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Sustaining Deterrence on the Taiwan Strait


Jun 10, 2014
Viet Nam
Sustaining Deterrence on the Taiwan Strait

by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on July 21st, 2010
International Assessment and Strategy Center > Research > Sustaining Deterrence on the Taiwan Strait<SUP>[1]</SUP>


While seasoned observers are identifying what may be a second “freeze” on arms sales to Taiwan,[2] the 66 F-16C fighters the Obama Administration has not yet approved for sale to Taiwan may only constitute the very beginning of a new phase of arms sales that will be required to sustain deterrence on the Taiwan Strait through this decade. While Taiwan, especially under the “flexible diplomacy” of President Ma Ying Jeou has sought to expand economic and political relations with China, there should be no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains committed to achieving “unification” under their terms, a condition will continue until the CCP is removed from power in China. Until such a turn of history Taiwan’s survival as a democracy will depend on economic and political engagement with China that minimizes risks and the maintenance of a military capability that deters the CCP leadership from considering that it can secure military victory.

Another Arms Freeze: It appears that like the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration is going to refuse to make a decision about Taiwan’s requirement for new F-16C Block 52 fighters, like this one sold to the United Arab Emirates. Source: RD Fisher

However, Taipei’s principal arms source and guarantor, the United States, will face greater pressure from China to end arms sales to Taiwan as Beijing meets with greater success in convincing Washington that Chinese cooperation is necessary to advance U.S. goals and interests. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have tended to view Taiwan as a problem to be managed, not a valuable ally with strategic implications for the future of China. The danger is that by bullying Washington from selling sufficient arms to Taiwan, China will accelerate its achievement of decisive military superiority over Taiwan.

A key symbol of both the Bush and Obama Administration’s reluctance to favor Taiwan’s defense over its equities with China has been their reluctance to sell Taiwan decisive new weapons systems like the Lockheed-Martin F-16 Block 52, even though consideration of a 5th generation fighter is justified. Sale of another decisive system, submarines, is mentioned less and less. Yes, the U.S. has sold some very useful systems like the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and the Raytheon Patriot PAC-3 missile interceptor, but these fall under the U.S. State Department’s restrictive definition of “defensive weapons,” a limitation designed to promote “stability” on the Taiwan Strait, but which is in fact encourages greater Chinese pressure on Washington, especially as its military power increases over Taiwan and against U.S. forces in Asia.

Taiwan’s prospects would appear bleak absent a concerted effort by Taiwan and the U.S. to equip Taiwan with 5th generation capabilities and new “offensive” capabilities that preserve a Taiwanese ability to deter and ever more capable China. By the 2020s PLA missile aimed at Taiwan could exceed 2,000 or 3,000, with close to 1,000 4th generation fighters, plus more capable and larger invasion forces and significantly larger nuclear forces. It would be preferred that Washington dispense with its denial of far more capable weapon system that could “defend” or deter with greater “offensive” capabilities. Washington could increase the prospects for “stability” by moving to help Taiwan’s assemblage of a new level of asymmetrically targeted offensive military capabilities that greatly increase Taiwan’s independent capacity to deflate PLA military offensives, reducing the likelihood of their happening. However, Taiwan is not without options for developing indigenous asymmetrically targeted offensive military capabilities, and the remainder of this paper explores some of them.

PLA Threat Projections

There have been continuous warnings of the PLA’s march to military supremacy on the Taiwan Strait and its increasing ability to thwart American military aid to Taiwan from bases in Japan and Guam. Predicting PLA trends is fraught with risks due to a relative paucity of knowledge concerning modernization priorities and resources.[3] Some Chinese statements point to the goal of being able to win “informatized wars” by 2050, sometimes taken as code for when they will be confident of winning wars against the United States. However, accumulating PLA capabilities will impact Taiwan’s security much sooner. The follow are projections for PLA capabilities facing Taiwan by 2020 and shortly thereafter:

2,000-3,000 Missiles. As of mid 2010 the total number PLA short and medium range ballistic missiles available for use against Taiwan was about 1,500. It is not yet clear when the PLA will determine that it has enough missiles for use against Taiwan. It appears that for most of the last decade SRBMs have increased about 100 missiles per year, while scant reporting indicates cruise missile may be increasing also by about 100 per year. A growing percentage may be devoted to replacing missiles that have exceeded their useful lives. However, the PLA is also developing two new classes of SRBMs. One class, illustrated by the 250km range B611M and the 150km range P-12, put the maneuverability and payload flexibility of the DF-11 into a shorter range missile. While offered for export, one Chinese source has indicated the PLA will use these missiles.[4] Another class of SRBMs is being developed from the WS-2 and WS-3 artillery rockets, with GPS guidance and extended range from 200km to 400km. These missiles would be less expensive than DF-15 or DF-11 SRBMs and could be produced rapidly to greatly increase SRBM numbers.


