Taiwan’s High-End and Low-End Defense Capabilities Balance

Taiwan’s High-End and Low-End Defense Capabilities Balance

Taiwan’s High-End and Low-End Defense Capabilities Balance

Some defense analysts have criticized Taiwan in recent months for continuing to invest in expensive, high-end weapons systems. Proponents of an asymmetric-first approach to Taiwan’s defense have found the US approval of potential sales of new M1A2T Abrams tanks and F-16V fighter aircraft to be particularly galling. There are reasonable disagreements over whether these capabilities are necessary (I have argued in favor new fighter aircraft for the Global Taiwan Brief here) and, if they are, how to balance high-end and low-end systems in the force mix. It is not the case, however, that the Ministry of National Defense (MND) is neglecting to invest in weapons systems that are less “flashy,” but of great value in a potential invasion scenario—the scenario in which so-called “asymmetric” capabilities are perhaps most crucial.

For example, when tank sales were approved in July, the State Department also green-lighted a possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of Stinger missiles and related equipment and support. Should Taiwan proceed with the purchase of all 250 requested Stingers, which are man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), the acquisition will materially enhance Taiwan’s defense (it already has approximately 2,000 in its arsenal). In particular, the new missiles will enhance Taiwan’s armed forces’ ability to better counter “helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), cruise missiles, as well as low-level fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.” A large Stinger inventory will strengthen Taiwan’s capacity for point defense, while complementing the island’s Patriot and indigenous Sky Bow air defense batteries and ship borne surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

The United States, it should be noted, has yet to formally approve the sale of all of the arms requested by Taiwan this year. In the letter of request that MND submitted in the spring, it not only asked to buy Abrams tanks and Stinger missiles, but also 1,240 TOW(Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided) anti-armor missiles and 409 Javelin anti-tank missiles (these purchases would grow Taiwan’s arsenal to well over 3,000 TOW missiles and more than 900 Javelins). The current status of this request is unclear, but it should remain a priority for both Taiwan and the United States. Given that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is expected to attempt to land armor and armored vehicles on Taiwan and outlying islands during an invasion, TOW and Javelin missiles will be of critical importance to soldiers and marines defending the beaches and routes inland. Such missiles complement Taiwan’s own tanks in the counter-armor fight, diversifying the nature of the threat to PLA armor and thus complicating Chinese military planning and operations.

PLA invasion planning will be complicated further if Taiwan goes ahead with the purchase of new artillery systems. Last month, Defense News reported that MND is seeking to purchase M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers and possibly the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from the United States. Taiwan already has more than 2,000 older artillery pieces, including earlier versions of the M109. As a mobile, survivable system, the Paladin would, alongside Stingers, TOW missiles, and Javelins, help transform Taiwan, during a time of war, into a “porcupine”—a phrase popularized by the Naval War College’s William Murray in 2008—making it difficult for the PRC to “swallow.” Placed on Kinmen, Paladins could reach out and touch potential PLA invasion staging grounds. On Taiwan, Paladins would be useful for close-in coastal defense and for wreaking havoc on landing beaches.

If Taiwan does wish to transform itself into a porcupine, HIMARS would make it extra spiny. Taipei does, indeed, appear to be gearing up for an acquisition, with Taiwan’s UP Media reporting earlier this month that there is money in MND’s 2020 fiscal year budget to pursue the system. Like the Paladin, HIMARS can “shoot and scoot,” making it of potentially great value in circumstances where effective defense will rely on mobility and survivability. Armed with six M270 rockets, HIMARS can fulfill a similar function to new Paladins. Alternatively, Taiwan might opt to fit some HIMARS with the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which would provide Taiwan’s military with a means of attacking the PRC with capabilities on the island.

