, Beijing wants to show the world that it is no longer a weak power. “China wants to posture its military might, but not test its military might,” he notes.
China’s need for further development buys Taiwan some time, but doesn’t eliminate the threat, Huang concludes. How can Taiwan best use that time to mitigate the future threat from China?
He offers two suggestions and one caution. Taiwan should “make bold moves to increase or upgrade Taiwan’s economy to another level,” he says, and it should “reform the military through a volunteer system to make it into a real fighting force.” In so doing, he warns, “Taiwan needs to walk a very fine line between the U.S. and China – and make sure that when we engage with one party we don’t antagonize the other or make the U.S.-China relationship suffer.”