As the U.S. prepares to fast-track $500 million worth of missiles to Taiwan, the conflict in Ukraine shows how drones and missiles are increasingly being used to target missile stockpiles. We also look at news that Patriot systems managed to shoot down a number of Russia’s ‘hypersonic’ Khinzal missiles
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told American lawmakers on Tuesday that the U.S. will “soon provide significant additional security assistance to Taiwan through the presidential drawdown authority that Congress authorized last year.”
Reuters reported earlier this month that the Biden administration plans to send $500 million in weapons aid to Taiwan using the act, which has been used more than 35 times to send fast-tracked weapons bundles to Ukraine. It is widely believed that Austin’s statement on Tuesday means that Taiwan could soon be receiving that highly anticipated half a billion dollars’ worth of weapons.
Taiwanese defense analyst Su Ziyun (蘇紫雲) told CNA that based on recent events in the Ukraine war and the number of $500 million, it is assumed the weapons aid will mostly be in the form of missiles. Su said that amount would be able to buy 6,000 Stinger missiles, 3,000 Javelin missiles, 500 Harpoon anti-ship missiles or 120 Patriot PAC-3 interceptor missiles, and that these numbers would significantly enhance Taiwan’s defensive capabilities.
The $500 million worth of weapons will join billions of dollars worth of missiles and other types of ammunition that Taiwan has been buying and manufacturing over the last few decades. However, recent events in the Ukraine-Russia conflict have put renewed focus on the enormous challenge of keeping such expensive ammunition stockpiles safe until they are needed.
In the early morning of last Saturday, May 13, the Ukrainian city of Khmelnitsky was rocked by a massive explosion that created a huge fireball. The violent incident mirrored an even bigger explosion that happened in the early morning of May 1 in the Ukrainian city of Pavlograd. Both explosions were caused by ammunition stockpiles blowing up after Russian drones and missiles targeted these sites.
The May 13 explosion in Khmelnitsky was rumored to have targeted depleted uranium ammunition that the U.K. had pledged to send to Ukraine in March. Some non-Western news outlets reported that the explosion was followed by a spike in gamma radiation levels, which would suggest that depleted uranium ammunition was present in the depot and that radioactive dust from this ammunition was released into the air during the explosion. Newsweek later reported that the claims of a spike in gamma radiation were judged to be false by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Ukraine has also targeted Russian weapons stockpiles over the last year, saying that it used U.S.-made M142 HIMARS rocket launchers to launch guided missiles that destroyed more than 50 Russian depots. The HIMARS is an agile truck fitted with a launch pod and launch system for guided missiles that can penetrate air defenses and accurately hit targets over distances of as much as 300 kilometers, although the U.S. only supplied the Ukraine with shorter range HIMARS-compatible missiles.
Taiwan is scheduled to receive 29 HIMARS systems in 2026. It also ordered 64 HIMARS-compatible M57 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles that have a range of 300 kilometers. With these Taiwan will be able to target weapons stockpiles in Chinese harbors and coastal areas during a Chinese invasion or blockade. It is also mass-producing a range of its own ballistic and cruise missiles that can reach Chinese harbors and coastal areas. These include Taiwan’s new Yun Feng (雲峰) supersonic cruise missile, which has a range of 2,000 kilometers and can reach deep into China, including all the way to Beijing.
Of course, China is known for its large arsenal of ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles that it keeps aimed at Taiwan. Both sides are also building up their arsenals of attack and kamikaze drones that can venture into enemy territory to attack mobile targets or static targets like weapons stockpiles.
For China, the successful attacks on Russian and Ukrainian depots serves as a warning that its own ammunition depots and temporary stockpile sites would be targeted by precision weapons during a conflict. If China ever decides to invade Taiwan, it would need a large number of its ammunition supplies to be placed close to its harbors, where these would be vulnerable to precision-guided missile and drone attacks. And, of course, the scary thing about a depot strike is that it only requires one small explosion to start a chain reaction that quickly turns into one massive combined explosion. The size of these explosions also raises the specter of mass civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.
For Taiwan, the need to prevent enemy munitions from reaching its vital stockpiles of expensive missiles and ammunition is of paramount importance. If China does launch an invasion, most of Taiwan’s weapons-manufacturing infrastructure could be targeted and shut down quickly. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is an island, so it would be almost impossible for its allies to deliver weapons once a conflict has started. Taiwan would therefore have to stockpile as many missiles and artillery shells as possible before the conflict starts. Once a conflict has started, Taiwan would be completely reliant on its stockpiles.
For these reasons Taiwan would need to develop ways to keep the locations of its stockpiles as secret as possible. Another solution would be to avoid building large single stockpiles but rather divide these into smaller parts, to reduce catastrophic weapons losses and minimize civilian casualties. One of Taiwan’s biggest limitations is the fact that it is one of the most overcrowded territories on the planet. It does have a large mountainous area running down the middle of the island, where the steep terrain prevents the construction of buildings, but the flatter areas are almost completely covered by apartment buildings, shops and factories.
The upside here is that the mountains provide an opportunity to build secret tunnels into their bases, where the mass of the mountains themselves provide excellent defense against even the deepest-digging warheads. The designers of such tunnels simply have to design them with stockpile chambers spaced far apart and separated by blast-proof infrastructure featuring blast-deflecting angles. For such underground depots, it would be important to build multiple exits and to keep such exits top secret, as missile strikes could still cause exit blockages.
Where stockpiles have to be placed above ground, location secrecy becomes paramount, as well as air-defense systems that can track and destroy all missiles, attack jets and drones that the enemy can throw at it. On May 16, Ukraine claimed to have used a Patriot air-defense system to shoot down six “hypersonic” Kinzhal missiles that Russia fired at targets in Kyiv. Russia claims that the Kinzhal is a hypersonic missile that can not be stopped by existing air-defense systems, but Popular Mechanics explains that it is not a hypersonic missile in the true sense of the word.
Ukraine says 18 missiles of different types were launched by Russia during the May 16 attack. Russia denies its Kinzhals were intercepted and said one Kinzhal destroyed a U.S.-supplied Patriot system. The BBC could not independently verify the claims made by either country, although U.S. officials did say that one Patriot system did suffer “minor” damage in the attack.
Ukraine also claimed that a Patriot system intercepted another Kinzhal missile on May 4. Photos released by the Ukrainian military shows what looks like parts of a destroyed Kinzhal missile. The nose cone of the intercepted missile had a large hole that looked like it had been caused by a kinetic kill vehicle. This cone also appeared to be a very thick shell made of what appears to be a non-metallic material that looks a bit like graphite.
If it is true that sophisticated air-defense systems like the Patriot can indeed intercept Russia’s “unstoppable” missiles, it would be an encouraging sign for Taiwan as well as the U.S. and its allies, as both Russia and China have invested heavily in producing large numbers of so-called “hypersonic” missiles. However, if China’s hypersonic missiles work better than Russia’s Kinzhal missiles, they would represent a sizable threat to any of Taiwan’s weapons stockpiles that are not covered by sufficient layers of earth and reinforced concrete. Taiwan would also have to protect its expensive stockpiles from attack drones, spies and saboteurs who might be living as real or fake citizens among its people.
Image: MEADS International, Public Domain