Washington announced on July 28 that it will soon send Taiwan a collection of weapons worth up to $345 million, but did not provide details on which arms would be included in the package. However, an unnamed military source yesterday told Taiwan’s CNA news outlet that the aid package will include four MQ-9A reconnaissance drones that would have to be refitted to remove sensitive U.S. components.
This weapons package would be the first part of a Taiwan-bound military aid package worth up to $1 billion that the U.S. Congress approved for its 2023 budget. The weapons will be taken from existing U.S. military stocks, as prescribed by the Presidential Drawdown Authority.
If we want to understand which weapons Taiwan would need most urgently if China does go ahead with an invasion of Taiwan’s main island, we need to first understand how such an invasion would unfold. Liang-chih Evans Chen (陳亮智), a leading military analyst at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Research (INDSR), told Domino Theory in June 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.
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.”
Most analysts agree that the first stage of a theoretical invasion would involve a massive missile bombardment. Let’s call this the “initial long-range missile stage.”
This long-range missile stage would soon be followed by attack runs by PLA warplanes that would be probing Taiwan’s remaining defenses by venturing closer and closer to the island itself — in order to find and attack Taiwanese targets with short-range cruise missiles and bombs. Let’s call this the “jet probing” stage. At the same time, a limited number of PLA warships would be doing pretty much the same thing — probing by darting in and out of range while firing ground-attack missiles. This “warship probing” stage would also involve PLA anti-submarine-warfare planes and vessels.
At some stage, China would have to send a large number of troops and armored vehicles by sea to try to deliver these to beachheads on Taiwan. This would require hundreds of PLA troop-carrying ships, cargo ships and their supporting warships. Let’s call this the “sea-lift stage.” However, because Taiwan and the U.S. are quickly increasing their arsenals of long-range ship-killer missiles, some analysts believe China would initially keep its sea-lift stage on ice to see how a “mass helicopter-troop assault” combined with a “mass paratrooper assault” would pan out. These two assault types would most likely be clumped together in what we could call a “mass airborne-troop stage.”
Such an airborne-troop assault would aim to fly inside corridors over Taiwan that had previously been cleared of most anti-air defenses via PLA missile strikes. The PLA would hope that enough of these airborne troops would survive long enough to get control of strategic sites like Taoyuan International Airport. That airport would be a huge prize, as it lies right next to the ocean, is close to China, offers multiple runways and taxiways to land on, and is relatively close to Taipei so it can be used as a base to attack the capital city from. In addition, the airport is also close to Taipei’s large new harbor and close to a long stretch of beach.
If airborne and special-ops forces can seize such a key airport, they could be quickly reinforced with troops and armored vehicles arriving on the sprawling airport via cargo planes. Russia tried to do very much the same thing on the first day of its invasion of Ukraine, when it sent a large force of crack troops via helicopters to seize Hostomel Airport just outside Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv. That assault was met with little resistance and succeeded at first, but the holding force later had to break out and flee when the armored columns sent to reinforce it were ambushed relentlessly on Ukraine’s roads and could not link up. Another reason why the airport-holding force was defeated was because the Ukrainians regrouped quickly and fought hard, later using video drones to direct accurate artillery fire onto the airborne troops inside the airport perimeter.
Of course, PLA insiders have also said that they want to make extensive use of their large arsenal of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in what we could call “mass UAV assaults” — which could be used in conjunction with jet probing and warship probing, or even as part of the sea-lift stage.
One also needs to remember that China has a large number of special-forces units that are training to use underwater craft including mini submarines to infiltrate Taiwan’s beaches at night. While much is known about the PLA’s missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines, very little is known about this aspect of the PLA’s preparations. It might be that the PLA has taken a leaf out of their oldest textbook — Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” — and is intentionally downplaying this “underwater surprise” force. As that ancient textbook suggests: “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and it confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.” That line from the book follows just a few lines after this tenet: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive.”
So, analysts are expecting a mixture of these different assault types, but only time will tell in what sequence they would be used. For instance, the “underwater infiltration” might precede the “initial long-range missile” stage’s opening salvos in order to utilize the element of surprise on which all underwater special-ops forces operations depend so heavily.
