This is part 3 of a three-part series considering the methods that may be used in a PLA invasion of Taiwan. Part 1 and part 2 set the political and military parameters relevant for the situation, and examined the PLA assets that would be deployed in the air, naval, and missile domains. These pieces concluded that the success of the eventual amphibious landing phase would be dependent on how the preceding contest in the other domains play out.
Part 3 will review the handicaps that the Taiwan’s own military, the Republic of China Armed Forces (ROCArF), currently suffers, and how future defense postures and procurement can be adjusted to maximize Taiwan’s military lethality and survivability. This piece will also review the consequences of likely PLA advances that are expected on the horizon. (Editor’s note: a full list of the acronyms used in this piece is found at the end of Part 1.)
Strategic DepthEnjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Geography and distance determine the physical environment in which a conflict is fought. Strategic depth refers to the distance from the location in which battle is occurring, to a combatant’s key political, economic, and military centers. Having greater strategic depth allows a combatant to protect or distribute key assets and targets from an opposing force’s attacks, as well as greater flexibility to withdraw from unfavorable engagements backwards to relative safety, where forces can regroup and maneuver. Strategic depth also allows a combatant to keep key bases, C4ISR and logistics nodes away from the “front” and further away from relative danger.
The ROCArF suffers an unenviable situation where the geography of Taiwan offers very limited strategic depth in the face of contemporary PLA strike capabilities. Coupled with the close proximity of Taiwan as an island from the Chinese mainland, this means the entirety of Taiwan is well within range of the shortest ranged Chinese SRBMs in service, even when deployed kilometers inside China’s territory. The short distance and limited strategic depth of Taiwan also enables PLA aircraft to conduct longer endurance sorties for combat or ISR missions.
Recent so-called “encirclement flights” made by PLAAF bombers around Taiwan have suggested that the PLA now has the ability to strike Taiwan from multiple directions; however, the PLA has likely possessed this capability since the first DF-10 and KD-20 LACMs entered service a decade ago. During a conflict the PLA would not require superfluous bomber flights around Taiwan given the range and sophistication of even older LACMs. Moreover, striking Taiwan from multiple directions is arguably less strategically important than being able to strike at all relevant facilities within Taiwan at virtually no risk. In short, Taiwan’s limited strategic depth increases the vulnerability of all of its major military facilities, as well as political and economic centers. Conversely, China enjoys substantially greater strategic depth in the form of the Chinese mainland, with associated benefits in survivability.
Parts 1 and 2 illustrated the importance of the air, sea, and missile domains of warfare in a Taiwan contingency and the decisive way in which a successful or unsuccessful defense or offense could enable or prevent a subsequent amphibious invasion. The air, sea, and missile domains of the conflict would likely occur simultaneously, and the success of one of the three domains will alter the prospects of success for the other two. The battlespace would be inherently multidomain.
However, the current ROCArF suffers a disadvantage in all three domains in a symmetric or conventional fashion. In a force-on-force comparison, the capabilities of the ROCAF and ROCN are already qualitatively inferior to the capabilities of their counterparts, the PLAAF and PLAN, and the comparison suffers even more so when the quantitative differences are considered. Furthermore, all three branches of the ROCArF will prove vulnerable to the PLARF’s strike capabilities given the limited depth of ROC missile defense systems. Generally speaking, it is increasingly accepted even among mainstream Western military commentators that Taiwan currently suffers a substantial disadvantage in the air and naval domains.
The structure of Taiwan’s air force and naval forces are important to consider. The ROCAF and ROCN are equipped with hardware that appears suited to fighting a conventional war against less capable opponents. For example, the ROCAF fields quite a respectably sized fleet of fourth generation fighter aircraft with some limited AEW&C support. The ROCN is equipped with a medium sized (albeit aging) surface combatant fleet including four destroyers, 20 frigates, and some 30-odd missile boats, supported by a dozen late variant P-3 ASW MPAs and four diesel submarines, of which two are considered semi modern.
Procuring and operating the equipment that the ROCAF and ROCN currently field is expensive compared to more asymmetrical capabilities (to be described later). In an era where the PLA was greatly qualitatively inferior in the air and naval domains, such a military posture would have proved very sensible. However, the growing disparity in air and naval power and the great vulnerability of the ROCArF to PLA missile strikes and air interdiction would likely pose significant doctrinal challenges to fielding major surface combatants and combat aircraft whose combat effectiveness or existence in the first hours of T-day may be greatly threatened.
An Asymmetric Approach
It is not new to suggest that the ROCArF could benefit from adopting a more asymmetric military posture. Instead of expending great amounts of wealth on purchasing and operating hundreds of fighter aircraft, that monetary amount could instead be used to buy a larger number of highly mobile SAMs and radar systems. Crew and costs meant for two dozen major surface combatants could instead be used for large number of highly mobile land based AShMs, small fast attack missile boats, minelayers, and perhaps even miniature submarines.
