Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 7

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

On March 20, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense disclosed in a Legislative Yuan hearing that it had sent a “special military team” to the Middle East at the invitation of the United States. Its goal: To observe U.S. strategies and tactics during the Gulf War. While the report that this team produces will likely be highly classified, it is already possible to discern several lessons for Taiwan from the ongoing second U.S.-led Gulf War.

1. Taiwan should be prepared to defend itself alone for a definite period.

Although Taiwan has always known that it has first responsibility for its self-defense, it has also counted on eventual U.S. military support during wartime. It is this assurance that has traditionally strengthened deterrence against a possible attack by the PRC. To a far greater degree than under the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration has been more alert to the possibility of a future PRC attack on Taiwan, and has responded with planning, force deployments, and engagement with Taiwan’s military.

However, the Bush Administration has also become increasingly preoccupied with the widening U.S. War on Terrorism. Because of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has deployed six out of twelve aircraft carriers–three are unavailable because of maintenance–and it has deployed eight out of ten active Army divisions. At present the United States would be hard pressed, therefore, to resupply or defend Taiwan from a surprise PRC attack, much less respond to a North Korean assault, which is a more likely threat. And after the Iraq War, should the United States shift its attention to confront such other sources of terror or nuclear proliferation as North Korea or Pakistan, then Washington’s preoccupation could become even stronger. Moreover, Beijing is fully capable of manipulating a North Korean or Pakistani crisis to divert U.S. attention. This has been demonstrated by its facilitation of the exchange of Pakistani nuclear technology–which was derived from China–for North Korean missiles.

Consequently, it is necessary for Taiwan to reexamine budgetary priorities that have seen defense spending decline for almost a decade. On numerous occasions Washington has expressed its frustration over Taiwan’s slow response to U.S. approval, in March of 2001, for the sale of a number of weapon systems long requested by Taiwan. The list includes conventional submarines, KIDD-class destroyers, and PATRIOT PAC 3 missile interceptors. Taiwan’s ailing economy and a more activist legislature have impeded defense spending and programs, but presidential leadership could be applied to make defense a necessary priority.

2. It is possible to survive PLA-style “shock and awe.”

Following on the example set by the United States during the first Gulf War, the PLA began to build its own offensive “high-tech” strike complex, that is, a “shock and awe” capability, but with PLA characteristics. By 2005 the core of this capability will consist of approximately 750 short and medium range ballistic missiles, about 200 all-weather fighters capable of delivering laser or TV-guided munitions, and hundreds more daytime strike fighters. By 2005 the PLA is also expected to begin fielding new highly-accurate land attack cruise missiles. Strikes by these missiles will be supported by extensive use of deployed PLA Special Forces and long-embedded fifth column forces. They will guide laser bombs conduct extensive assassination, sabotage and harassment missions.

However, Taiwan should be encouraged by the fact that, after its initial missile strikes, the PLA will not be able to sustain an intensity comparable to the 1,000-2,000 daily sorties demonstrated by the United States over Iraq. In addition, defensive technology can offer Taiwan some relief from PLA missile strikes; the PATRIOT PAC-3 offered for sale to Taiwan are proving very effective in Iraq. The challenge for Taiwan is to accelerate its purchase of defensive missiles and to undertake military infrastructure, civil defense and psychological preparations to better withstand an initial PLA onslaught. It is critically important that Taiwan increase its purchase of defensive missiles like the PATRIOT, that it fully fund its modern and redundant PO SHENG C4ISR program, and that it increase passive defenses for all armed forces.

3. Knowing this, the PLA is preparing for a naval and ground war against Taiwan.

The renewed emphasis that the PLA has placed on building up its ground forces and naval forces indicates that it has learned a critical lesson from U.S. conflicts of the 1990s, one that has been reaffirmed in Iraq–namely, that airpower can destroy the enemy’s forces but cannot assure victory. New PLA Navy forces will include: Eight new Russian KILO attack submarines (plus four already in service); two new Russian SOVREMENNIY destroyers (plus two in service); and up to six new destroyers, all equipped with new air defense systems. By 2007 the PLA Navy may have up to forty relatively modern attack submarines and forty effective combat ships with which to blockade Taiwan. In addition, since the late 1990s the PLA has placed a new emphasis on its ground forces and, especially, the Amphibious Army, Airborne and Marine forces. The new Type-99 amphibious tank is in some respects superior to Taiwan’s tanks, and new Type-88C and Type-98 PLA Army tanks offer all around superiority. The PLA’s apparent weakness is a lack of air and sea transport, but this could be solved by a flash mobilization of civilian airliners and heavy sealift platforms.

The PLA’s across-the-board buildup means that Taipei does not have the luxury to significantly deemphasize any area of its defense preparations. The government of President Chen Shui Bien has made clear it intends to highlight naval modernization, including especially the costly purchase of eight new attack submarines and twelve P-3 ORION anti-submarine aircraft. But it does not have the option of ignoring the Taiwan Army’s growing need for new armor and helicopter systems capable of defeating new PLA tanks. Also, the rapid pace of PLA acquisitions has placed greater pressure on Taiwan either to accelerate its own arms purchases or to find alternatives to expensive newly built systems that can be acquired faster.

4. Strategies based on defense alone will lose.

Twice now, Saddam Hussein has allowed the United States to build up massive forces on his border without attacking them. This ensured his defeat in 1991 and will do so again in 2003. The PLA hopes to benefit from the same strategic advantage against Taiwan. That is, it is preparing for an offensive military campaign that stresses surprise, deception and a massive use of force. As last year’s Pentagon report on PLA modernization noted, the PLA will likely not attack unless it can achieve enough surprise. Under such circumstances it is logical that some in the Chen government are questioning Taiwan’s traditional defense-based strategy, and are now recommending that Taiwan build a limited preemptive strike capability. Inasmuch as Taiwan cannot hope to match the PLA’s ongoing military buildup, it has the alternative choice of attacking the PLA’s strategy, which continues to assume an uncontested mobilization against Taiwan. But while Taipei considers what weapons it needs to carry out such a strategy, it should remain mindful that its forces also require new reconnaissance sensors, such as stealthy unmanned aircraft or even small satellites, to ensure precision targeting.

One area where Taiwan can take the offensive now is on the diplomatic front. Taipei should work to assemble its own “coalition of the willing,” governments capable at least politically of opposing a future war by the PRC against Taiwan. Though most European states have long accepted Beijing’s definition of “One China” and will not aid Taipei militarily, they can at least be challenged to condemn Beijing’s war preparations against a democracy.


By sending observers to the Iraqi theater Taiwan can increase its knowledge of modern warfare by that most effective of teachers: experience. If given adequate access, Taiwanese officers can begin to see how the world’s most powerful military is learning its own hard lessons in creating effective combined arms operations and about the paramount importance of advanced C4ISR capabilities. And if these military observers are able to help Taiwan’s new civilian military leadership achieve an increased emphasis on defense preparations, then Washington’s efforts will have been worth Beijing’s expected ire.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a Senior Fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and the Managing Editor of China Brief.