Rocket Arty SRBMs: The PLA could more rapidly increase its number of SRBMs pointed at Taiwan by giving Army units longer range, precision-guided rocket artillery systems. The attached chart suggests longer range variants of the WS-2 artillery rocket are under consideration. Source: Chinese Internet

An initial anti-access/area denial combine. For several years analysts have been describing the PLA future anti-access combine of space, anti-space, long-range strike, mine and cyber warfare capabilities, that when netted together would significantly raise the cost for U.S. intervention to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack. By 2015 much of this anti-access combine may become reality. Over ten PLA surveillance satellites, several sky-wave and surface-wave over-the-horizon (OTH) radar sites[5] may soon be joined by long-range high-altitude unmanned surveillance vehicles and increasing numbers of Compass navigation satellites to form most of an initial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) targeting capability for new anti-ship ballistic missiles. PLA submarines will increase in number and sophistication, and new long-range anti-ship cruise missiles like the YJ-62 will arm bombers, ships, and soon, submarines. Ground based anti-satellite interceptors could increase in variety and be joined by manned space combat vehicles.

1,000 or so 4th generation fighters. In 2010 the PLA Air Force and PLA Naval Air Forces have about 500 4th and 3+ generation fighters and fighter bombers, with about 200 having been imported from Russia. Current production of Chengdu J-10, Shenyang J-11B and Xian JH-7A combat aircraft is estimated at about 50-to-60 per year. The key variable for future fighter production will be whether the PLA can master indigenous turbofan engines, and it may be on the cusp of putting into production the FWS-10 Taihang for the J-11B and J-10, and the WS-13 for the FC-1. Thanks to help from Britian’s Rolls Royce the Xian Aircraft Co. has been producing improved Spey turbofans for the JH-7A strike-fighter since 2002. Russian sources are confident that China will continue to purchase their engines as they make their own,[6] which increases the probability of higher fighter production rates through this decade. Both the J-10 and J-11B will soon introduce new Chinese-designed electronically scanned array (AESA) radar putting them into the 4+ generation category. These could be aided by a mix of 20-30 large KJ-2000 and smaller KJ-200 AWACs radar aircraft.

Early deployment of 5th generation fighters. PLAAF General He Weirong’s November 2009 public announcement that the PLA will start testing its 5th generation fighter in 2010, and perhaps deploy it by 2017 to 2019 was a direct contradiction of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ July 2009 prediction that the PLA would have no 5th gen fighters by 2020.[7] As the PLA hardly ever makes such announcements about future weapons programs, one has to consider that Chinese leaders may have some confidence in General He’s prediction. Informal sources suggest the initial 5th fighter, perhaps a product of the Chengdu Aircraft Co., may approach the performance of the Lockheed-Martin F-22. Nevertheless, in 2009 the Obama Administration fought hard to convince the U.S. Congress to end F-22 production at just 187 aircraft. Again, informal sources suggest that the PLA may produce up to 300 of its new 5th generation fighter.

Formal Amphibious Lift approaching 50,000 troops? After a hiatus of four years, in mid-May 2010 the PLA started assembling its second Type 071 landing platform dock (LPD) amphibious assault ship.[8] Will construction now accelerate? There are reports that the PLA may intend to build up to six new Type 081 landing helicopter dock (LHD) and six Type 071 ships,[9] that when added to existing smaller LST and LSM assault ship, may give the PLA a formal amphibious lift approaching 50,000 troops.[10] In 2006 Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense reported that via “civilian” transports the PLA could lift 5-or-6 more divisions, or a doubling of potential troop transport capability. By 2020 the PLA may also start producing a new C-17 class 200-ton military transport aircraft. When 100 or so of these enter service, supplemented by 40-to-50 civilian cargo transport aircrarft,[11] will the PLA feel safe in contemplating an amphibious-airborne invasion if the landing areas can be prepared? For Taiwan, might deterring such an invasion become a more pressing goal than countering missile/air/naval blockade?


Possible Type 081 images: In addition to Type 071 LPDs, the PLA may soon begin building Type 081 LHDs, with two possible images here. Source: Tempur and Chinese Internet

Robot warfare. This decade will likely see the emergence of PLA-style robot warfare. The last decade has seen a considerable Chinese investment toward building an unmanned weapons sector, encompassing airborne, ground and undersea vehicles.[12] At the third major bi-annual Chinese UAV industry exposition from 9-11 June 2010 the ground force weapons maker Norinco revealed its BA-7 anti-armor missile intended for what may be the world’s first unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) intended to provide close air support (CAS) for mechanized operations. If it exists this UCAV might fill gaps the PLA’s CAS capabilities. The PLA is sponsoring a large number of UCAV and both small and large surveillance UAVs.

Larger nuclear forces. By the 2020s the PLA’s larger nuclear missile forces, perhaps defended by new ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, may considerably increase China’s ability to deter U.S. support for Taiwan while giving the Chinese leadership confidence they can act with increasing freedom to challenge U.S. interests around the world. If one assumes that the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence’s estimate of an eventual five Type 094 SSBNs (with 12x missiles each) would result in 60 SLBMs, plus a notional single unit of 20 missiles each for four types of land based ICBMs (DF-5A/B; DF-31; DF31A; and DF-XX), one can posit an eventual minimum force of about 140 nuclear missiles. Asian military sources have told the author that the DF-31A has three warheads, while one deployed DF-5B has 4-to-5 warheads. The larger DF-XX could have a similar number of warheads. This points to the potential for the PLA to rapidly increase its nuclear warhead numbers if it so chooses. These same Asian sources suggest that a PLA BMD system could be in place by the mid-2020s.[13]

PLA MRVs: Asian sources now state that the DF-31A ICBM (top), which may be equipping two Second Artillery Brigades, carries three warheads . A larger “DF-XX” (bottom) may be in development and may carry more warheads. Source: Chinese Internet

Nuclear events. While Taiwan may not view itself as a likely target for nuclear terrorism it could quickly become a tragic secondary victim. Should the United States to fall victim to a major nuclear terrorist attack, or perhaps even multiple attacks, might the Chinese leadership take such an opportunity to begin a decisive coercive military exercise against Taiwan? It is a fact that China has played a critical role in the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea, Iran and Pakistan, all of which have ties to terrorist groups and which could be the witting or unwitting source of a terrorist nuclear weapon.[14] Through its exercise of “managed proliferation,” a term coined by John Mearsheimer, has it been China’s goal to make possible such a massive American diversion?

