Between the mid-1960s and late-1980s, Taipei sought to develop the capability to build a nuclear deterrent. Ultimately, the United States strong-armed them into halting the program. While recent months have seen analysts pontificate over the possibility of a nuclear-armed Taiwan, this is unrealistic. Although Taipei has a civilian nuclear industry that could be leveraged into a military program, it is a political non-starter – not least because it would destroy much of the international support the island has cultivated. Domestic policy is also an issue: There is already a huge campaign against nuclear power in Taiwan, and a weaponization effort is sure to generate an even more passionate reaction.
Nevertheless, Taipei has been quietly working on a conventional deterrent that lacks much of the nuclear option’s controversy.
The potential for precision conventional munitions to substitute for nuclear weapons in certain circumstances has been clear for decades, with the 1975 U.S. post-Vietnam Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program stating that “Near zero-miss, non-nuclear weapons could provide the National Command Authority with a variety of strategic response options as an alternative to massive nuclear destruction.” Then-Chief of the Soviet General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov made similar observations in 1984.
The capabilities of such technology – in particular longer-range systems such as the Tomahawk missile – were demonstrated in the 1991 Gulf War, with Iraqi targets suffering a level and speed of attrition that would have been impossible a decade previously without the use of nuclear weapons. U.S.-led military campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria built upon this success. Russia has also deployed long-range munitions against targets in Syria.
Of greatest relevance to the Taiwanese case are the nations that have procured long-range conventional precision strike (LRCPS) systems to deter more capable opponents. Poland has acquired JASSM and JASSM-ER cruise missiles for use by its F-16 fleet to provide deterrence capability by holding targets on Russian territory at risk, with Finland also purchasing JASSM for the same purpose. Similarly, Norway’s acquisition of the F-35A armed with the domestically-built Joint Strike Missile gives Oslo options to hit targets in Russia, including strategic assets based on the Kola Peninsula.
The United States has been keen to push Taipei away from procuring traditional military platforms and toward asymmetric, cheaper, more numerous, and more survivable systems such as naval mines, land-based anti-ship missiles, and surface-to-air missiles. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review, released earlier this year, speaks of “steadily strengthening long-range strike capabilities.” On the face of it, such a shift toward fielding long-range precision-strike weapons undermines the asymmetric Overall Defense Concept – a plan that focuses on destroying any People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invasion forces in the littoral region of Taiwan. Nevertheless, LRCPS systems would provide a valuable contribution to Taipei’s deterrent posture.
Taiwan’s development of an ability to strike at the mainland is currently focused on missiles that can be ground-launched or deployed from aircraft. Although shrouded in secrecy, domestic Taiwanese efforts appear to be centered around the subsonic Hsiung Feng IIE and the supersonic Yun Feng. The former is thought to be a 600 km range weapon with an extended range variant capable of reaching out to 1,200 km in development (if not already fielded), and the latter possesses a reach of at least 1,200 km with an extended-range variant in development. Both are truck-launched and could be concealed from a PLA strike. A few dozen short-range Tien Chi ballistic missiles based in silos on Taiwan’s offshore islands are also available. In the future, these will be supported by anti-radiation drones designed to target the radars supporting China’s air defenses. Other systems may also be in development.
In the future, imports from the United States will also provide key ground-launched capabilities. One of the most high-profile of the recent spree of arms purchase sign-offs from the U.S. is that of the ATACMS tactical ballistic missile. While the initial sales approval is small – 64 missiles and 11 HIMARS launchers – it provides a survivable system with a 300 km range that can hold PLA targets on the strip of coastline opposite Taiwan at risk.
For deployment from the air, Taiwan has moved to purchase a few dozen JSOW glide bombs, which are capable of striking the mainland when launched from 70 km off the coast. More substantial is the procurement of 135 SLAM-ER missiles with a range of 270 km. When combined with the extended range of the 66 F-16Vs Taipei has ordered, this theoretically opens up almost the entire Chinese coastline to attack. A proposed purchase of JASSM missiles would extend the stand-off reach of Taiwan’s aircraft to up to 1,000 km depending on the variant. Domestic industry has also furnished the Republic of China Air Force’s F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo fighter with the 240 km range Wan Chien missile. All of Taiwan’s air-launched weapons suffer from the vulnerability of their launch aircraft potentially being destroyed or trapped on the ground by PLA cruise and ballistic missiles, but improved Taiwanese ground-based air defenses, hardened shelters, rapid runway repair, camouflage, underground hangers, and roadway dispersal provide a limited measure of resilience.
