TaiwanMilitary Strategy

‘Small and fast defense assets may be best’ to protect Taiwan

The Taiwanese navy is reportedly looking at fast-attack boats equipped with anti-ship missiles and drones to defend the island from a potential Chinese invasion but some experts say they may be wise to also 'dig in' and wait for US intervention

September 11, 2018 1:34 PM (UTC+8)
Taiwanese Hsiung Feng II Anti-Ship Cruise Missile Coastal Defence System in action. Photo: Taiwan Defense Ministry

Military experts are divided on the best strategy to defend Taiwan, but there is some agreement on “assets” that would be useful to defend the island from a potential Chinese invasion.

There has been debate about this recently given that Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, is in the process of approving its defense budget for the 2019 financial year. It has been reported that the Taiwanese navy wants funds for the construction of fast-attack boats equipped with Hsiung Feng II anti-ship missiles and combat-ready drones (which could be fitted with Hellfire air-to-surface projectiles) to protect the country’s coastline from an invasion.

These arms systems, along with the deployment of mobile air-defense units and anti-armor weaponry, are generally seen as robust additions and could help the island resist a massive amphibious operation from mainland China.

“Those new weapons are all cheaper and asymmetrical assets if compared with regular platforms,” retired Taiwanese Rear Admiral Chihlung Dan explained to Asia Times. “For example, four fast-attack missile boats can carry eight missiles, the same number of those carried by single Kidd-class, Perry-class and La Fayette-class warships, but with a much more affordable price tag,” he said.

Budget constraints

Communist China considers Taiwan a wayward province and has often threatened to retake it by force. Moreover, the United States is the guarantor of the island’s de facto independence. Washington has no formal ties with Taipei, but is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to ensure that it maintains sufficient self-defense capabilities.

The Taiwan Strait is 130 km wide at its narrowest. The strait’s centre line is a de facto sea border between China and Taiwan. Photo: Google Maps

Faced with the growing strength of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as well as an increasingly aggressive leadership in Beijing, Taiwan is trying to beef up its defenses. However, it has a limited budget. The island’s military spending stood at US$10.5 billion in 2017, while China’s was $154 billion, according to the US Department of Defense’s last report to Congress on Beijing’s military power.

The Taiwanese government has proposed a defense budget of $11 billion for the coming year. The Taipei Times reported on Sunday that the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense planned to spend $16.2 billion on submarines, next-generation guided-missile frigates and other warships after 2026.

The government plans to build eight diesel-electric submarines to replace its four aging vessels. But the island’s first domestically-built submarine will not be completed until 2025, according to a report by the Central News Agency. So, it may be smartest for Taipei to focus on the development of small and agile platforms than big-ticket weapons, which could also pose significant technical challenges.

In Chihlung Dan’s opinion, Taiwan’s defense systems should be “small, mobile and in large numbers for higher survivability.” He argued that the same concept should be applied to the country’s Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program, which is aimed at constructing 2,000-tonne vessels. Smaller submarines would be more useful in the Taiwan Strait, he said, where the average depth is roughly only 60 meters. “As well, with the same budget, we can acquire three or four times as many units as planned under the IDS program,” he added.

A wise investment, but with pitfalls

“Defense against China, a proximate superpower that is willing to suffer major losses, will be next to impossible for Taipei,” Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the US Naval War College, told Asia Times. But he acknowledged that investments in fast missile boats, unmanned aerial vehicles and minelayers were decent and reasonably wise to try to tackle an extremely hard problem, as “they could offer some prospect of deterrence and also genuine defense.”

A Taiwanese AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo fighter intercepts a PLA H-6K bomber above the Taiwan Strait late last year. Photo: Taiwan Defense Ministry.

The Pentagon report on China’s military capabilities emphasized the PLA’s improvements in its ability to project power “decisively” across the Taiwan Strait. Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said: “The continued growth of China’s surface fleet certainly seems to put Taipei in need of a greater anti-ship capability in order to defend its outlying islands and ultimately Taiwan itself.”

However, Goldstein noted that pitfalls remained with the deployment of systems such as small warships, drones and minelayers. “Fast-attack missile boats are not easily hidden and could probably be sunk at the pier if Beijing succeeded in a surprise and stealthy first strike.”

The same is true of drones. “In general, I am not sure that slow-flying drones with Hellfire missiles could be very successful in the anti-ship role. Even if the drones got off the ground, a questionable proposition since they would also require visible airfields, it seems they might get shot down rather quickly in conditions of Chinese air superiority,” he said.

Goldstein wasn’t sure about the minelayers either. “Generally, deploying sea mines and counter-assault beach mines are a good bet for Taiwan.” He said this kind of ships could be effective, but the problem was how to get them in the water efficiently and in sufficient numbers.

Hypothetically, in the event of a military strike from the mainland, Taiwan’s mine depots would likely be near the top of a Chinese target list, along with early warning radars, the US scholar said. So, “stealthy, small, and numerous minelayers might actually be better than small numbers of large ships that are easily targeted.”

US intervention and tunneling

Pollack tried to look at the issue from a different perspective. “The importance of any single acquisition is an open question, but Taiwan does not necessarily need the ability to stop the PLA Navy altogether. It just needs to be able to prevent a rapid fait accompli, resisting long enough for the United States to intervene in its favor. That is a far less challenging goal,” he stressed.

Goldstein insisted that Taiwan should invest in other forms of warfare to defend its territory from a Chinese attack. “While investments on missile boats, drones and minelayers are certainly wiser than buying submarines, frigates, anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft and fighters, it might be smarter still to invest heavily in ‘digging deep,’ constructing North Korea-style tunnels for military use.”

That way, one could conceivably create “formidable defense in depth,” he said.

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