Chinese Pressures and the “Defensive Weapons” Restriction

A continued requirement for Taiwan to seek continued military modernization in the face of China’s military modernization and buildup is propelled by two constants: China’s consistent seeking of “unification” with Taiwan under its terms; and Taiwan’s desire to remain free, a condition strengthened by the islands ongoing democratic development. It is quite unlikely that the Chinese Communist Party would accept a competing center of power within “Greater China,” especially a democratic example that could undermine its political dictatorship merely by existing. Even if Taiwan could arrange a “Peace Agreement” on seemingly favorable terms, it would be unlikely for CCP to abandon the goal of exercising essential political control over Taiwan, with potentially horrific consequences for the people of Taiwan.

American policy, especially since the 1950 Korean War, has been to ensure the ability of the government in Taipei to deter Chinese attack. This was first done explicitly via a Mutual Defense Treaty, massive arms sales and steady U.S. military deployments to Taiwan, until de-recognition of Taiwan was announced at the end of 1978. But starting in 1979 U.S. military ties with Taiwan became guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, and especially Executive Branch interpretation of that act. As it sought to do largely before 1979, the U.S. has since sought to sell what it considers “defensive” arms to Taiwan. This has resulted in a conscious effort to limit weapon systems from an ability to conduct effective “offensive” strikes well into China, a limitation that continues. The dilemma is that China’s aggressive military buildup and modernization has made a reliance on a “defensive” strategy untenable. Looming Chinese military superiority on the Strait and the cost/numerical military limits on Taiwan is forcing Taipei to consider “offensive” capabilities that sustain deterrence by holding at risk critical Chinese military capabilities.[15]

An optimal condition would be for Washington to significantly alter its traditional “defensive” restrictions but China has been able to use its rising “comprehensive power” to deter the U.S. from making important new weapon sales. This is illustrated by the Bush and Obama Administration’s reluctance to approve to Taiwan’s request for 66 new F-16 fighters. The Obama Administration has expanded the Bush Administration’s effort to broadly engage China on a greater array of global economic and political issues, increasing China’s prominence, even seeking to redefine China as a “center of influence” rather an “adversary.”[16] This has resulted in the Obama Administration placing a greater emphasis on advancing military-to-military dialogue, considering outer-space cooperation, and for the first time seeking a formal nuclear weapons issue dialogue with China. One likely result of this increasing emphasis on the importance of China have been new suggestions in the U.S. that American arms sales to Taiwan threaten greater U.S. interests with China and that a “Finlandized” Taiwan would be in everyone’s greater interest, a view that ignores how very well armed “Finlandized” Finland was.[17]

However, China’s response to Washington’s efforts to elevate Beijing’s prominence in Washington’s global agenda has been to explicitly threaten the U.S. goal of greater engagement, first by holding hostage military-to-military dialogue to stronger demands that the U.S. end arms sales to Taiwan. U.S.-Chinese dialogue that might reduce the chance of war on the Korean Peninsula or curtail Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is deemed by China as being less important than forcing eventual “unification” under China’s terms. But even though China’s track record does not suggest it would truly alter its relations with North Korea or Iran should it get its way with Taiwan, China has succeeded in deterring two U.S. Presidents from advancing the sale of F-16s. As part of its Nuclear Posture Review the Obama Administration has committed the U.S. to seek “stability dialogues” with China regarding nuclear weapons. But China has never before allowed its nuclear weapons posture to be affected by “negotiations,” much less “dialogue.” It is thus appropriate to ask what concessions regarding Taiwan would Beijing demand to accede to such talks?

Options to Consider for the Next Phase of the Taiwan Strait Arms Race

Although the prospect for U.S. to consider a new phase of arms sales to Taiwan may seem remote in July 2010, that does not mean that Taiwan should cease to refine its long-term military requirements and lobby to advance its cause in Washington. Taiwan has weathered seemingly bleak periods in its relationship with Washington in the past, and is able to press political advantage when political winds shift in Washington. But unlike in the past, both Taipei and Washington must look ahead to considering what means give Taiwan the best deterrent capacity for the “buck” in what will be a new era of PLA military superiority on the Strait. In this quest Taiwan has little choice but to seek asymmetric advantages to counter looming PLA strengths. Not all responses might entail seeking new military hardware. In some cases Taiwan cannot wait for U.S. assistance, but perhaps on others it should consider investing in ongoing U.S. weapons programs.