The primary targets this deterrent force is designed to hold at risk include PLA-controlled ships in port, munition and supply stockpiles, embarkation points, key airbases, and C4ISR centers – all intending to undermine Beijing’s goal of seizing the main island at an acceptable cost. Ultimately, deterrence by denial is likely to be the primary aim. In the event of a conflict, the goal would be to generate something akin to what would have happened had Germany been able to mount a campaign using hypothetical precision-guided versions of V-1 and V-2 missiles against targets supporting Operation Overlord in the days or weeks before the Normandy landings.
Countering such a force would create a targeting dilemma for the PLA. Both the Operation Crossbow effort to counter German V-weapons during World War II and the great Scud hunt of the Gulf War were infamously unproductive against mobile targets but tied up vast resources. While surveillance technology has improved markedly in recent decades, the proven ability of the Republic of China Armed Forces to conceal assets would present a formidable challenge.
Despite the value of a Taiwanese LRCPS capability, several outstanding issues remain that impact its credibility. The first is systems survivability. Taipei has invested significantly in air-launched missiles, but as noted, their launch platforms are vulnerable to detection and destruction on the ground before being in a position to fire – to say nothing of China possessing one of the world’s most advanced air and ballistic missile defense systems. While increasing the flexibility of Taiwan’s air assets and forcing the PLA to expend resources on countering them are both positives, air-launched weapons are not an overall good return on investment.
The second issue is what might be termed “magazine depth” – how many missiles Taiwan can realistically field. Too few – as is likely currently the case – and a combination of PLA pre-launch strikes, Chinese air and missile defenses, and the sheer scale of the target set in even a tightly focused campaign (perhaps a “Gator Breaker” effort to disable amphibious ships loading in harbor) may leave Taipei’s capability more symbolic than real.
Thirdly, there is the issue of targeting. Taiwan lacks a robust and survivable C4ISR kill chain capability to find, track, and hit targets. Although fixed targets such as airfields and ports remain vulnerable, there is no realistic path to hitting smaller, highly mobile targets such as missile launchers on the mainland.
Partial remedies to these three issues are at hand, but they will require U.S. political will. An important backdrop to Taiwan’s current defensive circumstances is that there is not much time left until the PLA can offer a credible invasion threat to the island: Former U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Philip Davidson recently estimated that such an attack could manifest within the next six years.
Taiwan, unfortunately, lacks the missile manufacturing capacity to build a sufficient conventional strike force on top of its existing commitments to other programs. Furthermore, the slow speed at which Taipei’s purchases from the U.S. are converted into operational hardware suggests that the window for procuring such systems by regular means before an invasion becomes possible is closing. Some would suggest that in a crisis, it may be possible for the U.S. to deliver additional systems. However, it seems vanishingly unlikely that a U.S. airlift to the island – perhaps similar to the Operation Nickel Grass airlift to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War – is realistic given Beijing’s prioritization of denying U.S. forces access to the region during a conflict.
However, a medium-term military aid program that transferred assets from U.S. stocks – for example, dozens of HIMARS launch vehicles and hundreds of ATACMS missiles would be desirable – could prove a middle path. The compatibility of the HIMARS launch system with the forthcoming Precision Strike Missile also presents an option to strike deep into the mainland should export of the weapon – currently constrained by the Missile Technology Control Regime and Beijing’s possible reaction – ever be approved. It may also be possible to produce major components for Taiwanese-designed missiles in the United States, allowing for at least some of the production burden to be outsourced. The U.S. could also provide a degree of targeting data, either using its own systems or the ever-growing constellation of commercial Earth-surveillance satellites.
A move to aid Taiwan’s LRCPS would also be in the U.S. interests. While embarked on several programs to acquire a new range of missiles following the collapse of the INF Treaty, Washington is constrained in the Pacific by having few locations to deploy them. Although a bolstering of Taiwan’s capabilities would not be a direct solution, the permanent presence of a capable offensive force within range of critical PLA targets – even if it was under Taipei’s ultimate control – would lessen the requirement for U.S. missile forward basing while still presenting a credible deterrent to an offensive by Beijing.