In a recent two-part article (see here and here), Global Taiwan Institute Adjunct Fellow Eric Chan argued that Taiwanese adoption of an asymmetrical “porcupine strategy”—a term coined by William S. Murray—is virtually impossible for reasons related to Taiwan’s military structure, political system, and society. Additionally, Chan stated that Taiwan’s current military is more appropriate strategically, despite its disadvantages in operational warfare. This strategic superiority of Taiwan’s current defense force allegedly lies in its ability to deal with “gray zone warfare.” Thus, different recommendations for the defensive scheme for Taiwan arise from different priorities, not any failure to assess the operational picture correctly. As Chan says, “The basis for this incongruence is that both sides have differing definitions of asymmetry and deterrence.”
This view is more of an apologia than a tightly reasoned defense of Taiwan’s policy. The different recommendations for procurement and training lie not in differing definitions or goals, but in a fundamental failure to understand effective counters to Chinese threats to Taiwan, including those occurring in the “gray zone.”
There is no logical basis for preferring Taiwan’s current conventional, symmetric defense to a porcupine strategy defense. As this piece will attempt to argue, in peacetime or in a crisis, addressing “gray zone” activity symmetrically does little or nothing to delay or deter China from using so-called “salami-slicing” tactics. However, and by Chan’s own admission, it does force the Taiwanese into a ruinously expensive symmetric game. In wartime, an asymmetrical defense would exploit the overwhelming advantage of having numerous cheap units operating in the clutter of Taiwan’s landmass, where they can hide, assisted by camouflage and decoys, while detecting and firing into an invading sea and air force which lacks such clutter. This asymmetrical strategy of using ground-based anti-ship and anti-air weapons avoids vulnerability to the Chinese rocket force and its long-range precision fires informed by modern overhead surveillance. The porcupine strategy would be cheaper than Taiwan’s current weapons mix and present a far greater deterrent to Chinese aggression, and be just as effective as the current force in the gray zone.
A more detailed exploration of Chan’s arguments follows:
After citing Murray’s arguments for an asymmetrical, cost-effective defense against “the most dangerous scenario” [emphasis in the original], Chan alleges that culture and gray zone activity work in favor of Taiwan’s symmetric approach. “[F]rom a cultural-linguistic Chinese perspective, an operationally defensive military does not exert deterrent power” says Chan, adding that “an operationally defensive military aimed at efficiently inflicting casualties on the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—aka the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—may not be optimized to coerce the leadership of the CCP, as high PLA casualties may not necessarily threaten the legitimacy of the Party.” This seems to highlight an excessively narrow aspect of the asymmetrical defense. If the Chinese invasion forces are defeated, it is not the casualties that threaten the CCP’s legitimacy, but the failure of its “reunification” effort. Arguing that casualties are irrelevant to coercion—and therefore deterrence—seems to miss this critical point.
Chan immediately adds that “an asymmetric military would cede significant portions of the gray-zone space,” and gives the specific example of “using radars or ground-based missile tracking or UAV patrols and intercepts of hostile incursions.” He then goes on to say that “without the physical response of interception, there is a significant chance that far from deterring the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), these tactics could encourage the PLAAF to utilize salami-slicing tactics to move its incursions closer to Taiwan, thereby testing Taiwan’s willingness to escalate to a kinetic response.” In fact, Taiwan’s intercepts with aircraft, the sort of response that Chan defends, have failed to keep the PLAAF from advancing these very salami-slicing tactics. Faced with Taiwan’s air intercepts, China has been increasing the numbers of aircraft flown and decreasing their distances from Taiwan.
The recommendation of keeping Taiwan’s current-style air force clearly suffers from exactly what Chan claims as a disadvantage to an asymmetrical approach. Moreover, it is not clear how any response proves Taiwan’s willingness to escalate to a kinetic response, except of course responding with actual kinetic fires. It is clear from Chan’s own arguments and other writings that Taiwan’s current method is extremely expensive (see here and here), and that these Taiwanese aircraft are vulnerable to either China shooting first or outnumbering the defenders. Ground-based air defenses, by contrast, are cheaper and, since surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) can hide in ground clutter, they can almost always get in the first shot. This makes SAMs a far better means of defeating China in a war, and therefore a far better deterrent to a China that fears defeat.
The message that Taiwan is aware of the Chinese flights could just as easily be sent by radar tracking and radio messages, without bankrupting Taiwan’s defense force. Chan, however, argues that because “these responses are not public in nature, they do not provide an effective rejoinder to the CCP integrated military/propaganda campaign touting the omnipotence of the PLA and the weakness of the Taiwan military.” It is not clear that physical intercepts are “public in nature” unless they happen to be within visual range on a clear day, assuming that coast-visiting Taiwanese are the relevant public. Nor is it even remotely clear how physical intercepts do provide “an effective rejoinder to the CCP […] campaign touting the omnipotence of the PLA and the weakness of the Taiwan military.” The ability of Taiwan to fly outnumbered fighters to within visual range of Chinese aircraft proves little to nothing about what would happen in a military campaign. Taiwan’s dependence on aircraft intercepts only highlights Taiwan’s vulnerability to offensive missile strikes against these aircraft, which depend on massive and vulnerable fixed infrastructure like runways.