One thing that becomes clear is that, if enough of Taiwan’s ship-killer missiles can survive the initial barrage — and especially if U.S. long-range ship-killer missiles join these in the air over the Taiwan Strait — the PLA could lose hundreds of warships and troop-carrying ships. This would be a disaster for the CCP, which is why the PLA might very well first send its airborne troops into those “cleared corridors.” In a worst-case scenario for Taiwan, these corridors would theoretically be left without enough surviving air defenses to shoot down enough helicopters and paratrooper planes. However, if Taiwan could find a way to turn such an airborne-troop assault into a disaster, while retaining enough functioning ship-killer missiles, the PLA would be under immense pressure to call the sea-lift stage off and thereby cancel the invasion.
Probably the most obvious way for Taiwan to make sure that enough anti-air defenses survive the initial missile barrages is to disperse hundreds of teams armed with shoulder-fired anti-air missiles into the Taiwan countryside and urban landscapes. If hidden in forests and parking garages, teams armed with Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) like the U.S.’s Stinger can wait for the air bombardments to stop, wait for the right moment, and come out to wreak havoc on low-flying jets, paratrooper planes, and helicopters. As the INDSR’s Chen put it: “By dispersing these small but lethal systems they become 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.” A large number of well-trained “Stinger teams” riding out a long-range missile barrage and then getting in position to shoot down incoming aircraft — that’s one heck of a deterrence right there.
Of course, destroying an airborne assault would be pointless if you don’t have enough anti-ship missiles to deter a large sea-lift operation. That’s why it would be extremely important to keep the locations of Taiwan’s precious anti-ship missiles a top secret, as Chen explained above. In the end, much would depend on Taiwan’s ability to use the Stinger effectively, and its ability to keep its missile installations top secret so that they are intact when a theoretical “sea-lift stage” is launched.
Effective anti-ship missiles and shoulder-fired air-defense missiles like the Stinger are therefore the two most important weapon systems that the U.S. can rush to Taiwan. If Taiwan’s operational security is an issue for the Pentagon, it would have the option of keeping those missiles on its own warships and warplanes, in the form of its Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). These missiles could then be launched from U.S. platforms positioned in the safety of the Philippine Sea, from where they could reach far beyond Taiwan to cause devastating losses to an invasion fleet.
Large medium-range and long-range air defense missiles like the U.S.’s NASAMS would also be valuable to destroy incoming missiles as well as incoming attack jets and high-flying paratrooper planes. Here again, it would be crucial to keep these missile systems from being destroyed in the opening days of an invasion by keeping their locations top secret or by placing them on trucks that can disperse to separate firing positions.
Another useful deterrence tool would be more of the U.S.’s HIMARS missile trucks, which are highly mobile and can “shoot and scoot” quickly to deliver multiple precision-guided rockets on airborne troops that made it past the Stingers. These would be invaluable in destroying any invading forces that might have gotten a foothold on a key facility like an airport, beach or harbor. On May 10 of this year, Taiwan’s military said it will take delivery of the 29 HIMARS units it had previously ordered in 2026, a year earlier than the original 2027 date, after Washington agreed to prioritize sending the rocket system to Taipei to meet its needs. Taiwan might be looking at asking for a few more of these trucks as part of the new fast-tracked weapons aid package.
Artillery guns positioned in secret locations that are within range of key airports would also be very valuable for destroying airport-holding troops. These could be placed in concrete bunkers hidden inside some of the thousands of makeshift sheds that dot the urban landscapes of Taiwan. The walls of such sheds could be fitted with pre-calculated slots through which the howitzers could fire at predetermined coordinates. Such slots could be hidden behind small panels that can easily be removed before the firing starts. Taiwan does have a number of these artillery pieces, but it might feel the need to ask for more from the U.S. as well as asking for more GPS-guided shells that can strike the enemy with high precision.
Another useful tool for dislodging invaders from airports or key facilities are the small and cheap quadcopter drones that both sides in the Ukraine war have used to scout for their respective artillery units. These would enable artillery and HIMARS commanders to know exactly where to aim their very accurate and deadly weapons, thereby enabling them to quickly destroy enemy units that managed to survive long enough to get a foothold. The problem right now is that the most cost-effective and useful of these drones are currently only being produced in China, and U.S. officials believe they can’t be trusted. Congress has banned the Pentagon from using Chinese drones. It is therefore crucial that Taiwan and the U.S. start producing their own versions of these very effective battlefield tools.