Suggestion # 1: Prepare Now To Deny Total Victory

Some well respected experts like Dr. Chong Pin Lin caution that China would prefer not to fight a destructive war to take over Taiwan. This may be true, but it cannot be discounted that the CCP would regard war as a serious option to preserve or even expand its power position. Should it get the opportunity, either by military conquest or political subterfuge, the CCP will likely undertake a generations-long program to root out Taiwan’s democratic culture. The CCP’s playbook will be informed by decades of experience in Tibet and more recently, in Hong Kong. So as the CCP’s war against Taiwan will only enter a new phase after “military victory,” it would be advantageous for Taiwan to plan now for ensuring that the idea of a free Taiwan survives and thus denies the CCP an ultimate “political victory.”

A traditional approach would be to establish an “Emergency Council” that would be legally charged with the creation of a government-in-exile. Approaching friends in the U.S. Congress with such a concept would help to plant the idea of fast-tracking formal diplomatic recognition to a government-in-exile or perhaps even in response to the start of large scale Chinese hostilities. Of course, Taiwan deserves now a new level of American diplomatic recognition reflective of its status as a democracy; it would be disappointing that it gains such recognition in “death” that it deserved in “life.” Preparing the option for a government-in-exile would serve to highlight anew this condition in Washington, as it would advance a self-defense goal. The mobilizing potential of the Internet would also allow such a government to expand the concept of citizenship to create a larger stream of revenue to fund global political action. Gaining actual recognition for a government-in-exile would likely enrage the CCP’s leadership, causing it to act so as to accelerate the formation of a likely U.S.-led coalition to begin a new historic phase of active opposition to the CCP. It is worth testing the notion that Taiwan can strengthen military deterrence on the Taiwan Strait by taking steps that demonstrate to the CCP leadership that it cannot by military means prevail over the idea of a free Taiwan.


Tibetan Precedent: The United States has maintained a supportive relationship with Tibet’s government-in-exile and should be ready to recognize similar Taiwan government should China militarily attack Taiwan’s democracy. Source: Chinese Internet

Suggestion # 2: Sniper Scholarships

Earlier in the last decade, a sometimes-heard lament from some strong U.S. friends of Taiwan was that the growing PLA threat warranted Taiwan demonstrating a seriousness and national mobilization approaching that of Israel. About 10 percent of Israel’s population is available for active or reserve duty.[18] Taiwan’s current active (290,000) and reserve (1,657,000) force of 1.94 million[19] amounts to about 8.4 percent of Taiwan’s population, a favorable comparison with Israel. While some have criticized the effectiveness of Taiwan’s reserves, others disagree. While few would want to test this issue, the fact remains that the PLA is not deterred from modernizing its existing amphibious invasion forces and from expanding the number of formal and informal amphibious invasion platforms. In 2006 Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense estimated that mobilized Chinese civilian ships could transport five or six divisions, whereas formal PLA Navy transport ships might lift two to three divisions.

A PLA invasion threat that may grow more credible later this decade poses a sharp dilemma for Taipei. It may not have the luxury of slighting one service, like the Army, to better fund Air Force or Navy modernization. This means that defense resource allocation decisions become dearer; how can Taiwan obtain greater deterrence value for its budget? One option to consider would be to exploit the PLA’s Army-dominated leadership culture, a condition that will persist for some time. And what might better arrest their attention? Taiwan reportedly seeks new U.S. M-1A2 tanks[20] which are needed to counter the PLA Army’s new T-99A and T-96 modern battle tanks. While necessary for Taiwan, would the M-1A2 tank provide as much deterrence as program that produced annually, perhaps over 1,000 high school students with basic sniper skills, obtained via a national competition program for generous college scholarships? Such a program could be added to Taiwan’s existing program to teach “military awareness” to high school students.[21] This would also require the purchase of a large number of sniper rifles, and the building of virtual and some real practice/test ranges. In 2005 the M-1A2 tank cost about $4.3 million. How many one or two-year scholarships would this fund, and how many competitors would they attract?

On the modern battlefield effective snipers can make a decisive difference by eliminating commanding officers, producing casualties and sowing terror. The longest recorded sniper kill has been a 2.47km kill by a British sniper in Afghanistan using a .50 Caliber rifle. Accuracy at such distances is very rare. However, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has created its Extreme Accuracy Tactical Ordinance (EXACTO) program to make such long range accuracy commonplace.[22] While this program intends to develop better “guidance” for future rifles, Taiwan may prefer simpler less expensive rifles. By training a very small part of their military cohort could Taiwan succeed in securing a disproportionate amount of attention from PLA Army generals?

Suggestion # 3: Virtual Exercises With “Allies”
The PLA is on the verge of rapidly expanding over that of Taiwan one area of military capability development: military exercises with friendly states. Taiwan had the opportunity to exercise with U.S. forces until the late 1970s but not longer can do so in a formal sense. In contrast, under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization the PLA has participated in initial small scale but multi-service military exercises, which can be expected to grow in sophistication, especially with Russia and its strategic partners. The PLA is known to be eager to begin formal military exercises with the members of ASEAN and is reported to have offered to send trainers to Afghanistan, with the goal of eventually giving them counter-insurgency experience.[23] While this in no way compares to the all around insight gained from actual warfare or lesser conflicts, it will begin to give the PLA a higher level of experience and justify greater activism and power projection development.