Taiwan should instead build mobile radars and SAMs, in the style of Russia or of the Chinese themselves. This would provide a far more effective air defense, in terms of both surviving Chinese missile strikes and in subsequently firing from hide-sites in ground clutter. To reassure the Taiwanese populace, this ground-based air defense could be made “public in nature” by anti-aircraft SAM tests. It could be made public to a different and directly relevant audience simply by tracking Chinese air movements, broadcasting them, and issuing statements to Chinese pilots themselves, during the flights, on international commercial frequencies. This would create misgivings on the part of Chinese air commanders and the aircrew themselves, to whom SAMs are a deadly threat. To quote a US fighter pilot, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to describe what goes on inside a pilot’s gut when he sees a SAM get airborne.”
Finally, Chan mentions the disruption of a new scheme. Many of Chan’s objections are generic objections to all change. For example:
Furthermore, these reforms could also cause other thorny problems associated with training/re-training, promotion, retention, and logistics. This type of disruption would (and does) face significant opposition from within military leadership, thus weakening military cohesion and actually reducing deterrent effects in the short to medium term.
All reforms cause some disruption and problems in morale and promotion for those invested in the prior system. However, this is as an argument against reform in general; to use this as an argument against a specific reform is generic contrarianism. Surely some reforms are worthwhile, so an argument that works against them all is more than a little suspect.
Chan, however, does offer more specific arguments:
[T]he Taiwan military is dealing with significant issues of morale. Given that asymmetric recommendations generally posit a shift to an air force that consists of ground-based air defense, a navy primarily composed of small fast-attack craft, an army that is built around elastic denial (i.e., ability to conduct a fighting withdrawal), and a reserve system that focuses on territorial defense/insurgency, implementing them would likely result in additional, and severe, morale and recruitment issues.
There are two overwhelming problems with these arguments. First, “elastic denial” and “insurgency” are not recommendations from Murray’s porcupine strategy article. In fact, Murray’s recommendations include AH-64 attack helicopters, MLRS, and a “highly professional and highly trained army.” This is the opposite of a guerrilla or insurgency defense. If others have advocated guerrilla warfare for the defense of Taiwan, I will gladly join Chan in arguing against such a scheme, as it is not only counter-cultural but almost certainly ineffective as a deterrent against the perpetrators of the Hong Kong crack-down and Xinjiang gulags. Defenders against an amphibious or airborne invasion want to confine the invaders to a minimal zone with no safe area for the delivery of supplies and reinforcements. The porcupine strategy involves a conventional defense against amphibious and airborne landings, once they have been weakened by anti-ship missiles and SAMs fired from ground launchers and small naval vessels.
It seems the other half of Chan’s allegation that morale would suffer is found in the description of an air force based on SAMs and a navy based on small attack craft. Why a SAM-based air defense system is bad for morale is never explained. Virtually all competent militaries have ground-based air defenses, and there is no evidence of morale problems in this branch of their services—even when it is a major component, as in Germany in late World War Two, or even the primary arm, as in the case of North Vietnam. The same is true of small attack craft—although it would actually be more asymmetric to replace these with trucks firing anti-ship missiles. The ultimate “hide with pride” forces, the strategic nuclear missile submarine branches of the great powers, do not suffer from morale problems either. Chan’s concerns are needless; SAM and coastal missile battery crews are not low morale troops compared to other air force or naval service members. This view, that crews for SAMs and anti-ship missile units would have morale problems, seems to be an ahistorical argument.
Chan is quite correct in pointing out that adoption of the recommended asymmetrical program, for which he gives the purchase of anti-ship missiles as an example, is meeting with resistance. However, to use this as an argument against change is to reflexively agree with defenders of the status quo regardless of the merits of asymmetry. The original recommendations in Murray’s article were not made because the reforms were considered easy, but because the asymmetrical approach offers the only viable defense against a geographically close and far richer opponent. It is exactly these adherents to the status quo who must be refuted. To support the status quo by arguing that the alternative is disruptive and unpopular is to avoid all change and, in this case, invite defeat.
The porcupine strategy, suitably updated with modern technology, remains Taiwan’s only hope for defeating an invasion and therefore deterring a China that fears defeat—not casualties, but defeat. The porcupine strategy loses nothing in the gray zone except the expense of playing at symmetry in a hopeless arms race. China is trying to deter the United States from intervention with a missile force that fires from ground clutter; it seems likely that China would respect a threat to their seaborne and airborne forces that is exactly parallel. This is one sense in which Taiwan would benefit from symmetry.
The main point: A porcupine defense for Taiwan—based on SAMs, anti-ship missiles, and mobile radars—is a better deterrent against China in that it displays a more capable and economically sustainable defense, and is no less effective in the “gray zone.” Arguments that its adoption would be disruptive are, in effect, arguments against change in general and prioritize continuity over actual effectiveness.