Fu S. Mei is the Director at Taiwan Security Analysis Center (Manhasset, New York).
Facing an ever-growing military threat from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Taiwan’s armed forces have been preparing to fight with one hand tied. The politically-isolated island’s pursuit of a credible deep-interdiction strike capability represents a case in point. The rationale for deep-strike capability is principally driven by the operational requirement to neutralize priority military target sets within the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command/ETC (formerly Nanjing Military Region), particularly airfields, radar stations, command & control (C2) sites, invasion force assembly areas, as well as mobile missile launchers, logistics facilities, and transportation nodes. Sensitive to Beijing’s reactions to Taiwan arms sales, however, Washington has been extremely restrictive in terms of the types and nature of weapons and technologies it provides Taipei.
Context for Deep-Interdiction Capability
Steady modernization of PLA air defenses convinced Taiwan planners that unmanned strike delivery systems are essential; computer simulations during annual Han Kuang exercises (漢光演習) have shown that manned strike packages would fail to achieve mission objectives even with heavy losses. Deep-interdiction systems are seen as “enablers”, capable of effectively attacking heavily-defended targets or degrading the air defenses protecting them, to allow follow-on strike packages to reach their targets at acceptable attrition levels.
It is important to note that Taiwan envisions employing deep-interdiction weapons in a tactical/counter-force (NOT strategic/counter-value) capacity and only in response to a Chinese first strike, rather than attacking preemptively. Taiwan’s operational concepts do not call for attacking civilian or political leadership targets. Nor could Taiwan realistically field sufficient assets to impose unacceptable damage on value targets in a country as expansive as China. This adds context to the nature of deep-interdiction capabilities that Taiwan has been seeking.
Taiwan realizes a relatively small number of precision-strike weapons would have only limited impact on China’s overall war-making capacity, but leadership also believes that even a moderate capability for attacking key ETC military targets would be valuable, since it could disrupt the PLA’s operational tempo, delaying achievement of Beijing’s political-military objectives. This would buy time for Taiwan to recover from initial Chinese strikes and for potential allies to evaluate/implement intervention options. Deep-interdiction capability may not win a war for Taiwan, but by increasing the uncertainty and cost of a PRC offensive, it could enhance deterrence.
Despite its thorny nature, Taipei did quietly discuss its “counter-strike” capabilities with Washington during the past decade, agreeing to a number of general principles, including using only conventionally-armed weapons and only using them against military targets in response to a PRC first strike, after proper (Taiwan presidential) authorization. That Taiwan officially refers to its LACM as the “Tactical Shore-based Missile for Fire Suppression” (TSMFS) testifies to this understanding.
US Restrictions and Indigenous Solutions
Capabilities the US readily provides to allies and partners worldwide are often denied Taiwan for many years, sometimes citing bizarre logic. In particular, the sale of tactical attack weapons to Taiwan has been severely restricted. Even though the AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile was finally released in June, 2017 after more than a decade’s delay, two other precision-guided weapons that Taiwan has been requesting since at least 2014, AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER (Standoff Land-Attack Missile-Expanded Response) and AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile), have yet to be approved. These, with tactical ranges of 270-370 km, could afford Taiwan a measure of capability for suppressing Chinese air defenses from standoff distances and/or engaging high-value, time-critical targets.
Yet, these merely represent tactical attack weapons, rather than true deep-interdiction systems, such as the Tomahawk cruise missile. The lack of US support for Taiwan acquiring such capability, in addition to the usual China concerns, has been further compounded by MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) proliferation issues. Therefore, Taipei has never even approached Washington for the Tomahawk, even though a robust deep-interdiction capability is militarily justified by the overwhelming threat of PLA theater missiles. Instead, Taiwan has had to rely on its own resources.
The National Chung Shan Institute of Science & Technology (NCSIST), Taiwan’s armaments development authority, has been working on at least three major land-attack missile projects: a subsonic land-attack cruise missile (LACM), a tactical ballistic missile (TBM), and an air-launched cruise missile/munitions dispenser (ALCM). Also in protracted development is a hybrid supersonic land-attack cruise missile (SLACM).
Development work began in the 1990s on a long-range, LACM that eventually became known as HF-2E. A larger design than the HF-2 anti-ship missile with different power plant, guidance and warhead, HF-2E is powered by an indigenous turbofan engine called Kun Peng (鯤鵬), which has performance at least similar to the Microturbo 078 turbojet (a derivative of TRI-60, with 900-1,000 lbf thrust) used by earlier HF-2.
The HF-2E Block I has a range of 600 km, with cruise speed of about Mach 0.8. HF-2E was described by a senior LY member as having dimensions between an HF-2 (c.700 kg) and an HF-3 (c.1500 kg) and is equipped with a warhead in the 200+ kg class. If true, this would make HF-2E a somewhat smaller missile than the Tomahawk (1,600 kg launch weight, with 450-kg warhead).
With its 600-km range, the HF-2E Block I could reach many important military targets in the PLA Eastern Theater Command opposite Taiwan, as well as a number of cities (e.g. Fuzhou, Hangzhou, Ningbo) in southeastern China. However, most of the more important Chinese economic centers remain beyond the missile’s tactical footprint.
