Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 2

In an effort to counter the continued build-up of China’s offensive missile and air power, Taiwan is again considering developing its own “active defense”–that is, the ability to attack select PLA capabilities as part of an overall “defensive” strategy. But this time it would prefer a U.S. “blessing.”

For Taipei, the quest for an “offensive” military capability has waxed and waned, usually in direct response to the perceived degree of support from Washington. During the 1950s and 1960s the United States guaranteed Taiwan’s security under the 1952 Mutual Defense Treaty and provided consistent upgrades to its armed forces. But during the 1970s, when Washington moved to derecognize Taiwan in favor of the Mainland, Taiwan attempted to build nuclear weapons as an ultimate deterrent against Chinese attack. But while the United States did abrogate its Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan in 1978 as part of derecognition, it also enacted the unique 1979 Taiwan Relation Act (TRA), and the indirect security guarantees that went with it. But, in the early 1980s, on discovering Taiwan’s covert nuclear weapon and missile program, Washington moved to stop it.

Doing so–formally restraining a Taiwanese offensive military capability–was an important component of Washington’s policy of advocating a “peaceful resolution” of the differences between Taipei and Beijing. During the 1980s and 1990s Washington carefully calibrated its arms sales to Taiwan so as to prevent Taiwan from gaining an ability to attack China. This was aided by the U.S. State Department’s rigorous interpretation of the TRA’s clause stipulating that the United States will sell “defensive” arms to Taiwan. Taipei’s requests for new conventional submarines, F-16 fighter-bombers and advanced Aegis radar-equipped destroyers were regularly refused. All these had longer-range capabilities that the United States viewed as too provocative to Beijing. By the end of the 1990s, only the F-16s were sold to Taiwan, albeit carefully configured for defensive missions.

But, beginning in the 1990s, Beijing rewarded Washington’s “restraint” of Taiwan by launching the largest build-up of offensive military capabilities in recent Asian history, and accelerating it after the turn of the millennium. As the July 2002 Pentagon report on China’s military modernization makes clear, the main purpose of the build-up is to prepare for a future war against Taiwan, one characterized by a massive and surprise attack. It is now possible to estimate that, absent a new round of Taiwanese defensive preparations, by decade’s end China might be persuaded that a surprise attack might work in that it could gain military superiority over Taiwan in certain areas:

  • Information
    • By 2010 Beijing’s PLA will have eight radar and electro-optical satellites, Russian A-50E AWACS and very long-range, over-the-horizon radar as its cutting edge in information warfare. It will also have multiple electronic attack capabilities and a robust information warfare-computer network attack capability. To date, Taipei has no plans to match the satellite information capabilities or buy large AWACS, though it may have some electronic attack and information warfare capabilities.
  • Missile and air
    • With superior information, by 2010 the PLA will be able to target 1,000 to 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles aimed at Taiwan, many of which will have high-precision guidance systems. Massive missile strikes will be followed by precision bombing by 400 to 600 multirole attack fighters. Unless plans change, Taiwan will have only 300 modern fighters to contest control of the skies, provided those fighters survive. And even then they will not have enough antimissile systems to defeat incoming PLA missiles.
  • Airborne and amphibious
    • By 2010 the PLA will have two to four divisions of amphibious troops and three to four divisions of airborne troops–armed with modern armor, antitank missiles and new light vehicles. The danger is that the PLA will be able to follow its missile and air strikes with an immediate air-amphibious assault to capture airfields and ports needed to capture Taipei. Such a strike would ensure Taiwan’s surrender if its leaders tough out air and missile strikes. The ROC army wants modern U.S. M-1 tanks and capable AH-64 APACHE anti-tank helicopters, but these could still be pinned down if the ROCAF loses control of the air.
  • Naval
    • By 2010 the PLA Navy will have about forty relatively modern submarines supported by forty to seventy capable Russian Su-30MK3 naval strike fighters. With adequate information support, and if used in coordination, these could pose a real threat to U.S. Navy carrier groups that would likely be sent to Taiwan’s rescue.

Based on many interviews and meetings I conducted in Taiwan in 2002 and early 2003 in light of the ongoing PLA build-up, many in Taiwan’s political and military leadership believe that Taiwan has little choice but to develop its own offensive strike capability. The reasoning is that such a capability could be the least expensive way for Taiwan to deter a PLA attack during a period in which it might not be able to afford a large build-up of “defensive” forces. Taipei simply cannot afford the budget or even real estate to acquire hundreds of new defensive fighter aircraft, or perhaps thousands of new antimissile missiles, that would be needed to ward off a PLA strike. Such a response would also validate the PLA’s strategy, which assumes that it will be able to deliver a decisive first strike. Instead, by obtaining a limited offensive capability, Taiwan would be countering the PLA’s strategy and would force it to reconsider its war plans.

For its part, Taipei is not interested in matching the PLA’s offensive strike capabilities. And, despite the occasional suggestion by Taiwanese legislators, the Chen government is not interested in trying to build a nuclear strike capability. Taipei’s apparent goal is to be able to disrupt a gathering PLA campaign against Taiwan by striking key PLA centers of gravity that would then greatly decrease their chances of success. Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense 2002 National Defense Report states that “the ROC Armed Forces will conduct operations to attack the enemy’s key nodes of C4ISR so as to eliminate the enemy’s ability to launch its joint operations.” Today Taiwan’s military does not have the ability to carry out this goal.

There is much to favor a supportive U.S. response to Taiwan’s desire to build a limited offensive strike capability. The PLA’s recent acquisition of a range of offensive weapon systems clearly tied to a surprise strike strategy makes any Taiwanese strategy that relies completely on defensive preparations obsolete. And inasmuch as American leaders rarely if ever deny U.S. forces offensive strike options, especially if they ensure rapid victory and minimal loss of life, why should the United States constrain Taiwan’s defense options? Furthermore, considering that Taiwan is under increasing financial strains to modernize its military in the face of the PLA’s growing threat, it makes sense for Washington to support new Taiwanese military capabilities that can deter China with relatively less expense.

At this point it is not yet clear how Taipei will proceed in acquiring a limited offensive attack capability. It may opt for air-launched cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, a robust information warfare capability or a combination of these. All such strike systems, however, will require far better reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities than it has today. But it makes more sense for the United States, rather than to wait for Taiwan to proceed with any covert weapons program, to consider what Taiwan needs to fashion a limited strike capability. Washington will gain greater confidence in knowing exactly what Taipei can do. But it will have to make clear to Beijing that Taipei is seeking such new military capabilities to defend against a clear a growing danger.

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