Taiwan’s Beijing-targeting cruise missile is meant to deter an invasion by threatening to bring the horrors of war to those who give the orders
When China launched its latest aggressive military drills around Taiwan in April of this year, it also released an animation video that illustrated what the drills were practicing. The video showed large numbers of missiles being fired at targets in Taiwan from Chinese warships, attack jets and submarines surrounding Taiwan — as well as from mobile launchers in China. When one looks at China’s current missile arsenal, it becomes clear that this missile barrage would consist of thousands of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles fired from mobile platforms and from underground launchers.
China’s strategy would be to use such a first strike as a “shock and awe” campaign to demoralize the Taiwanese military and civilian population and to destroy as many of Taiwan’s defensive radars, defensive missile sites and mobile launchers as possible, before launching a seaborne invasion force carried on vulnerable ships. Taiwan is currently building an arsenal of thousands of anti-ship and anti-air missiles to destroy large numbers of China’s warships, submarines and airplanes during any theoretical invasion.
If such an invasion ever happens, Taiwan’s strategy would be to hide its defensive systems as well as possible during the initial barrage, while deploying systems that cannot be easily hidden — like large warships — as rapidly as possible to engage China’s warships, submarines, missiles and attack jets with anti-ship missiles, anti-air missiles and anti-submarine systems.
Taiwan has also warned recently that, in addition to its defensive weapons, it does possess a number of “offensive defense weapons” in the form of the Yun Feng (雲峰). This top-secret weapon is a supersonic cruise missile that can fly at a speed of 3,708 kilometers per hour, or just over Mach 3, over a range of 1,200 kilometers — and Taiwan says it has an extended-range version that can fly 2,000 kilometers. Although the exact numbers and capabilities of these missiles are hidden in secrecy, a range of 1,200 kilometers would make them capable of hitting targets in Shanghai and beyond, while the extended-range version would be able to hit targets in Beijing from any point in Taiwan.
The U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) states that the Yun Feng has a 225-kilogram high-explosive and fragmentation warhead that has “semi-armor-piercing” capabilities. The missile uses a solid-fuel booster rocket to reach supersonic speeds, after which its ramjet kicks in to deliver sustained supersonic flight.
Development of the Yun Feng started soon after the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, but the testing process was reportedly hidden inside the test program of the Hsiung Feng III (雄風三型) supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. Its existence only became public knowledge via news reports in December 2012. There are currently no confirmed images of the missile itself, and the CSIS website lists the missile as being “in development,” but Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正), for the first time publicly acknowledged the existence of the Yun Feng missile program in October 2021.
At that time, one Taiwanese military analyst suggested that the strategic value of the Yun Feng would make it a primary target for PLA planners, so it should be made more survivable by placing it on mobile launch trucks and surreptitious cargo ships that could sneak out of harbors and fire the missiles from anywhere in the West Pacific Ocean.
The CSIS’s Missile Threat website states that the Yun Feng is “one of the few Taiwanese strategic assets designed to reach targets deep in northern and central China.” However, its long range makes it controversial among military analysts because it goes against Taiwan’s defensive posture, while being unlikely to consistently breach China’s advanced air defense systems. These analysts fear that the program could therefore harm Taiwan’s relations with the U.S., which might be why Taiwan’s military officials very rarely speak about it anymore. However, the head of the government institute that develops Taiwan’s missiles, the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST), did talk about the missile in his memoirs after he retired.
In his memoirs, which were published in November 2022, former CSIST president Kung Chia-cheng (龔家政) spoke about the Yun Feng, saying its high speed of Mach 3 meant it could not easily be intercepted, and it had excellent target penetration because it dived down on the target at a steep angle.
Kung said Taiwan’s defense ministry had almost axed the project as it thought the missile would have a high possibility of failing its trial launch. But Kung said the Yun Feng was saved by former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who gave his support for the project after inspecting the CSIST and being briefed on the missile. Kung added that the project marked the first time that Taiwan developed a missile that was 1 meter wide and 10 meters tall. He said that the former president was very impressed when he inspected the missile at Pingtung County’s Jiupeng (九鵬) missile test site.
Currently there is no confirmation if the Yun Feng missile is still in development, or if it has been completed, or if it has been produced in large numbers, or if it has been canceled. In April 2020, UDN reported that a series of missile tests conducted at the Jiupeng test site were “believed to have included” tests of the Yun Feng missile, but no concrete evidence was supplied.
Over the past five years, Taiwanese officials and news outlets have now and then made statements that imply the Yun Feng is real and that it gives Taiwan the ability to target Beijing, where China’s military and political leaders are based. However, according to the memoirs of retired CSIST president Kung, Taiwan is not allowed to show the powerful missile because of its non-defensive nature. Kung wrote that soon after the trial launch of the Yun Feng, officials from the American Institute in Taiwan met with President Chen Shui-bian and later issued a memorandum of understanding stating that Taiwan “was not allowed to have carried out the trial launch.”
Kung said that he had successfully completed the research and development of the Yun Feng missile during his term of office, but his wording suggested that the weapon was possibly never developed into a combat-ready system.
Taking everything into account, the Yun Feng missile seems to be like Schrodinger’s famous “cat in a box” thought experiment. The metaphorical “Schrodinger’s cat” is placed inside a box where a random natural process will eventually trigger a deadly poisonous gas. The cat in the box can not be both dead AND alive — it is either dead OR alive … but we simply can’t tell because we can’t see what’s inside the box. In the same way it is possible that the Yun Feng project is a “Schrodinger’s cat” that’s either dead or alive, but we’ll have to wait for a Chinese invasion to “open the box” before we know if it’s alive or not.