The NCSIST tested an improved HF-2E Block I in early-2008 and has since continued working on phased improvements. The main focus has been on increasing the missile’s range. Engine modifications and miniaturization of the missile’s guidance control elements (to free up internal volume/weight for additional fuel), have reportedly extended the missile’s range to 1,000km. While the NCSIST continues development of an ultimate version with 2,000-km range, options are now said to be available for the Tsai Administration to upgrade existing HF-2Es to the 1,000-km range configuration.
Tactical Ballistic Missile
Taiwan attempted to develop a medium-range ballistic missile back in the 1980s, concurrent with a then nascent nuclear weapons program. However, both of these projects were terminated by the late-1980s due to US pressure. In particular, the nuclear research infrastructure was so completely dismantled that Taiwan can no longer restart such a serious effort without attracting major international attention and severe intervention.
Taiwan did modify several dozen TK-2 SAMs for a surface-to-surface role in the wake of the 1995-96 crisis. Deployed in fixed silos, these are credited with c.300-km range and a 90kg high-explosive warhead, thus representing only a very limited strike capability.
Since then, NCSIST has continued research and low-key development of ballistic missile technology, partly through its participation in Taiwan’s national scientific research sounding rockets program. The ultimate goal is to develop a medium-range ballistic missile (1,000+ km range) with conventional payload. Even though media reports in 2014 claimed that the NCSIST already possessed capacity to produce solid rocket motors of up to 2-meter diameter, Taiwan is still years away from a viable MRBM. However, the MND recently announced directives to develop a battlefield support missile capability similar to that of MGM-140 ATACMS (Army TACtical Missile System), which has a 300km range and a 500-lb warhead, performance levels that fall within MTCR (Category 1) thresholds.
Taiwan has reportedly invested over US $267 million (NT $8 billion) over the last decade to develop a supersonic land-attack cruise missile, known as Yun Feng (“Cloud Peak”; 雲峰). Conceptually similar to the US CIM-10 Bomarc SAM of the 1950s (albeit in a surface-to-surface role), it is boosted into the stratosphere by strap-on solid rocket motors and then sustained by liquid-fueled ramjets, cruising at supersonic speed towards the target. In theory, the missile’s high cruising altitude (upwards of 70,000 ft.) and speed (Mach 3+) could aid penetration of enemy air defenses. However, unlike a TBM, with much higher typical terminal velocities (Mach 6 for DF-15, Mach 10 for DF-21), a SLACM is likely more vulnerable to interception. Yun Feng was reportedly ready for production by 2014, although the Ma Administration and, so far, also the Tsai Administration, have both shelved it, bowing to US pressure. Further development work appears to be continuing, however.
Air-Launched Cruise Missile
In addition to surface-to-surface missiles, Taiwan has also successfully produced an air-launched cruise missile, in the form of the Wan Chien (“Myriad Swords”; 萬劍) standoff runway-attack weapon. This is a submunitions dispenser powered by turbofan engine and employing a combination of GPS/INS/TRN and terminal seeker guidance. Launch weight is under 2,000 lbs, with cruise speed of Mach 0.8+ and maximum range of 200+km. The Wan Chien entered production in 2015 and is now in service on upgraded F-CK-1A/B MLU fighters. This affords a useful capability against Chinese airfields, but also has the potential to be further developed into a longer-range, air-launched cruise missile for use against other types of (point or hardened) targets.
The Political Dimensions
On balance, deep-interdiction capability has significant bipartisan support in Taiwan. Despite political differences, the majority of Taiwan’s two major political coalitions (DPP/KMT) seem to recognize the requirement for such capability as legitimate and desirable. Moreover, there appears to be a tacit understanding across the aisle that counter-strike capabilities could be a valuable bargaining chip in any future cross-Strait political dialogue.
Some Taiwan politicians occasionally voice views that deep-interdiction weapons should be a means for counter-value retaliations to somehow intimidate China. However, such sentiments are clearly in the minority and no more provocative than open threats made by senior Chinese officials. Many in Taiwan, however, have identified a US double-standard on the matter, in that Washington has done little to stem Beijing’s growing missile threat or constant intimidation of the island, while Taipei is unfairly discouraged and obstructed from acquiring a viable counter-deterrent.
Indeed, the US has probably done far more to hinder than help Taiwan in the latter’s pursuit of a viable deep-interdiction capability. Not only has Washington tightly restricted arms sales to the island, but has also frequently impaired the technological assistance Taiwan critically needed for its indigenous deep-interdiction weapons programs, from other countries as well as from the US.
The degree of success of further development of any Taiwanese deep-interdiction capability will, therefore, depend to a considerable extent on US support—both political and technological. As demonstrated in past Taiwan Strait crises, neutralization of certain PRC-based military targets would be necessary in any high-intensity military conflagration. If the US policy objective is to minimize risk of direct conflict with China, then logically it would be preferable if these targets could be attacked by Taiwanese rather than US assets. Moreover, with China increasingly asserting its military influence in the Indo-Pacific region against U.S. strategic interests, helping allies build capacity to help check such challenges is clearly in line with US grand strategy.
It may, therefore, serve American national interests to reassess Taiwan’s pursuit of a limited deep-interdiction capability for such counter-force operations.
The main point: Taiwan’s deep-interdiction requirements are legitimate in the face of the PLA’s growing military threat. It may be time Washington reevaluates its restrictive position against the island developing limited but credible strike capability.