Taiwan’s Ballistic-Missile Deterrence and Defense Capabilities

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 3

Patriot Missiles

Even as the Obama administration appears to be holding back on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, seeking to build better relations with Beijing, and while cross-strait relations continue to improve, Taiwan is moving slowly toward the acquisition of a credible missile-defense capability to deter and defend against a People’s Republic of China (PRC) ballistic-missile attack. To be sure, Taiwan will not have all the critical elements in place for a few more years, but major U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Taiwan necessary for a missile-defense system have been approved by Congress, the Letters of Offer and Acceptance (LOAs) have been implemented [1], and contracts with U.S. defense industries have been signed or soon will be. All that is required, once Taiwan’s recent purchases have been delivered, for it to complete the system is full integration of Taiwan’s Patriot missile firing batteries with its early warning and command and control systems.

The PRC Military Threat to Taiwan

The PRC military threat to Taiwan has increased dramatically over the years as China has deployed approximately 1500 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles along the Taiwan Strait [2]. While China’s ability to coerce or attack Taiwan with its increasingly sophisticated fighter aircraft and submarine fleets are ever-increasing threats, in the absence of a comprehensive Taiwan missile-defense system, the military and political risk for China of a missile attack remains significantly less than that of air strikes or a blockade. Moreover, China’s ability to launch an amphibious invasion of Taiwan remains limited by its sea lift and amphibious attack capabilities [3].

Since 2002, the U.S. government has assessed that Taiwan no longer has the capability to maintain air dominance over its territory [4]. Taiwan’s ground-based air defenses—its U.S.-supplied Patriot and I-Hawk missiles, it’s domestically produced Tien Kung I and II (Sky Bow) missiles [5], and its air force still pose a major risk for Chinese fighter and bomber aircraft. How long would it take for China to overcome Taiwan’s air defenses, what loses China would incur in achieving that goal, and how long would it take the U.S. Pacific Fleet to come to Taiwan’s defense are part of a dynamic deterrence equation that has been shifting in China’s favor for at least the past decade [6]. Operational deployment of China’s recently unveiled J-20 “stealth” fighter [7] remains several years away. Its introduction certainly would further tip the balance of power toward China and gives further arguments for the sale of new F-16C/D fighters to Taiwan.

Sustaining a military blockade of Taiwan is also not without risk for China. It risks igniting a broader conflict; and if Taiwan sunk just one PRC warship in response, it would be an embarrassment for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It is not clear how Taiwan’s major trading partners, Japan and the United States, would react should the PRC take military action against an American or Japanese flagged ship attempting or perceived to be attempting to challenge the blockade. They and the United Nations would have plenty of time to condemn China and take other actions to mitigate the result a blockade was intended to produce.

A missile attack on Taiwan, in the absence of an adequate missile-defense, however, poses little risk for China beyond the international condemnation that would follow. How the international community would react to a ballistic-missile attack on Taiwan depends largely on the events leading up to it. From a purely military perspective, however, no aircraft, ships, or PRC military personnel would be at hazard. Certainly, Taiwan could attack targets on the Chinese mainland in retaliation, but Taiwan’s capability to do that with missiles and aircraft is limited, and the systems and bases Taiwan would use for such attacks would be among the primary targets of a PRC ballistic-missile strike.

Effective Missile Defense

For Taiwan to deter and effectively defend against a ballistic-missile attack, its missile defenses would have to be capable of intercepting a large percentage of PRC missiles. Certainly, many would get through, but the ability to intercept 40, 50, or even 60 percent of them would constitute a major deterrent, and should deterrence fail, it would greatly mitigate the effect of such an attack [8]. Furthermore, just as Americans were surprised and buoyed by television images of U.S. Patriot missiles intercepting Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles during the First Gulf War, the citizens of Taiwan would also be encouraged by images of Taiwan’s Patriot missiles intercepting large numbers of PRC ballistic missiles. China’s ability to coerce and induce panic among the population would be decreased.

What then, does Taiwan require to achieve such a result? Despite the ability of the AN/MPQ-53/65 patriot radars to track and engage large numbers of targets simultaneously, Patriot missile batteries alone are insufficient. Details of the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the Patriot PAC-3 (hit-to-kill) missile [9] or the PAC-2 Guidance Enhanced Missile (GEM) [10] and their associated radars and systems are classified. But it is not necessary to have access to that information to understand why Patriot batteries are only one element of a complete missile-defense system. The radars have a range of approximately 170 kilometers [11], insufficient to detect the majority of PRC missiles in the boost phase on the Chinese mainland. Moreover, even though the PAC-3 missiles were designed specifically for missile-defense, unless they are tied into an integrated command, control, communications, computers (C4) system that provides for early warning missile detection, tracking and the prioritization of incoming threats, the number of ballistic missiles they are likely to intercept in a large-scale attack would be greatly reduced.

