For Taiwan’s Defense, the Focus is on Asymmetric, Indigenous Capabilities

Military planners say asymmetric platforms will boost Taiwan’s overall warfighting capabilities, raising the cost to Beijing of an invasion.

The People’s Republic of China has been threatening to annex Taiwan by force for seven decades. The threat has not been credible until recently, with the ruling Communist Party becoming increasingly emboldened by the country’s rapid military modernization, rising nationalism, and a belief that time is on its side.

In January 2019, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said that “unification between the two sides of the Strait is the great trend of history,” adding that “we make no promise to abandon the use of force.”

Military planners in the U.S., Taiwan’s primary security partner, have made known their concern. In March, Admiral Philip Davidson, the top U.S. military officer in the Asia-Pacific, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the “threat is manifest during this decade – in fact, in the next six years.” Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster that same month told the committee that Taiwan is “the most significant flashpoint now that could lead to a large-scale war.” He marked the period after 2022, when Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics, as the time of “greatest danger” for Taiwan.

Taiwan is responding to the heightened Chinese threat by reorienting its defense strategy toward asymmetric weapon systems that are small, mobile, lethal, and often relatively low-cost. They are intended to deter a more powerful adversary or in the event of an attack, turn Taiwan and its environs into a “porcupine” that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cannot easily devour. Further, Taiwan will increasingly focus on defeating enemy forces at sea rather than after they have already made landfall.

“I am committed to accelerating the development of asymmetric capabilities under the Overall Defense Concept,” President Tsai Ing-wen said last year, referring to the new ODC defense strategy first outlined in 2018. “This will be our number one priority.”

An asymmetric warfare strategy is reasonable “because there will be a financial challenge for Taiwan to compete ship to ship, aircraft to aircraft with China,” says Roger Yee, founder and global president of Taipei-based security consultancy Magna Imperium Consulting and former president of Raytheon Technologies Taiwan.

“There is a compelling argument that in addition to making Taiwan a tough nut to crack as the porcupine strategy rightly intends, Taiwan’s defenders should also look outward – to reach out as far as possible across the Taiwan Strait to disrupt PLA capabilities,” says Grant Newsham, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC, and a retired U.S. Marine officer.

Elements of Taiwan’s recent arms purchases reflect that approach. For instance, the land-launched Harpoon missiles that the State Department approved for sale to Taiwan last October can hit Chinese warships at sea as well as ports from which they embark.

A harpoon anti-ship missile is launched from an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket
System (HIMARS). Photo: Wikipedia

In the same arms package, Taiwan purchased the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which has a range of up to 300 kilometers. That range is sufficient to strike coastal China from Taiwan or further inland if deployed on the Penghu archipelago, according to the Institute for National Defense Research (INDSR), a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of National Defense (MND). Both systems can be mounted on military trucks and are thus highly mobile.

Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Strategy and Assessment Center in Washington, DC, says that bolstering Taiwan’s missile arsenal would help deter a PLA invasion. He suggests that Washington consider selling Taipei its new 550-kilometer range Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), which the U.S. may deploy by 2023.

“The main PLA invasion fleet will be gathering at the mouth of the Yangtze River,” Fisher says. “Once they start south to Taiwan, they will come within range of PrSM missiles equipped with anti-ship warheads. Show Xi Jinping that you can sink at least half his invasion fleet and he is going to stay home.”

At the same time, conventional weapons systems will continue to play an important role in Taiwan’s defense. “The ODC is a useful platform but shouldn’t be viewed as immutable law on the direction Taiwan should go,” says Rupert Hammond-Chambers, managing director of the BowerGroupAsia consultancy. “2020’s sales of 66 F-16s is not consistent with the ODC but is also essential if Taiwan is going to maintain a credible air defense and modern air force.”

It is important for Taiwan to modernize its military as older legacy systems amortize, says Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Display model of Taiwan’s Mystic Eye Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology. Photo: Office of the President

“The issue is how do you strike that balance between the asymmetric capabilities and the conventional ones that play a really important peacetime deterrent and morale role?” says Thompson, noting that Taiwan has to do both.

Made in Taiwan

While U.S. arms sales remain crucial to Taiwan’s security, the island is also beefing up its indigenous defense industry. Local media, citing military sources, reported in February that Taiwan aims to accelerate production of several missile systems, including the surface-to-air Sky Bow (Tien Kung) III, the hypersonic anti-ship Brave Wind (Hsiung Feng) III, and the Sky Sword (Tien Chien) II, a radar-guided air-to-air missile.

Taiwan’s indigenous T-5 Brave Eagle advanced jet trainer, developed by the Aerospace Industrial Development Corp., takes off. Photo: Office of the President

In addition, Taiwan’s submarine program – which aims to have eight diesel-electric submarines ready by 2030 to replace the aging current fleet of four – is making progress. In November, the Kaohsiung-based CSBC Corp., Taiwan (formerly known as the China Shipbuilding Corp.) began construction on the prototype Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) that it plans to deliver to the Taiwan Navy by 2025. U.S. defense manufacturers are supplying combat and sonar systems for the sub.

The subs differ from other asymmetric weapons systems in Taiwan’s ODC because of their high price tag. The design phase of the IDS cost roughly US$104 million, while building the vessels will entail an estimated US$16 billion.

It is unclear whether the subs will be effective as a deterrent. China has the world’s largest navy and experts say it is unlikely to be dissuaded from attacking Taiwan by a modest submarine fleet.

