If an invasion does happen, the skies over the Taiwan Strait are going to be alive with high-tech ship-killer missiles fired from Taiwan, from the islands around Taiwan, and from the air over the Western Pacific
On Tuesday we looked at why the U.S. is currently building up a large arsenal of smart anti-ship missiles that can fly long distances to destroy the vessels of a hypothetical Chinese invasion fleet as they maneuver in the Taiwan Strait. The reason for this is because U.S. military analysts believe it would be too risky for U.S. Navy surface ships to sail into the Chinese missile strike zone, as the odds of being hit by waves of Chinese long-range anti-ship missiles would be too high. In short, China has managed to use anti-access/area denial (or A2/AD) technology like guided missiles to create a wide A2/AD bubble that would be dangerous to sail into or fly into.
The big problem is that China’s program to modernize and expand its military has increased the Chinese strike zone to extend hundreds of kilometers beyond Taiwan itself. It therefore makes sense that the U.S. recently increased its orders for long-range anti-ship missiles that can be launched against an invasion fleet in the Taiwan Strait by U.S. aircraft maneuvering far away in the skies over the Western Pacific. For the same reason, the U.S. is also planning to insert newly formed Marine Corps ship-killer teams on the small islands around Taiwan if an invasion seems imminent. These teams would be armed with medium-range and long-range anti-ship missiles, which can be launched from within the Chinese strike zone — from the relative safety of their unsinkable islands.
Of course, the dangers posed to warships by modern anti-ship missiles is also why it makes a lot of sense for Taiwan to invest a large part of its military budget in anti-ship missiles that it can fire from trucks and secret installations on Taiwan itself. There is another reason why it makes sense to invest heavily in effective anti-ship missiles. Su Tzu-yun, a research director at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), told Domino Theory 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.”
Taiwan currently has two types of anti-ship missiles that can cause havoc among Chinese warships. The older one of the two is the Hsiung Feng II (HF-2, 雄風二型). This Taiwan-made missile flies at subsonic speeds and can kill warships over a range of 100 to 120 kilometers, making it useful for engaging invading warships as they come close to Taiwan’s coastlines.
The newest and most impressive Taiwan-built anti-ship missile is the Hsiung Feng III (HF-3, 雄風三型). This missile can fly at supersonic speeds up to Mach 3 and reach out 150 kilometers to touch enemy ships with a 225-kilogram warhead. The warhead is designed to penetrate the ship’s hull before detonating its high-explosive fragmentation payload inside the hull.
Taiwan will reportedly start mass producing an extended-range version of this powerful missile this year. This variant will increase the missile’s kill range from 150 to 400 kilometers.
The HF-3 can be fired from launch pods on many of Taiwan’s 117 warships, or from highly mobile trucks fitted with their launch pods and launch systems. When fired, the HF-3 missile is shot out of its launcher by its solid-fuel first stage rocket and two strap-on solid-fuel booster rockets. The missile passes Mach 1 speed within seconds, which is when the two boosters fall away and the missile’s liquid-fuel ramjet kicks in, allowing it to cruise at supersonic speed. To enable the ramjet to suck air in, the missile has four distinctive air inlet ducts spaced around its rear exterior.
The producer of the HF-3, Taiwan’s National Chung-shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST), says the missile’s integrated rocket ramjet design allowed it to create a weapon that is not only fast but also small enough and light enough to be deployed easily by highly mobile units like trucks and small patrol boats.
Once in the air, the missile uses an inertial navigation system with an active radar seeker to home in on its target. When it gets close, an array of electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) kicks in to protect the missile against the enemy fleet’s anti-missile defense systems.
The institute says the missiles are designed to drop down and skim the ocean’s surface on its final attack run. This sea-skimming capability combines with its supersonic speed to reduce the response time available to the enemy’s defense systems.
When it hits the enemy ship, the warhead is designed to penetrate the ship’s hull before a smart fuse detonates the large warhead. The institute says the warhead section features an “optimized design casing, dynamite fuse and related relay devices” that allow it to detonate at an optimal position inside the ship, thereby maximizing the destruction caused to the ship.
The Missile Threat website cites IHS Jane’s Weapons as saying that the HF-3’s warhead is equipped with a smart fuse designed to direct most of the explosive energy downward once it has detected that the missile is inside the target ship’s hull, greatly increasing the damage caused and increasing the likelihood that the damage would cause the ship to sink rapidly.
Although Taiwan’s military did not disclose how many HF-3 missiles it currently has, Taipei announced in 2021 that it would buy 400 new ground-based Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Boeing, bringing Taiwan’s total number of anti-ship missiles to 1,200. It is assumed that most of the remaining 800 anti-ship missiles would be made up of the two anti-ship missiles that Taiwan produces locally, the HF-2 and HF-3, as well as the country’s stockpile of older Harpoon models.
However, it might turn out that Taipei will soon have much more than 800 Taiwan-made missiles, as the NCSIST announced this week that it will produce more than 1,000 missiles of its range of anti-ship, ground-attack and anti-air systems next year, and its expected to produce just under that number this year. These missiles are being produced according to Taiwan’s Sea-Air Combat Power Improvement Plan, which has been allocated a special budget of 228.9 billion New Taiwan dollars ($7.4 billion) to fund the manufacturing of thousands of Taiwan-made missiles from 2022 until 2026.
Dr. Su told Domino Theory 120 HF-3 missiles were deployed on Taiwanese warships and fixed land batteries in 2014. He says the HF-3’s production was expanded from 20 to 70 units per year in 2018, which is also the year that the missiles started to be deployed on mobile truck launchers. Dr. Su says it is therefore estimated that Taiwan will have at least 800 supersonic anti-shipping missiles by 2027. “This will effectively establish an area-denial zone and maximize the deterrence of Chinese amphibious threats. It would mean there can be no amphibious landing, so it would make no sense for China to go to war,” Dr. Su added.
When one takes into account that the U.S. military is also currently building its arsenal of long-range anti-ship missiles, Dr. Su’s words seem even more accurate. If the U.S. does decide to defend Taiwan with direct military intervention, U.S. warships and warplanes would be able to launch hundreds of U.S.-made LRASM missiles from the safety of positions far away from Taiwan, while U.S. Marines would be launching NSM and Tomahawk anti-ship missiles from small islands near Taiwan. These lethal ship-killers would then meet up with Taiwan’s own HF-3 missiles over the Taiwan Strait, to inflict terrible losses on an invasion fleet.