Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 5

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has a number of sound strategic and political reasons for trying to shift its previous army-dominated defense priorities to a new emphasis on joint-forces approaches that stress missile, air and naval defenses. However, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is complicating this transition by developing new ground force threats to Taiwan that, in turn, require Taipei to give added attention to the modernization needs of its army.

When it won election in March 2000 after 51 years of continuous Kuomintang (KMT) rule, the new DPP government of Chen Shui-bian moved to pursue a range of strategic and political-military reforms. Many of these proved to be an acceleration of reforms started by Chen’s predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, aimed at strengthening legal civilian control of the military and revising Taiwan’s strategies and doctrine. Both of these reforms challenged the army’s longstanding dominance of Taiwan’s defense. As he sought to foster a pro-Taiwanese identity, Lee, himself a native Taiwanese, also challenged the mainlander-dominated officer corps, most of which identified with the KMT’s vision for eventual unification with the mainland.

Such questions of identity, control and strategy became more acute when Chen, whose party included strong supporters for Taiwan’s independence, began to advance many of the reforms launched under Lee. By 2002, Chen had moved aggressively to implement national defense laws passed in early 2000 that placed the military under firm civilian control. The military now reports to a civilian minister of defense, in sharp contrast to earlier times under the KMT when it could bypass civilians and go directly to the President. In addition, and while progress has been slow, many of Chen’s civilian military advisors have also sought to rapidly reorient the country’s military doctrine. Until recently it had stressed that the air force, navy and then the army were to fight successive battles to hold off invading mainland forces. This doctrine was largely defensive, with the army expected to fight the “decisive” battle for Taiwan’s survival.

Many of Chen’s advisors had become convinced that, in light of the PLA’s accelerating build-up during the 1990s, a purely defensive doctrine that relied on separate service campaigns was obsolete and doomed to failure. With much encouragement from Washington, these advisors are formulating a new Taiwanese joint-doctrine that stresses multiservice operations to counter PLA attacks far from Taiwan. This is still a work-in-progress, but there is a new doctrinal emphasis on information dominance, missile defense, plus air and naval operations. There are also aspirations to conduct defensive operations as close to the mainland as possible, and even to carry out limited offensive operations. For this decade, defense spending will stress C4ISR improvements, missile defenses and new naval systems–which alone will account for over 40 percent of spending.

The Chen government’s intentions, however, are challenged by the PLA’s increased emphasis on being able to project ground forces into Taiwan. The last decade has also seen a new PLA focus on offensive operations conducted under new PLA combined-arms doctrines. The PLA’s goal is to rapidly eliminate Taiwan’s defenses and to “decapitate” its political and military leadership. It seeks to do this by attacking Taiwan’s command and communications–plus its air, naval and army bases–with combined PLA missile, air and special forces attacks. The past decade has witnessed a massive PLA investment in new short-range ballistic missiles and new land attack cruise missiles, plus the acquisition of new Russian and domestically-produced fourth generation attack fighters.

Less noticed, however, has been a renewed PLA emphasis–begun in the latter half of the 1990s–on modernizing a small proportion of the PLA’s current 1.6 million-man army. Some of those troops slated for modernization, and particularly airborne, marine, and army-amphibious units, are being prepared for assault operations against Taiwan. This would be consistent with the lessons that the United States has learned in the Persian Gulf and more recently during the Balkan campaigns. In essence, while massive use of modern precision airpower can serve to decimate an adversary’s armed forces, ground forces–either actual or threatened–are still required to inflict a military defeat. It appears that the PLA understands that, while its new missile and air attack forces can quickly destroy much of Taiwan’s defense capability, the government in Taipei would survive and continue resistance. That would be especially true if the United States mounted a rapid military response.

To eliminate that option for Taipei, the PLA is preparing to accompany its missile and air attacks with assaults by airborne and amphibious troops before the United States can mount credible counter-actions. In addition to wiping out Taiwan’s air and naval forces, the PLA also wants to capture Taipei or another large city, to assure Taiwan’s final defeat. The PLA is currently believed to have about 30,000 airborne troops in three divisions and 10,000 or more marines in 2-3 brigades. It may also have up to 40,000 amphibious army troops in 4-5 divisions and some brigades. These might constitute a first attack wave. For the following waves there would be over 500,000 troops theoretically available in the Nanjing, Guangzhou and Jinan Military Regions. Many of the units in the Nanjing and Guangzhou regions have had amphibious training.

Many commentators, however, have long downplayed the threat of a PLA invasion, if only because the PLA’s navy and air force lack the necessary sea and airlift platforms. Formal PLA navy amphibious transport ships might be able to carry one division and its equipment. And roughly twenty Il-76 heavy air transports, another twenty-five or so Y-8 medium transports, and over 240 transport helicopters can carry some, but not decisive numbers, of troops and equipment. In addition, the coast of Taiwan is for the most part very difficult to assault–due to such features as mud flats and high cliffs. However, if the PLA were able to capture one or more airfields and port facilities in a rapid strike using special forces, it could then utilize civilian air and sea transport assets to rapidly increase force levels in Taiwan. Theoretically, the PLA Air Force can access more than twenty large Boeing-747 cargo jets and about 500 Boeing and Airbus civil airliners. The Chinese merchant fleet could provide hundreds of troop transports and heavy transport ships, including roll-on-roll-off ships, to quickly move large numbers of heavy tanks and supporting vehicles.

In addition, PLA amphibious, airborne and regular army units are receiving new weapons that increasingly outclass those of Taiwan’s army. PLA amphibious army and marine units are receiving the new Type-63A-1 (Type-99) amphibious tank, now the most powerful in the world. It has a 105mm gun that can fire new depleted uranium (DU) rounds capable of defeating the armor on Taiwan’s U.S.-made tanks. The new PLA tank also fires gun-launched missiles that can out-range the 105mm guns on Taiwan’s tanks. These are likely based on Russian gun-launched anti-tank missiles. The PLA may build up to 600 Type-63A-1 tanks. Amphibious army units are also receiving two types of new amphibious armored personnel carriers (APCs). PLA airborne units have about 100 of the modern Russian BMD-3 airborne tanks, and the PLA is developing new families of air-droppable support vehicles.

Meanwhile, PLA Regular Army units are receiving new Type-98 and Type-96 main battle tanks, each of which has a 125mm gun with even more punch. They are also armed with long-range gun-launched missiles. In addition, these tanks carry new composite-based armor that can deflect most Taiwan Army tank rounds. In February of this year the PLA unveiled a new tracked APC for its army units that is armed with a Russian 100mm gun. It also uses gun-launched missiles. Finally, army units are slated later this decade to receive new indigenous attack helicopters that will closely resemble the European TIGER in size and capability.

Taiwan’s army will soon downsize to about 200,000 troops. These will be armed mainly with over 180 U.S. M-60A3 tanks and approximately 550 M-48 tanks, supported by fifty-three AH-1H attack and twenty-six OH-58 observation helicopters. While the Chen government is correct to modernize Taiwan’s doctrine and capabilities in order to defeat the PLA farther from its shores, it must also recognize the growing threats posed by PLA ground forces. The Taiwan Army can do more with less, but its requests for new AH-64D APACHE attack helicopters and a small number of U.S. M-1 tanks do have merit–if only to promote deterrence. The PLA’s threat of invasion can no longer be discounted as a “million-man swim.”

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is the managing editor of China Brief.