In the most recent edition of the Military Review, the US Army’s professional journal, a raft of articles examined how the United States can respond to the Chinese threat to Taiwan. Proposals included returning American forces to bases in Taiwan and sending up to four Army divisions to the island in the event of a crisis. However, the United States may have neither the political will nor the logistical capacity to carry through on these recommendations. Therefore, Taiwanese forces may find themselves on their own in a war against China—at least at the outset. Moreover, some academics make a plausible case that American security guarantees to Taiwan should be contingent on Taiwan improving its innate defensive capabilities. It is therefore worth examining how Chinese and Taiwanese forces stack up against each other.
The success of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would require success in the air and maritime domains. Thus, many existing analyses focus on air, naval, and missile forces. However, as former American defense official Drew Thompson notes, “the only thing that guarantees Beijing can achieve its political objective of Taiwan’s surrender is putting Chinese boots on the ground and physically seizing control of the island.” Assuming Taiwan’s resolve holds firm, whether China’s ground forces can defeat Taiwan’s is the key question in any invasion scenario.
In the land domain, Taiwan has the equipment and human capital to repel a Chinese invasion if its forces are maintained during peacetime and mobilized quickly enough to counterattack Chinese beachheads. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air, naval, and missile forces could intervene in the ground war to change this calculus, but for now they are likely too busy engaging their Taiwanese (and/or American) counterparts.
Manpower & Equipment
Despite China’s massive advantage in vehicles and active-duty manpower, it can only transport a fraction of those forces across the Taiwan Strait at once. Furthermore, while Chinese forces are storming ashore, it would be difficult for them to employ many of their heavy tanks due to their small number of suitable landing craft. Instead, they would likely be forced to rely on infantry, helicopters, and light amphibious tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Until they could break out of a beachhead, Chinese forces would be confined to a small area and subjected to concentrated artillery bombardments. Helicopters flying over the water—which the PLA reportedly plans to use heavily—would be vulnerable to anti-aircraft weapons. The PLA would be in danger of being driven into the sea until it could either break out of its beachheads or ensure that Taiwanese forces could not successfully counterattack.
The lynchpin of these counterattacks would be Taiwan’s main battle tanks, especially the M1A2T Abrams tanks it is purchasing from the United States. Many recent analyses of Taiwan’s defense procurement have chastised Taipei for making big-ticket “vanity” purchases that have little warfighting value. While these judgments may be justified for fighter aircraft vulnerable to missile strikes, they overlook the fact that, when it comes to the Abrams, tactical and operational counterattacks are critical elements of a strategic defense. Tactically, “asymmetric” weapons like anti-tank missiles are excellent in the defense, but cannot replace tanks in the offense. This makes modern tanks a crucial component of Taiwan’s ground forces.
That is not to say that affordable, distributed weapons are not vital. In fact, some of Taiwan’s most important weapons are unguided anti-tank rockets such as the AT-4. They have a relatively short range and cannot penetrate the thick frontal armor of modern main battle tanks, but when used well they can wreak havoc on mechanized formations. Especially given its reliance on reservists, Taiwan can never have too many of these cheap weapons.
One of Taiwan’s most serious hardware deficiencies for land warfare, though, is its paucity of infantry fighting vehicles. Possibly the most versatile vehicles on the battlefield, they fill the role of armored personnel carriers while being much more lethal. Being cheaper than tanks but powerful enough to engage most targets, infantry fighting vehicles should form the bulk of a modern mechanized force.
Finally, Taiwan’s towed artillery pieces, which constitute over half of its artillery total, are not survivable. Self-propelled artillery is often armored and can “shoot and scoot”: fire a barrage then reposition to avoid return fire. Towed artillery is neither protected nor mobile. It can be entrenched, but precision-guided munitions can destroy even entrenched guns. Given the importance of bombarding Chinese beachheads, this vulnerability is a grave concern.