“Any conceivable invasion scenario would begin with a preemptive strike against Taiwan’s military forces, of which IDS would be among the highest priority targets,” wrote Michael A. Hunzeker and Joseph Petrucelli of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government in a 2019 commentary published in The Diplomat.

However, submarines can be used to protect the east side of Taiwan, which is in the patrol circles of Chinese vessels, including the country’s new aircraft carriers, says Drew Thompson. “The PLA is not particularly strong at anti-submarine warfare,” he adds. 

It will be important for Taiwan to ensure that it can balance funding for the subs with other defense requirements, says BowerGroupAsia’s Hammond-Chambers. “While a special budget will be used to fund construction, it will not extend to lifecycle support,” he says. “So Taiwan will need to address that in long-term support for the submarine force through the annual budget to ensure it doesn’t deprive other services and capabilities of funding,” he says.

Another challenge is the length of time it will take to deliver the subs. Only two of Taiwan’s current four subs are operational. The Navy will want to see the new subs delivered before the older ones are retired.

Fisher of the International Strategy Assessment Center suggests that the U.S. and its allies step in to help Taiwan meet its timeline on sub delivery. “Should we be encouraging allies to sell or lease their used submarines to help Taiwan update its training and build faster interim capabilities? Absolutely.” 

Enhancing readiness 

Several sources who spoke to Taiwan Business TOPICS for this report expressed concern about the Taiwan military’s preparedness for actual conflict. Newsham of the Center for Security Policy says that armed forces morale needs improvement, and Taiwan’s all-volunteer force is having trouble attracting sufficient recruits.

To address the challenge, he urges Taiwan to focus less on weaponry and more on personnel. “To attract good people – and those from a broader candidate pool that otherwise would not consider joining the military – you must spend money and treat them well,” he says.

The army conducts live-fire drills during the 36th annual Han Kuang military exercises in 2020. Photo: Office of the President

He suggests Taiwan focus on professional development for service members – both while in uniform and afterwards. One possibility would be to implement legislation similar to America’s GI bill, providing lifelong benefits for long-serving personnel, such as post-service education assistance, housing loans, healthcare, and secure pensions.

Strengthening the reserve forces should also be a priority, Newsham says. “Tens of thousands of reasonably trained, competently led, and motivated citizen soldiers augmenting Taiwan’s regulars will exponentially multiply the challenges facing a PLA invasion force that manages to get ashore.” 

One source familiar with Taiwan’s military, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, questions whether the reserves are up to the task of repelling a PLA invasion. Under the current system, reservists are supposed to train every two years at a military base near their home to maintain their fundamental combat skills.

“Are these people trained and ready to defend Taiwan in the event of a major conflict?” the source asks. “Some of them do not have adequate training in the use of small arms. Is Taiwan going to provide the necessary equipment to train these people, and to spend time training them?”

Alexander Huang, a professor of strategy and wargaming at Tamkang University, says that the reserves face a bureaucratic bottleneck. “The MND thinks that all of the reserves should be under its command, but mobilizing the reserves is a task that cannot be done by the armed forces alone,” he says. “It is a combined civil-military effort.”

Reservists undergoing marksmanship training. Photo: Office of the President

Huang believes the reserves could be optimized by only sending those who have completed their volunteer military service into combat. The others, who at present receive just 16 weeks of training, could play supporting roles in hospitals, civil defense, and elsewhere.

In December, Han Gan-ming, chief of the MND’s All-out Defense Mobilization Office – the authority tasked with strengthening and coordinating Taiwan’s reserves – announced that Taiwan would begin a comprehensive overhaul of its reserve forces in 2022. To help prepare for the reboot, the military plans to send a three-person delegation to Israel between July and September of this year. The delegation will focus on the Israeli reservists’ call-up system, training programs, and compensation. Taiwan chose to study Israel’s reserves because of the similarity of the two countries’ conscription systems, Han said.

Meanwhile, Huang notes that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is busy trying to secure a third term for himself, and that Taiwan will loom large in his calculations. Indeed, Xi has been in power since 2012, but has yet to achieve a breakthrough in cross-Strait relations. His 2015 meeting in Singapore with former president Ma Ying-jeou was largely symbolic.

In the highly likely event that Xi secures a third term, he could face mounting pressure to bring Taiwan into China’s fold. That term would conclude in 2027, which happens to be the centennial of the PLA, Huang observes.

Cross-Strait tensions are likely to intensify, as Xi’s China has shown no willingness to compromise with Taiwan. Beijing continues pressing Taipei to accept the same formula by which Hong Kong is governed – “one country, two systems” – which is less a reality in the former British colony following Beijing’s imposition of a draconian national security law there. Both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and opposition Kuomintang (KMT) have rejected the one country, two systems formula.

“How could the people in Taiwan accept essentially the red terror that is happening in Hong Kong right now?” says Thompson of the National University of Singapore.

With little hope for a diplomatic breakthrough with Beijing, Taiwan will have to steel itself for rocky waters ahead.

The more determined Taiwan is to defend itself, the greater the chance that stability can be maintained, says Yee of Magna Imperium Consulting. “China has to be certain that they’re going to be absolutely successful if they escalate to war. The political stakes would be too high if they fail,” he says. “A strong military deterrent sends the message that failure is a distinct possibility.”