The military goal of an asymmetric warfighting strategy would be to exact the greatest amount of casualties from the PLA in event of a conflict. Asymmetric forces tend to be smaller in terms of logistics footprint, more mobile, and greater in number than conventional forces. For example, a tactical fighter wing presents a much larger target than spending the equivalent amount of money on multiple mobile SAM units. For the ROCArF, adopting an asymmetric military posture should theoretically complicate PLA targeting against ROCArF forces due to the greater number of individual units, smaller size and logistics footprint, and overall lower visibility that asymmetric forces tend to enjoy.
It would also make sense for the ROCArF to develop their Army and ground forces in a manner that seeks to exact maximal casualties in the event of a successful PLA amphibious invasion, at a beneficial opportunity cost for Taiwan. This could mean purchasing a greater number of man portable anti-tank missiles such as Javelin in lieu of additional attack helicopters or main battle tanks. If the political and societal will is present during peacetime, it could also mean seeking to mobilize more of Taiwan’s population to be willing to fight an asymmetric ground campaign including large-scale urban warfare, where the PLA is less able to bring firepower superiority and advantages in ISR into play.
Politics of Asymmetry
No military is ever “fully” asymmetric or ever “fully” conventional or symmetric. It is very possible for the ROCArF to seek a balance between more asymmetric capabilities while retaining some conventional forces as well. For regular peacetime duties, it is likely that a fleet of fighter aircraft will be necessary for airspace policing and a regular surface naval force necessary for having a presence at sea in Taiwan’s territories and near maritime features that it claims.
However the degree to which expenditure on conventional forces may be otherwise spent on asymmetric forces is also very much a political question with potential repercussions on Taiwan society and morale. For most of its modern history, the Republic of China has enjoyed a significant degree of qualitative military superiority against the forces of the PLA. The PLA may have enjoyed an overall quantitative military advantage in domains such as manpower and ship count; however, the overall balance of combined qualitative and quantitative forces was such that the ROCArF until recently would have enjoyed very beneficial kill/loss ratios and forced the PLA to lose substantial numbers of qualitatively inferior aircraft and ships in event of a conflict.
Adopting a more asymmetric military force would likely require a certain level of political courage and societal resilience, because the cultural and social effects of having such a military is effectively an admission that possessing a conventional force may be more detrimental to Taiwan’s military goals. The effect of adopting an asymmetric force on the morale and resolve of Taiwan’s populace to fight a conflict with China would have to be carefully monitored. No military in the world chooses to adopt an asymmetric force if they possess the political will, wealth, and technology to develop a conventional force that can prevail against the enemy. Instead, asymmetric strategies become necessary to improve one’s survivability in the face of superior conventional forces from the opposing side, but it is also an admission that significant casualties may also be expected.
Current and foreseeable ROCArF military procurement has sent mixed signals as to their commitment to asymmetry, despite government white papers publicly declaring the intent to adopt asymmetry. Some recent efforts such as developing a new small displacement fast attack boat are consistent with an asymmetrical posture, but other indicators are not, such as some recent ROCN aspirations to develop a new generation of destroyers and frigates and even amphibious assault ships like LPDs. The program to develop indigenous SSKs is also likely to be costly, given the intended goal at this stage is to create proper SSKs displacing up to 3,000 tons rather than miniature submarines. Similarly, recent efforts to buy new fighter aircraft such as F-16Vs also casts doubt as to what plans Taiwan has for the future of its air fleet.
PLA Advances on the Horizon
Finally, it is always worth considering the potential advances in capability the PLA may experience in coming years. Over the next five years, it is likely that larger numbers of existing aircraft, ships, and missiles will be procured in larger numbers. Currently small numbers of certain aircraft and ships such as the J-20 and 055 will likely have their numbers consolidated and grown. New types of ships are likely to be unveiled and enter service, such as the 075 helicopter landing dock, as well as the 003 catapult equipped aircraft carrier. New missiles such as hypersonic glide vehicles may enter service in that time in respectable numbers as well. EW/ECM variants of the J-16 and J-15 are likely to be inducted, providing a much more modern and robust SEAD/DEAD capability.
Considering what is known about near term PLA and ROCArF procurement efforts, it is likely that the PLA will further extend its existing advantage against the ROCArF in the air, naval, and missile domains. What is not known is whether the PLA will seek to develop “new” conventional capabilities that they currently lack. For example, the PLA at present is likely not capable of conducting modern CAS in the same way as U.S. and NATO forces do, and such a capability was likely not high on the PLA’s list of demands considering CAS requires air superiority and air control in the first place.
The relatively more open nature of ROCArF procurement means the PLA have the benefit of tailoring their own procurement to respond to ROCArF asymmetrical efforts. For example, ROCN efforts to pursue a force of small fast attack craft in turn likely led the PLAN to develop a counter in the form of Z-9D naval helicopters designed to carry four YJ-9 light AShMs, well suited for countering fast attack craft and missile boats.