A leading Taiwanese military analyst explains why Taiwan needs to field large weapon platforms that might not be practical in an actual war
Domino Theory recently interviewed a leading military analyst at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Research (INDSR). Liang-chih Evans Chen (陳亮智) holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California and is an associate research fellow at the INDSR in Taipei.
Chen told Domino Theory that, if China does decide to invade Taiwan, the invasion would most likely be preceded by a massive missile strike that would involve hundreds of Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles launched from China’s mainland and from Chinese warships, submarines and warplanes. This long-range bombardment would be aimed at military bases, missile installations, radar installations, communication towers, bridges, and infrastructure like electricity hubs.
He said it is therefore extremely important for Taiwan to make sure that as many as possible of its defensive systems — mostly anti-air and anti-ship missiles — survive the initial barrages, in order for these systems to target, track and destroy incoming missiles, aircraft and ships. “The more of our systems survive intact, the more ships we can sink, the more likely it is that we can repel the invading force,” Chen added.
Chen said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would only be able to target positions that it knows about. Therefore knowledge is key, so denying the enemy from obtaining that knowledge should be a priority. “That is why Taiwan is focusing more and more on operational security and data security,” he added.
“One of the biggest differences between the new PLA threat and the old PLA threat is that the PLA Navy now has the ability to position warships east of Taiwan,” he said. These ships would then be able to use their modern guided missiles to strike at Chiashan Air Force Base near Hualien on Taiwan’s eastern coastline.
This air base is home to a large and very impressive cave complex that was designed to keep Taiwan’s fighters safe from aerial bombardments. Construction of the main underground section of the base spanned from 1985 to 1993 and cost more than 27 billion New Taiwan dollars ($862 million) to build. The underground complex can accommodate approximately 200 fighters, and features ten blast doors that give access to multiple runways. It also has its own hospital as well as multiple underground gas stations.
Chen said the fact that this once impregnable fortress is now within range of Chinese missiles that can destroy its runways, is just one example of how much more complex the PLA threat has become. He added that it also shows how important it would be to equip Taiwan’s soldiers with small and lethal systems that can easily be moved and hidden away.
“The Ukraine conflict has shown us that asymmetric warfare works. We see that small systems can be very powerful and lethal on the battlefield,” said Chen. Man-portable anti-tank missiles like the Javelin and NLAW (Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon) have shown that just one trained soldier can use these modern missiles to destroy expensive tanks. In the same way, man-portable anti-aircraft missiles like the Stinger and Starstreak have shown that one soldier hidden in the jungle can bring down multimillion-dollar jets, troop transports, helicopters and drones.
The other huge advantage of small and lethal systems like the Stinger and Javelin is that they can easily be hidden in parking basements and forests before a war breaks out. So, if Taiwan’s military were to disperse small missile teams into its landscape of dense apartment blocks and even denser forests, it would be very hard for the PLA to target even a small percentage of such teams with aerial bombardments. “This means these lethal systems are highly survivable, so they will be available to strike accurately at incoming aircraft and landing craft, no matter how massive the aerial bombardment would be,” Chen said.
When asked if it makes sense for Taiwan to invest in fighter jets and warships, if these might not be able to take off from targeted airfields or survive a barrage of anti-ship missiles, Chen said that Taiwan’s hundreds of fighter jets and dozens of warships are important to counter China’s “gray zone warfare.” China is currently conducting gray zone warfare against Taiwan by sending its aircraft and warships very close to Taiwan’s exclusive aerial and maritime zones. “We need to have air and sea platforms that can race out to meet these threats head on. We need to put a physical presence out there. We need to put platforms loaded with missiles right next to the threat. It is an important psychological tool to keep the enemy from making the mistake of entering our ‘must react’ zones and thereby forcing us to launch our ground-based missiles in defense.”
Chen admitted that analysts are unsure how long Taiwan’s fighter jets and warships would be able to engage if China launches comprehensive aerial bombardments and missile strikes. So it is likely that the bulk of Taiwan’s defense during an actual invasion would come in the form of Taiwan’s many large ground-to-air and ground-to-ship missiles, followed later by shoulder-fired missiles like the Stinger and Javelin. “So, we could say that large platforms like warships are important for the ‘gray zone war’ or ‘pre-war’ phase, whereas asymmetric weapons like ground-based missiles would probably become more important during an actual hot war.”
Another INDSR analyst, Su Tzu-yun (蘇紫雲), agreed that anti-ship missiles are a powerful deterrent against an invasion. Su told Domino Theory in May he calculated that it takes on average around 24 months and $1 billion to build a warship, but it only takes a few days and $1 million to build an anti-ship missile. “If you consider that it would require only around five such missiles to sink one enemy ship, then it becomes clear that anti-ship missiles offer a big opportunity for defenders to gain an advantage in terms of spending and military effectiveness.”
It is important to note here that Domino Theory reported recently that the U.S. is for this same reason currently looking at keeping its own warships and warplanes outside the PLA’s strike zone during a conflict — while arming these platforms with long-range anti-ship and anti-air missiles. These missiles would be able to fly for hundreds of kilometers before locking on to their assigned targets, thereby causing terrible losses among PLA ships and warplanes in the Taiwan Strait.
For this same reason, the U.S. is also planning to pre-position Marine Corps units armed with large ship-killer missiles on Japanese and Philippine islands close to Taiwan. These units would then be able to destroy warships from the relative safety of their unsinkable islands inside the PLA strike zone. It is assumed that U.S. guided-missile submarines would join in by firing large numbers of anti-ship missiles and smart torpedoes from under the ocean surface.
Chen said that Taiwan would also be able to field a large number of ship-killer and anti-air missiles, and that it is focusing on ways to make these relatively small systems as hidden and survivable as possible. “One way is to make the missiles very mobile by putting them on trucks that also carry their radars and launch systems — which is something Taiwan is currently doing.” He added that this is why Taiwan is also buying a large number of the U.S.’s M142 HIMARS off-road missile trucks that can shoot a variety of guided munitions quickly before “scooting” off to fire the next salvo.