With some imagination Taiwan might also gain much of the benefits of interacting with more experienced militaries if both Taiwan and its partners could devise “virtual” means for single or multi-service interaction. Combat simulation has made great strides in the last two decades to the point of being able to allow distributed military units to practice realistic missions just before deployment. Would it be possible for a “private” company to hire time from active duty pilots, sailors, or even emergency responders, from the U.S. and other countries, to share simultaneous simulator time with Taiwanese counterparts? No its not the real thing, but it could succeed in exposing Taiwanese military personnel to realistic cooperative and adversarial scenarios, or to actually practice rules of engagement that would help prevent “friendly fire” incidents during actual conflict.

Suggestion # 4: Higher Priority for F-16A Upgrade

Taiwan’s top political-military arms purchase priority from the United States is for 66 Lockheed Martin F-16C Block 52 fighters. As such the F-16 returns to its centerpiece symbolic role in testing the degree to which the U.S. is willing follow through on longstanding policies and principles that favor defending Taiwan. While a cursory review of the shifting balance of air power on the Strait in the PLA’s favor would justify an early sale to Taiwan, both the Bush and Obama Administrations have refused to make a decision in favor of such a sale. The F-16C Block 52 would allow Taiwan to obtain its first 4+ generation fighter with the option of purchasing a far more capable F-16 with an AESA radar, the option to integrate more attack weapons, plus longer-range AAMs and the AIM-9X helmet-display sighted AAM. This would create a limited technological parity with emerging PLA 4+ generation fighters, sustain a deterrent posture for Taiwan and ease a later transition to a 5th generation fighter like the F-35.

One alternative to help break this deadlock in Washington would be to give a higher political priority to seeking a broad upgrade program for Taiwan’s existing 148 F-16A fighters. Taiwan’s requirement for such an upgrade is mentioned but not given prominent priority.[24] It would constitute a way of giving the Taiwan Air Force (TAF) some new asymmetric capabilities that would advance deterrent capabilities while biding time waiting for U.S. approval of the sale of F-16C Block 52 fighters.


AESAs for Upgrades: Both Northrop Grumman and Raytheon are offering new light-weight AESA radar for upgrading F-16 fighters.

Perhaps the key upgrade for TAF F-16 fighters would be the selection of a new AESA radar. Radar makers Northrop-Grumman and Raytheon are now offering light-weight flat-panel AESA radar upgrade packages for the F-16.[25] These radar likely offer the prospect of a significant improvement in range and reliability while supporting multiple AAM attacks. Another possible goal for this upgrade to consider would be seeking the European MBDA Meteor ramjet-powered long-range AAM. While official sources credit this AAM with a “100+km” range, it may be capable of much longer ranges. Another option would be an early sale of Raytheon’s Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE), an AIM-120 AMRAAM with a liquid-fueled second stage.[26] Intended for anti-missile missions it might also perform long-range anti-air missions against PLA AWACS and tankers. With such longer-range AAMs, TAF F-16s would pose a more credible threat to new PLA AWACS which will be a key enabling system for the PLA’s future offensive air warfare strategies.

Suggestion # 5: Radical Upgrade for the IDF

Taiwan will also require an affordable next generation manned fighter inasmuch as significant advances in artificial intelligence and computer network security are needed to enable real air-to-air combat capable unmanned combat aircraft. To counter’s China’s alarming number of ballistic and cruise missiles targeting Taiwanese air bases it is assumed that Taiwan requires a vertical take-off or landing (VSTOL) next generation fighter. It then follows that the only two realistic options for Taiwan would be the subsonic, affordable but well-used McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier soon to be retired from U.S. Marine Corps squadrons. The other is the 5th Generation short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lighting II, soon to be built for the U.S. Marines, Royal Navy and the Italian Air Force. The F-35B would have the advantage of tying into a U.S. logistics support network available for decades to come. But it also carries a hefty price tag, with a recent Congressional Budget Office report suggesting the unit cost of F-35B/C may reach $147 million,[27] while in a recent letter DoD stated a F-35 Average Procurement Unit Cost of $92.4 million.[28] This has prompted Lockheed-Martin to offer competing price estimates, with reports suggesting this could fall to $60-to-$65 million per plane.[29]However, it is suggested that Taiwan consider a third option: a radically upgraded version of the Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation’s (AIDC) F-CK-1 Ching Kuo or Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF). If pursued with a U.S. partner, a radically upgraded IDF could also give AIDC a business stake in a uniquely capable low-cost 4++ generation very short take-off and landing (STOL) fighter program currently not offered by Western aircraft companies.


F-35B: Taiwan requires a 5th generation short take-off fighter but may be able to afford the Lockheed Martin F-35B. Source: Lockheed Martin

The essential brake on the IDF’s capabilities are its two Honeywell/AIDC TFE1042-70 afterburning turbofans, which produce 9,500lbs of afterburning thrust separately, for a total thrust of 19,000lbs. With the IDF having a normal take-off weight of 21,000lbs,[30] its two engines can convey a .9-to-1 thrust to weight ratio that improves at lower fuel states, which would be critical during close-in dogfights. While respectable, this performance is possible due to a lighter and smaller airframe, which limits range and endurance. The cockpit is similar in configuration to the F-16, using multi-function displays and side-mounted hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) controls. The IDF was also armed with relatively modern weapons for the early 1990s: the Sky Sword II medium-range air-to-air missile reportedly having a self-guided capability similar to the U.S. Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM.[31]


AIDC Designs: Early in their design process, AIDC considered some canard configurations for what became the IDF. Source: RD Fisher

