Iran’s Mass Strike on Israel Highlights Why Taiwan’s Air Defenses Can’t Hold up

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Iran’s Mass Strike on Israel Highlights Why Taiwan’s Air Defenses Can’t Hold up

The Iranian operation highlights the difficulties that air defense efforts face, particularly when relying on costly Western equipment to counter large volumes of low-cost drones and missiles.

Iran’s Mass Strike on Israel Highlights Why Taiwan’s Air Defenses Can’t Hold up

An ROCAF Tien Kung Ⅱ Missile Launcher on display at Hukou Camp Ground, Mar. 29, 2014.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ 玄史生

On April 13-14 the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps launched a major drone and missile strike against military facilities in Israel, retaliating for an attack on an Iranian diplomatic building in Syria on April 1. Iran’s barrage provoked one of the most intensive series of anti-aircraft missile launches in history. While Iranian claims regarding the success of the strike differ considerably from those of Israel and the United States, some information common to both narratives provides valuable insight into how aerial warfare and air defense efforts have evolved beyond the region.

In the Taiwan Strait in particular, the Republic of China Armed Forces (ROCAF) have a number of significant commonalities in their defensive posture to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), most notably in their heavy reliance on very large quantities of ground-based air defense systems densely concentrated on their small territories to counter an adversary’s massive drone and missile arsenals. With the Taiwan Strait considered a leading potential hotspot for major conflict, the implications of the lessons from recent Iran-Israel clashes are significant.

Although the actual damage caused by Iranian strikes remains disputed, and is particularly difficult to ascertain since the attacks were concentrated on military bases where access has been limited, one of the most significant aspects of the operation was the tremendous discrepancy in the cost of launching and the cost of defending against them. While even the highest estimates for the cost of the Iranian strike remain at under $100 million, U.S. and Israeli interception efforts against it cost the two countries close to $1 billion and $1.08-1.35 billion respectively.

This highlights not only the fact that Iran’s state-owned defense sector can produce precision-guided drones and missiles very cheaply, but also that these assets are generally much cheaper than the kinds of missiles needed to intercept them – particularly since at least two air defense missiles are usually fired on each target to ensure a high probability of kill. It takes considerably more precision to hit a fast-moving missile or drone a few meters long in the air than it does to hit a fixed military base with a surface area in the hundreds of square meters, with the very high levels of precision required for surface to air assets consistently resulting in much higher costs.

U.S. military leaders have for years highlighted with great concern that China’s defense sector can produce weapons and complete development programs for small fractions of the cost of the United States, with examples being numerous in areas from shipbuilding to aviation. Taiwan, much like Israel, has relied heavily on acquisitions from the United States for its air defense, and similarly deploys systems developed jointly with the U.S. incorporating indigenous technologies primarily the Sky Bow series. Israel’s ability to weather a larger Iranian attack remains in question even with the very active participation of the U.S. Navy and Air Force, with Iran not only able to deploy drones and missiles on larger scales but also much more advanced assets with stealth capabilities or maneuvering reentry vehicles. Taiwan’s position is considerably more tenuous.

A leading impediment to Iran’s ability to saturate Israeli defenses is the distance between the two states, which requires drones and missiles to travel over 1,000 kilometers and thus excludes the cheapest, shortest-ranged assets from operating. By contrast, the Taiwan Strait at 130 kilometers wide allows China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to launch drones, missiles, and even guided artillery rockets with little over one-tenth these ranges to saturate Taiwan’s defenses.

Where Iran and Israel’s defense spending levels are relatively comparable, the PLA has since 2020 received more funding for acquisitions than any other military in the world, with ROCAF spending being well under a tenth of this. Furthermore, while Israel could be protected by the vast network of American and other Western military bases and ships across the Middle East, the U.S. military presence on Taiwan is minimal and not equipped for air defense operations. Even if the U.S. should intervene, its fighters and warships are not expected to be able to operate near the Taiwan Strait in a conflict’s opening stages.

A further significant disadvantage the ROCAF will face is that the PLA is expected to retain control of the skies and seas surrounding the Taiwan Strait, allowing it to launch cruise missiles and other projectiles from multiple directions simultaneously and with little notice. Israel, by contrast, had considerable notice that strikes were incoming and the direction from which they were inbound, with Iran’s ability to operate ships or manned aircraft to strike from beyond its territory remaining negligible.

Unlike Israel which deployed F-15 long-range fighters able to intercept targets far from the country’s airspace, the short ranges of Taiwan’s F-16s and limited aerial refueling capabilities mean enemy standoff missile strikes could be safely launched from much closer to its territory. With U.S. and Israeli fighters credited with the vast majority of kills against Iranian drones, the PLA Air Force’s own massive and cutting edge fighter fleet, including fifth generation fighters, will seriously restrict Taiwanese fighters’ ability to operate in such capacities. Control of the airspace around Taiwan will also allow the PLAAF to support cruise missile and drone strikes with air defense suppression operations using specialized assets such as J-16Ds.

Ultimately while Israel’s ability even with tremendous support from American forces in the region to neutralize a larger Iranian attack is highly questionable, for Taiwan the situation is far less favorable still. Lacking any remotely comparable support from allied forces, and facing an adversary with not only an overwhelmingly greater capacity to launch missile and drone strikes, but also a fighter fleet and navy capable of controlling the surrounding air and seas, Taiwanese air defenses are expected to either quickly exhaust their arsenals, or else be destroyed on the ground.

The Iranian operation ultimately served to highlight the difficulties that air defense efforts face, particularly when relying on highly costly Western equipment to counter large volumes of low cost drones and missiles. This issue has been highlighted for some years, spurring U.S. and Israeli investments in anti-missile and anti-drone lasers, which cost considerably less per interception.

With these technologies having yet to mature, however, the only practical cost-effective means of missile defense against targets immune to electronic warfare disruption remains strikes on launch sites and depots to prevent them becoming airborne. While this may be a possibility for the United States in Iran, however, in the Taiwan Strait it remains far from viable.