Acquisition of HIMARS may make particular sense due to a capability the system does not yet even possess. The US Department of Defense is in the process of procuring for the Army an updated version of HIMARS, one which will have an anti-ship capability. The US Marine Corps, too, is seeking an anti-ship missile it can fire from the HIMARS it already has in the inventory. HIMARS platforms that can contribute to the counter-invasion mission by striking ships crossing the Taiwan Strait would be of great value to Taiwan. Even though such a capability remains notional (though likely to be fielded in the coming years), it makes sense for Taiwan to add HIMARS to the force sooner rather than later. As noted above, the system already makes sense for Taiwan’s armed forces. Even if the potential anti-ship capability were the main driver for MND’s interest in HIMARS, purchasing the system now would allow for speedy incorporation of a new anti-ship missile when one is ready or easy incorporation of new, updated platforms if necessary. With the PRC threat to Taiwan growing year by year, faster integration of new capabilities will only grow in importance to Taiwan in the coming years.

Taiwan’s indigenous defense industry has also developed capabilities useful for asymmetric warfare. Since the mid-2000s, Taiwan’s navy has put to sea 32 Kwang Hua IV-class missile boats and fielded a new stealthy, fast-attack missile boat, the Tuo Jiang-class. Last year, it was reported that the Navy was studying the possibility of fielding large numbers of even smaller vessels, dubbed “Stealth Mini-Missile Assault Boats.” In the event of a conflict these boats will speed out into the Taiwan Strait, loose their anti-ship missiles at PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels steaming towards Taiwan, then scoot back to shore to reload. The Republic of China Navy, of course, still sails destroyers and frigates, and is procuring a large amphibious assault ship, but it has recognized the need for small, high-speed craft as well.
The missiles those ships fire are also indigenously produced. They carry both the subsonic Hsiung Feng II and supersonic Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missiles. These missiles can also be fired from mobile launchers ashore. The Hsiung Feng IIE, meanwhile, is a ground-launched surface-to-surface variant that can strike Chinese territory. Taiwan continues to upgrade these missiles and grow its munitions stores.

All of these capabilities—older, new, and prospective—accord well with Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept (ODC). Announced in December 2017, the ODC, as described by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), “seeks to emphasize the development of asymmetric capabilities and tactics to capitalize on Taiwan’s defensive advantage, enhance resilience, and exploit the weaknesses of the PLA.” The USCC report lists three areas that the ODC prioritizes: “(1) preservation of warfighting capability, (2) pursuing decisive victory in the littoral area, and (3) annihilating the enemy on the beach.” In the MND’s 2017 National Defense Report, weapons system useful for asymmetric warfare are characterized by “mobility, stealth, fast speed, low cost, abundance, minimum damage, and high effectiveness.” All of the capabilities described above check at least some of these boxes.

Going forward, additional investments in advanced mobile surface-to-air missiles and ground-based, mobile anti-ship missiles are crucial. Sea mines are also a relatively low-cost, high-reward capability, which would come in useful in complicating a PLA invasion. To that end, Drew Thompson notes that Taiwan “is currently developing two new types of shallow and deep-water influence mines [and] a self-propelled mine,” all to be deployed in the 2020s. Taiwan is also refurbishing the mines already in its inventory and seeking to buy MK62 Quickstrike air-deployed mines from the United States.

Large numbers of UAVs armed with ASCMs would complement Taiwan’s fleet of attack helicopters, land- and sea-based ASCMs, and sea mines. Taken together, these defensive capabilities would pose a multidimensional threat to an invasion force. Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Submarines, when eventually put to sea, could add another layer of complexity to that threat, though it remains unclear whether they will have utility in the relatively shallow Taiwan Strait. At the very least, new submarines could cause fits for PLAN surface vessels operating in waters north and south of the Strait or east of Taiwan and force the PLA to divert resources to hunt them down.

It may be the case that Taiwan is not buying enough of the asymmetric capabilities it says it needs. The capabilities balance—between high-end and low-end, between those optimized for scenarios short of invasion and those crucial for that eventuality—may be off. But MND is not neglecting its asymmetric requirements. It is striving to field a force suited to conducting a variety of missions, from peacetime deterrence to defending against invasion and occupation. For a country of nearly 24 million people, this is no easy task. The United States should stand ready to assist when and where it can.

The main point: Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense is not neglecting its asymmetric warfare requirements. It is acquiring a variety of capabilities needed to defend the island against a PLA invasion.

[1] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2019 (Routledge, 2019), 309.