But today the IDF is increasingly outclassed by new PLA 4th generation fighters, not to mention looming PLA 5th generation fighters. It does not have, as far as is known, a helmet-sighted short-range AAM, which the PLAAF has had since the early 1990s in the Vympel R-73 on its Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 fighters. It is also limited to two Sky Sword II AAMs, that could be increased to four after a reported upgrade, whereas the Su-27and copied/modified Shenyang J-11 can carry up to 10 medium-range AAMs. In this decade new J-10s and J-11s will be equipped with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar plus powerful infrared sensors, conveying a greater information/decision advantage over the IDF. The Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 have better thrust-to-weight ratios and longer range, while they can also carry a greater range of ground-attack and anti-ship munitions. If they can get off the ground, current IDFs would suffer from a rapid attrition due to the unfavorable AAM exchange.

To become competitive through this decade and beyond, a new IDF would have to have: stealth; AESA radar; greater AAM load-out; and a very short take-off and landing (STOL) capability. The later would be accomplished by combining a canard (horizontal stabilizer in front) airframe configuration with new General Electric F404 (18,000lbs of thrust) or newer F414 (22,000lbs of thrust) turbofan engine. The latest F414 EPE (enhanced performance engine) is being offered at 26,600lbs of thrust.[32] With the use of composites in a larger proportion of the airframe, it may be possible to realize only a slight increase in airframe weight, which could offer the prospect of amazing 1.5-to-1 or even 2-to-1 thrust to weight ratios at combat weights. Add to these engines axis-symmetric variable thrust nozzles, plus capable computer flight controls, and you create the possibility of enabling the new IDF to become a STOL fighter with extreme post-stall maneuvering capabilities. The canard plus thrust vectoring would enable very short take-off and landings which would greatly expand the amount of Taiwan’s paved surfaces that could be used for dispersed basing.[33] This would go far to counter the PLA’s current missile threat to pulverize Taiwan’s airbases. Such a fighter would also have a supersonic rate of climb and possible extreme maneuver capabilities for evading AAMs and SAMs.

The new IDF could be given a stealthier airframe shape and it could use the new compact ASEA radar being offer by both Raytheon and Northrop for upgrading F-16s. It is conceivable that a modified IDF could also carry four AAMs on its fuselage while four-to-six more could be carried on the wings. Also, it could carry the helmet-display sighted Raytheon AIM-9X AAM, neutralizing the PLA’s advantage in helmet-sighted AAMs. As suggested this new IDF version would have to be modified to withstand higher G-forces than the 9-Gs credited to the F-16 or the 7.5-to-8-Gs credited to the F-35B. The landing gear would also have to be placed at the extreme aft of the airframe, with perhaps a tilting ability to ensure adequate ground clearance for the engine nozzles.

Suggestion #6: Small Submarines

Though it has not met with results after thirty years of trying, Taiwan should continue its quest for new submarines as any number would greatly enhance its ability to deter a growing PLA naval blockade and invasion capability. Despite a 2001 commitment by the George W. Bush administration to sell Taipei eight new submarines this sale remains in grave doubt owing to political and bureaucratic opposition that has shifted between Taipei and Washington. Perhaps the most critical issue in Taipei was the $8-11 billion expense and time needed to build a yet-to-be-obtained modern 2,000-to-3,000-ton European conventional submarine design with a U.S. partner. An option that could prove both financially and strategically attractive to Taipei, and thus encourage greater effort on Taiwan’s part, would be the consideration of smaller less expensive submarine designs. While such submarines would necessarily be more limited in range and crew endurance, there are small submarines on the market today that offer surprising combat potential for their size. If purchased in effective numbers they would give Taiwan a potent asymmetric tool to deter PLA naval operations.

At one extreme would be the 130-ton Yeoneo-class mini-submarine used by North Korea to sink the South Korean corvette Cheonan on March 26, 2010. Produced in Iran as the Ghadir, it is a rough step up from the Japanese midget submarines used to attack Pearl Harbor, and would likely survive about as long if detected. However, Russia’s Malachite design bureau offers a family of 650-to-1,000-ton submarines with a crew of nine, some of which feature air-independent-propulsion (AIP) for extended underwater patrol time, and are armed with an impressive complement of 4-to-8 anti-ship missiles, four heavy torpedoes and 12-to-24 mines.[34] The price for these is not known, but likely would be competitive with the Russian-Italian Rubin/Fincantieri S1000. This is a 1,000-ton submarine with a crew of 16, an AIP system, and is armed with anti-ship missiles, torpedoes and mines. In 2005 ten of these reportedly were offered to India for $3.5 billion,[35] which works out to $350 million a ship. The need to create a production infrastructure would add to Taiwanese and U.S. costs. Because of the Italian partner the S1000 design may have a better chance of being acquired by a U.S. partner for sale to and construction in Taiwan. If Moscow can be persuaded to let the Rubin design go, then the chance may increase for access to Malachite’s designs.