The optimal deployment of Taiwan’s missile batteries is also important. Taiwan’s existing three Patriot batteries are currently deployed in the greater Taipei area [12]. Will China attack population centers, or will it concentrate on military targets? Will China conduct a mass missile attack at many targets all at once or will it saturate priority targets in order to insure their destruction? If Taiwan chooses to defend the wrong targets, the effectiveness of its missile defense system is diminished. These are not questions that are difficult to answer from a military perspective. They can be difficult to answer from a political one. Taiwanese politics may demand that Taiwan defend its population centers at the expense of military targets that are more likely to be threatened. Would Beijing target other Chinese civilians, or would it choose to destroy Taiwan’s defenses as quickly as possible to bring Taiwan to the peace table before a possible U.S. intervention became a factor?

Taiwan is now in the process of acquiring seven additional Patriot firing batteries and PAC-3 missiles, and it is upgrading the existing three batteries acquired in late 1990s to fire both PAC-2/GEM and PAC-3 missiles. Three additional batteries were notified to Congress in October 2008 during President George W. Bush’s administration [13], and four were notified in January 2010 during President Barack Obama’s administration [14]. When all deliveries are complete, sometime around the mid-decade, Taiwan will have a total of 10 batteries capable of firing either PAC-2/GEM or PAC-3 missiles. One launcher can hold four PAC-2/GEM or 16 PAC-3 missiles. Each battery has eight launchers. That puts 32 active PAC-2/GEMs in a battery or as many as 128 PAC-3s. U.S. Army doctrine is to mix them for optimal defense against ballistic-missile and air-breathing threats. Taiwan will do the same.

Even with two or more Patriots of both types fired at each incoming ballistic missile, provided Taiwan maintains sufficient reloads, the Taiwanese military could have an adequate number of missiles to intercept a large percentage of incoming PRC missiles. Provided its missile early-warning, tracking, target prioritization and C4 systems are up to the job, Taiwan’s missile-defense capability would be a formidable one.

The long range early warning Surveillance Radar Program (SRP) [15], provides Taiwan with one phased array radar similar to the U.S. PAVE PAWS system and two missile warning centers. Taiwan originally requested two radars, but the Legislative Yuan (LY) during the Chen Shui-bien administration, when defense-budget battles between the president’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Nationalist-Party (KMT) controlled LY prevented fully funding both radars, only provided funding for one. Construction of the remaining radar has been plagued with delays and cost increases due to the difficulty of construction at its mountain-top location. In addition, the original program was not scoped to fully integrate it with Taiwan’s Patriot batteries or the Syun An C4 system [16]. When the SRP will be fully operational and fully integrated is difficult to say; however, it should be operational by the time all Patriot missile batteries have been delivered.

The Syun An C4 system, the result of Phase I of the Po Sheng C4ISR FMS program completed in December 2009, was also reduced in scope by the LY and does not currently include missile defense integration [17]. Taiwan must expand it to incorporate missile defense command and control and target prioritization before its missile defense program can reach its full potential. This is not difficult to do, nor would it take a long time. All that is required is funding from the LY and a Letter of Request to the U.S. government.

Missile Defense Vulnerabilities

Critics of Taiwan’s missile defense system point out its vulnerabilities, specifically the vulnerability of the SRP radar. Certainly the long-range radar would be among the first targets of a PRC ballistic-missile or anti-radiation missile attack. Taiwan would have to dedicate some portion of its Patriot and other air-defense recourses to defend it. A second SRP radar was intended to provide Taiwan with 360o cruise missile coverage as well as redundancy and survivability of its ballistic missile early warning, detection and tracking capability. A second SRP would make Taiwan’s missile defense system more survivable and more effective. Taiwan also has other intermediate range radars that if fully integrated into the overall system provide complimentary and back up capability.

In a crisis, and should the SRP radar be destroyed, the United States could also provide satellite early warning and tracking via direct data transfer as it does for its own forces. Yet, that would require providing a means to integrate that information with Taiwan’s C4 system and a cryptographic interface in advance. A PRC ballistic missile attack on Taiwan would not come as a bolt from the blue. A deterioration of China-Taiwan relations and a period of rising tension would likely precede it, providing the U.S. and Taiwan some period of time to put satellite early-warning data transfer in place. The United States currently operates a less sophisticated Shared Early Warning System (SEWS) that provides missile launch warning information to friendly and allied countries [18].

Critics also argue that all China has to do is produce and deploy more missiles until it has enough to completely overwhelm any quantity of Patriots Taiwan may possess. While this point is valid, all that does is reduce the percentage of PRC missiles that Taiwan can intercept. Beijing can not know in advance what that percentage might be or what targets it might fail to destroy, and, therefore, it cannot completely discount the deterrent value of Taiwan’s missile defense system. Moreover, what if a ballistic missile attack precedes an attack by China’s fighters and bombers—as it likely would? Taiwan would expend most, if not all of its PAC-3 missiles at ballistic-missile targets leaving a few remaining PAC-2/GEM along with I-Hawk, and Tien Kung missiles to deal with them. While this strategy diminishes the effectiveness of Taiwan’s overall air-defense system, it does not diminish the effectiveness of Taiwan’s ballistic-missile deterrence and defense capability.