Taiwan’s problems appear to stem not from training or personnel quality, but rather from inefficient personnel policies. Demographic challenges and the move to an all-volunteer system have combined to create a manpower crunch for the armed forces. According to a Taiwanese officer, the army’s frontline units are only able to muster 60 to 80 percent of their authorized manpower. If reports are accurate, these shortfalls would not be made up even if reservists were mobilized, because all reservists are to be lumped into ad-hoc infantry brigades armed only with rifles.
Additionally, the quality of many Taiwanese reservists is due to fall sharply. Since future reservists come from former soldiers, the competency to which conscripts are trained determines how effective they will be as reservists. Taiwanese conscripts used to serve for one year, but in 2017 this was cut to four months, with just five weeks of basic training. This term of service is described as “basically a summer camp,” with conscripts treated as “guests rather than soldiers.” During a war, reservists with such little training would be of little use; and Taiwan phased out military conscription in December 2018.
Conclusions and Recommendations for Taiwan
Taiwan has the equipment and human capital to repel a Chinese invasion, but only if it effectively mobilizes its reserves and counterattacks Chinese beachheads early on. This would require Taiwan’s forces to avoid delays and prevent debilitating losses from Chinese air, naval, and missile forces. Units starting at reduced manpower levels, as Taiwan’s personnel policies reportedly put them at, would be at a severe disadvantage.
Counterattacking China’s beachheads would be Taiwan’s only hope for an unaided victory. PLA shortcomings and Taiwan’s dense urban, mountain, and jungle terrain mean that Taiwanese forces could stretch a battle for the island out for many months and inflict severe losses on the Chinese. However, China’s massive numerical superiority means that if it establishes secure beachheads, it can simply keep pouring troops and equipment onto the island until Taiwanese resistance is overwhelmed. In this case, Taiwan’s only hope would be to drag out the fight for as long as possible and hope for international intervention.
There are several steps Taiwan can take to maximize its chances of victory. First and foremost, it must revise its personnel policies to ensure better use of its human capital. Rather than lumping all reservists into poorly equipped infantry brigades, the Reserve Command needs to ensure that frontline units receive reinforcements. Reservists with specialist training, such as tankers and artillerymen, need to be assigned to appropriate units. Infantry units that are created from reservists should be armed with anti-tank rockets, machine guns, and grenades, not just rifles. Taiwan should prioritize acquiring large stocks of such small arms over additional fighter jets. The army should also develop and maintain a professionalized sniper corps, as skilled snipers can ground an urban attack to a halt.
Furthermore, Taiwan needs to ensure that its regular units can be brought up to full strength without disbanding any of them for personnel. This likely means returning to mandatory conscription terms of 18-24 months. Given the threat posed by China, Taiwan cannot afford the luxury of voluntary service if it means an undermanned military.
Equipment-wise, Taiwan should continue to invest in systems appropriate for an asymmetric defense strategy. The most important of these are an integrated air defense network and sophisticated anti-ship weapons, but Taiwan also needs deep stocks of anti-tank guided missiles, anti-tank rockets, short-range air defense weapons, and small arms. It also cannot totally eschew high-end platforms like main battle tanks. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (國防部) should study how these valuable vehicles can best serve its unique needs and begin replacing its obsolescent first- and second-generation main battle tanks. It should also procure a greater number of infantry fighting vehicles and investigate converting towed artillery into self-propelled platforms. Finally, Taiwan should acquire active protection systems (APS) for its armored vehicles and investigate how to overcome APS mounted on Chinese vehicles.
The need to protect Taiwan’s ground forces from Chinese aircraft, ships, and missiles emphasizes the importance of anti-access investments. However, air defense networks and anti-ship missiles cannot replace ground troops. To successfully deter a Chinese invasion, Taiwan needs to be able to not only contest the air and sea around the island and degrade Chinese forces en route, but to defeat them when they get there. That makes Taiwan’s ground troops a crucial component of the island’s defense. With proper investment and reformed personnel policies, they can drive an invasion back into the sea.
The main point: Taiwan has the human capital to repel a Chinese invasion, but it will need targeted investments in its military equipment and reforms in its personnel policies to give it the best chance of victory, especially as PLA forces overcome their shortcomings in the coming years.