Malachite’s Small Submarines: Seen at the 2005 IDEX show, Russian small-sub bureau Malachite has designed a range of innovative small submarines. Source: Malachite Bureau via RD Fisher

If it was agreed to produce some or perhaps all of these submarines in the United States, there may be a chance (admittedly slight) of the U.S. Navy purchasing a small number, which would have the effect of reducing program costs. Despite its well known vehement opposition to any U.S. construction of non-nuclear submarines that would in any way threaten its nuclear submarine programs, in recent years the U.S. Navy has had to “rent” a non-nuclear submarine from Sweden to give U.S. naval forces realistic anti-submarine training opportunities. With AIP systems a S1000 or Malachite design would give the U.S. Navy a modern realistic training tool, with the option of using these platforms for shallow water littoral operations. A larger U.S non-nuclear submarine design and production capability could also assist U.S. Navy ambitions to develop future unmanned underwater combat platforms.

Suggestion # 7: Seek American Ballistic Missiles

Over the last decade Taiwan’s reported cruise missile and more recent ballistic missile programs have also been accompanied by reports of U.S. opposition to said programs and even reports that Washington has forced U.S. companies to stop selling Taiwan some components that apparently could have been used in Taiwan’s missile programs. While U.S. officials have not publicly criticized these programs, reports of their opposition usually center around fears that such an “offensive” Taiwan capability increases the risks Taiwanese miscalculation that might force the commitment of U.S. forces. The argument also goes that U.S. military capabilities in the Western Pacific can provide the necessary “offensive” capabilities if truly needed. Largely unfounded reports of Taiwan potentially targeting Shanghai or the Three Gorges Dam did not increase sympathy for Taiwan’s missile among U.S. officials. However, officials of the previous Chen Shuibian Administration would deny intentions of “countervalue” targeting and explain they required such missiles in order to threaten key “counterforce” targets, like SAM sites, radar, command post, plus amphibious and airborne nodes, in order to deter a PLA decision to strike. Despite some vocal opposition to these programs by some former Kuomintang Legislative Yuan members, the Ma Ying Jeou Administration apparently has chosen to continue them. A small number of Hsiung Feng 2E land attack cruise missiles (LACMs) may be in service, while most recent reports focus on a possible ballistic missile program.

This analyst, along with such as Mark Stokes and Rupert Hammond-Chambers, have argued that Taiwan is justified in developing such a missile-based counterforce strike capability. Taipei is simply unable with expensive “defensive” systems like advanced fighters or missile interceptors, to counter the PLA’s rapidly increasing number of strike weapons. Furthermore, the PLA’s increasing capability to target U.S. forces in the Western Pacific and their reinforcements, serves to diminish the credibility of possible U.S. commitments to provide “offensive” support. Yes, the U.S. Navy now maintains four nuclear powered cruise missile submarines (SSGNs) in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, each of which can carry up to 154 Tomahawk LACMs. But with the Obama Administration April 2010 decision to retire the nuclear warhead-armed TLAM-N LACM,[36] these SSGNs are now reduced to providing expensive precision artillery. Even if 300 or more non-nuclear LACMs could be fired by U.S. submarines, that would not sufficiently degrade a PLA campaign, due in part to the PLA’s development of low-tech cruise missile defenses.[37] U.S. plans for “Prompt Global Strike” non-nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles are a distant prospect, and again, might only be viewed by the PLA as simply very long range artillery.[38]


HIMARS: The U.S. is buying about 800 smaller HIMARS launchers for GPS-guided GMLRS rockets. For Taiwan these could eventually serve as anti-ship missiles and effective anti-invasion weapons. Source: RD Fisher

Thus, it makes sense for Taiwan to move in two directions. First it should, quietly if necessary, make a priority of explaining and justifying these missile programs as increasingly necessary for Taiwan’s defense, and a necessary defensive measure to compensate for PLA’s impact on U.S. commitments of the PLA’s rapidly gathering anti-access capabilities. Second, Taiwan should begin to request the sale of U.S. tactical missile systems offered for sale to other allies, such as GPS-guided rockets for the Lockheed-Martin M270 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS), to be used on Taiwan RT 2000 Thunder MLRS system, or the necessary guidance systems for use on Taiwan’s 230mm rockets. The GMLRS missile has a reported 70km range[39] versus a reported 45km range for the Taiwan missile. In the late 1990s Lockheed was considering a 200km range version of the MLRS. A new version of the GMLRS under development would use a semi-active laser guidance system to enable attacks against moving targets.[40] Taiwan should also request the 300km range Lockheed-Martin MGM-164 Advanced Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). The MGM-164 Block 1A has a 270km range that would allow immediate retaliatory strikes on PLA S-300 SAM and new YJ-62C land based anti-ship missiles based in Nanjing Province. A 2006 estimate put the unit price of a GMLRS at about $130,000 and the MGM-164 Block 1A at about $700,000.[41]

Suggestion # 8: Invest in Energy Weapons

Looking toward the end of this decade there is a reasonable chance that the United States may succeed in developing revolutionary energy-based weapons that if made available to Taiwan, could combine the missions of missile defense, air defense and anti-invasion defense. One system that holds particular promise is the rail gun. The United States has at least two rail gun programs underway led by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army. The Navy’s rail gun, originally intended for the now truncated Zumwalt class destroyer, is eventually intended to shoot shells to a speed of Mach 7.5 (2.21km/s) and range of 250nmi (463km). The University of Texas has developed a projectile shell capable of a 2.5km/s speed and which can be armed with unguided flechettes or tungsten balls. This rail gun would be able to shoot down the DF-15 and DF-11 class SRBM, which roughly would have a speed of about 2.2+km/s. The U.S. rail gun is also intended to fire 6-to-12 rounds a minute, when combined with tungsten ball “shotgun” payloads, has the potential for placing destructive tungsten showers in the paths of multiple missiles.[42] This rate of fire would also have the potential to counter SRBMs with maneuvering capabilities, as is the case with the DF-15 and DF-11. The rail gun would literally shred subsonic aircraft and have a potential ability to destroy all ground targets detected within its range. A further asymmetric advantage would be the estimated $10,000 cost of the projectile,[43] versus the estimated $1.6 million cost of a Patriot PAC-3 missile,[44] or the estimated $300,000-to-$400,000 cost of a DF-15 SRBM.[45]