As the United States and China continue to improve political, economic, and military ties, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will remain a principal irritant to the relationship. Whether the Obama administration will move forward on major new arms, sales such as F-16C/Ds, remains an open question. Taking the final steps necessary to complete Taiwan’s missile defense system, however, will go a long way toward shoring up Taiwan’s lagging military capabilities. A robust Taiwan missile-defense system makes eminent military and political sense for Taiwan and for the United States. It contributes to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and strengthens Taipei’s hand as it strives to improve relations with Beijing. Taiwan is slowly acquiring the necessary components of a missile-defense system that will deter a PRC ballistic-missile attack should China-Taiwan relations deteriorate, and it will enable Taiwan to effectively defend against a ballistic-missile attack should deterrence fail. All that is necessary for Taiwan to achieve the systems full potential is for Taiwan to submit and for the United States to accept a Letter of Request (LOR) and approve a LOA for the complete integration of the Patriot, SRP, and Syun An C4 systems.


1. An FMS case is “implemented” when a government-to-government Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) has been signed and countersigned and the purchasing country has made its initial payment.
2. “The Balance of Air Power in the Taiwan Strait,” (U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, May 2010): 9.
3.  DoD, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010, https://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2010_CMPR_Final.pdf.
4. DoD, China Military Power Report 2002.
5. Janes Strategic Weapon Systems, https://www.janes.com/articles/Janes-Strategic-Weapon-Systems/Tien-Kung-1-23-Sky-Bow-Taiwan.html.
6. The U.S. has no legal or treaty obligation to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a military attack by China, but since the U.S. formally recognized the PRC and derecognized Taiwan in December 1979 the U.S. has maintained the sale of defense articles and services to the Taiwan armed forces, and it has maintained operational plans to come to Taiwan’s defense should it be necessary and ordered by the President of the United States.
7. James Dunnigan, “Chinese Stealth Fighter Sighted,”  StrategyPage.com, January 20, 2011, https://www.strategypage.com/dls/articles/Chinese-Stealth-Fighter-Sighted-1-20-2011.asp.
8. It is extremely unlikely that China would arm missiles fired at Taiwan with chemical or biological warheads; and the effects of convention explosive warheads are no different than equivalent-sized bombs dropped from aircraft.
9. Patriot PAC-3 missiles are manufactured by the Lockheed Martin Corporation.
10. Patriot PAC-2 Guidance Enhanced Missiles are manufactured by the Raytheon Corporation.
11. The ranges of Patriot radars are classified. Open source information varies, but not much. AN/MPQ-53/65 multifunction phased array radar Patriot MIM-104, https://www.armyrecognition.com/patriot_mim-104_vehicles_systems_us_army_uk/an_mpq-53_patriot_radar_search_detection_illumination_data_sheet_specifications_information_uk.html.
12. As the Principle Director for Operations in the Defense Security Cooperation Agency the author over saw all U.S. Foreign Military Sales programs to Taiwan, travelled to Taiwan frequently and visiting the Patriot sites.
13. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, 36(b) Major Arms Sales, Press Release, October 3, 2008, https://www.dsca.osd.mil/PressReleases/36-b/2008/Taiwan_08-56.pdf.
14. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, 36(b) Major Arms Sales, Press Release, January 29, 2010, https://www.dsca.osd.mil/PressReleases/36-b/2010/Taiwan_09-75.pdf.
15. Taiwan Air-Defense Overview, GlobalSecurity.org
16. Syun An, originally known as the Po Sheng C4ISR FMS Program, is the name Taiwan gave to the data-link (TADLS) program when, in 2002, it combined data-link with the Taiwan Command and Control System (TCCS) recommended in DSCA C4ISR Architecture Study, it became synonymous with Taiwan’s overall C4ISR efforts.
17. Syun An, provides Taiwan with several operational advantages. It distributes near real-time common tactical picture. It provides commanders accurate, timely information for improved situational awareness. It maximizes unit, sensor and weapon employment. It optimizes weapon-target pairing for layered defense. And its automation increases operator efficiencies, reduces errors. However, numerous platforms have not yet been equipped with data-link terminals. Improving Taiwan’s Military Capabilities, C4ISR Integration, by Edward W. Ross, U.S.-Taiwan Business Council Defense Conference 2009, September 27-29, 2009 Boars Head Inn Charlottesville, Virginia, https://ewrossinternational.com/taiwan_c4isr.pdf .
18. “Shared Early Warning System Begins Mission at Peterson,” June 22, 2003, https://www.spacewar.com/reports/Shared_Early_Warning_System_Begins_Mission_At_Peterson.html.