Rail guns: Though a technology that will not enter service for many years, the Electromagnetic Launcher or Railgun holds the potential for giving Taiwan a decisive defensive and offensive weapon to deter PLA invasion. Source: RD Fisher

However, rail guns come with drawbacks. The first is that U.S. does not expect to field its first rail gun until after 2020. They will likely be large and tied to a massive power generating source, which is why they were being first designed for the new Zumwalt class destroyer with new high power electric generators. While the gun and the power source could be place on separate large trucks for transport, they might still require some scale down in size, requiring further development. There is also the great possibility that the PLA could field competing railguns of similar capability, perhaps even before the U.S. fields theirs. A 2007 report noted that China has 22 institutes working on various aspects of electromagnetic launch.[46] In 2006 there were reports that China had copied and improved German MAGLEV train technology,[47] which could have benefited their electromagnetic launch weapons programs. By the 2020s the PLA could also invest in a new class of small but longer range missiles with much higher speeds to counter rail gun shells. This would push the development of smaller rail guns that could be purchased in larger numbers for eventual placement on aircraft.

In addition to rail guns, China, Russia and the United States are developing laser, microwave and electromagnetic pulse weapons. In 2007 a Taiwanese official suggested that Taiwan was developing its own electromagnetic weapons.[48] Given the expense of developing these weapons it would be worth Taiwan considering how it might invest in ongoing U.S. programs to better ensure their availability.

Suggestion #9: Gain the Lead in the Robot Wars

As the PLA is targeting Taiwan for future robot wars, it is necessary for Taiwan to both develop countermeasures and to develop its own robot warriors that sustain a lead over the PLA so as to strengthen deterrence. As mentioned above, Taiwan can expect a wave of PLA robot warriors to come from the air, the sea surface and undersea. As with most other areas of arms competition, it would be prohibitively expensive for Taiwan to compete broadly with the PLA in robot warfare.

Some symmetrical capabilities would be useful, especially smallish but fast UCAVs with automatic targeting capabilities that could hunt for SAM sites and amphibious invasion nodes in the Nanjing and Guangzhou regions. It would also be useful for Taiwan to have large numbers of strike capable unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for anti-submarine missions. For example, the U.S. Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are considering a 157-ton anti-submarine UUV with a 3,000km range.[49] Taiwan could also develop large long-range torpedoes that would constitute mobile mine fields that go out and find amphibious invasion or blockade forces. A third symmetrical unmanned capability would be a fleet of very high altitude UAVs and airships to perform a range of communication and surveillance missions.

However, sustaining a lead in robot warfare requires a vibrant unmanned capabilities sector that is able to link universities and unmanned systems companies to government research and development centers and the military. China has been rapidly accumulating such a sector for the last decade. The first order of business for this sector would be to develop and field new unmanned systems faster than the PLA. There will also be a premium on achieving breakthroughs in the most important areas of future enabling technology: intelligence and autonomous control. Near second and third priorities would be to produce unmanned systems of progressively smaller size and utility, plus the development of cyber and electronic tools that block and take control of the PLA’s robots. The later would involve cyber work as much as it would intelligence programs to build assets within the PLA unmanned communities.

As in the case of ballistic missiles, U.S. cooperation with Taiwan would require a significant change of U.S. interpretation of the sale of “defensive weapons” due to the inherit ability of even unarmed UAV to perform missions deep inside China. Due to China’s aggressive targeting of Taiwan’s as well as U.S. communication and surveillance assets, it would in the U.S. interest to help Taiwan build secondary replacement networks. Military communication, navigation and surveillance functions degraded by initial PLA strikes could be partially replaced by networks of unmanned vehicles operating at very high altitudes or at sea. Sale of U.S. very high altitude long endurance UAVs should be considered, to allow Taiwan to rapidly replenish communication and surveillance networks.


In terms of numbers and sophistication of its weapons systems the PLA is on a path to achieving all around superiority on the Taiwan Strait as it also gathers what may prove to be decisive capabilities for deterring U.S. military assistance for Taiwan. The ferocity of the CCP’s political response to small packages of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in 2008 and 2010, and its willingness to hold global security concerns hostage to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan may only represent the beginning of a new campaign of pressures against Washington. Nevertheless, the American interest in sustaining a democratic and free Taiwan will not diminish, and in fact will only increase as America truly comes to grips with the realities of countering a future Chinese hegemonic power still controlled by the CCP dictatorship. While it would be preferable for Washington to consider now what Taiwan will require in the coming decade to sustain an adequate deterrent capacity, the U.S. should also adopt policies that assist Taiwan’s decisions to pursue legitimate asymmetric capabilities clearly intended to strengthen deterrence of a Chinese attack.

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