Military and Strategic Journal
Issued by the Directorate of Morale Guidance at the General Command of the Armed Forces
United Arab Emirates
Founded in August 1971

2024-02-01

The Survival of Mobile Firepower: An Uncertain Factor in Taiwan’s Asymmetrical Defence

Taiwan’s asymmetrical defence strategy, a countermeasure against China’s military superiority, has significantly relied on mobile firepower, but they may not sufficiently fulfil their strategic role during wartime due to several drawbacks. From the mid-2010s, Taipei has shifted its previous strategy focusing on symmetrical warfare by sophisticated platforms, such as fighter jets and major surface combatants, to a new strategy of asymmetrical warfare for denying Beijing’s capabilities of invasion. 

By: Dr Shang-Su Wu, Rabdan Academy, Abu Dhabi

 
Mobility is the key for forces to survive, and land vehicles-based platforms would be a most feasible option for Taipei’s geostrategic conditions.
 
Aerial and surface platforms on sea were important in the traditional sea denial strategy, as well as island defense, but they would be vulnerable in Taiwan’s operational environment. With a limited number of airbases, airstrips and alternative runways on several highways, these locations are well known by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and are likely to be destroyed or paralyzed in the initial stage of a war.

Although there are a few aircraft shelters in Eastern Taiwan, they at best preserve some capacity rather than maintaining aerial operations under China’s standoff firepower.

If Taipei loses most its venues for aircraft to operate, its air force would not last more than a few hours or shorter. In the face of Beijing’s rising airpower of various massively produced combat aircraft with advanced sensors and munitions, supported by some sea-based and land-based long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) which reach Taiwan, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has at least achieved quantitative superiority which is likely to deny Taiwan’s aircraft to conduct any sea denial operation. 
 
Naval surface platforms, especially small fast attack craft (FAC) with ASCMs, are expected to be Taiwan’s important means of sea denial by ambushing PLA Navy (PLAN) in coastal areas, but the reality may be different.

Due to a limited length less than 1600 kilometres and highly transparent information, such as Google Map, most coastal hideouts for FACs can be detected by the PLAN in advance and thus they could be targeted before they can engage any target. Submarines are definitely formidable for carrying out sea denial, but Taipei’s development of its underwater force has been slow. After missing the offer by the United States, Taiwan then started its indigenous submarine project in 2015 and eventually launched the first one in 2023, despite the boat not physically reaching water in the ceremony.

Therefore, it is unlikely for Taipei to have a fully capable underwater fleet, but mainly on four old assets, of which two of them are the oldest military submarines in service in the world.
 
The mobile units on land can be hidden from Chinese surveillance in Taiwan’s complicated terrain, where about 77 per cent of the surface is either urbanized or forested, and then attack Chinese ships and aircraft which are essential for amphibious invasion across the Taiwan Strait. Since China is unlikely or unable to land the PLA on Taiwan on day one, the latter’s mobile units would have time to spread and conceal themselves island wide.

Beijing will project much, if not overwhelming, firepower to soften Taipei’s effort in defence as the preparation for the invasion, and some mobile platforms would be neutralised. However, if a certain number of Taiwan’s mobile units remain functional when the invasion comes, the PLA would risk heavy losses, particularly in amphibious ships and transport aircraft which are vulnerable.

Reduced airlift and sealift capacities of the PLAAF and PLA Navy (PLAN) would reduce the projection of forces, and constrain the logistical supply for China’s warfare onshore if its invasion is not initially defeated. Furthermore, Beijing with its weakened PLAAF and PLAN would fall in an inferior position vis-à-vis Washington and its allies, and it may be deterred by this unpleasant possibility.
 
Currently, Taipei’s mobile firepower is comprised of land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), loitering munitions (LMs), and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Taiwan’s mobile ASCMs are the indigenous Hsiung Feng (HF) II, II-ER, and III, in addition to the U.S. RGM-84L Harpoon coastal defence system.

The U.S. AGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) will be Taiwan’s TBM force, as the country’s LACMs are the indigenous HF-IIE and the forthcoming Hsiung Sheng missile. Taiwan is also developing its LMs, such as the Chien Hsiang (CH), which will be launched on mobile platforms.

The indigenous Tien Kung (TK) II and III and the American Patriot PAC-2/3 SAMs, as well as other models of SAMs with shorter ranges are mobile as well. Despite Washington’s delayed delivery of some weapons, such as Harpoon and ATACMS, Taipei would have already possessed a considerable number, likely more than 1000 or even 2000 such types of missiles, and the quantity is continuously growing, in a faster pace, due to additional production capacity established in 2022.
 
The strategic effect of Taiwan’s mobile units nevertheless could be eroded for several factors, namely mobility, deployment, reinforcement, and China’s alternative. The mobile units could lose mobility in the unfavorable operational environment in the island.

Taiwan is small and crowded with high population density of more 630 people per kilo meter square, and the actual number would be more than double due to 58 per cent of the island is mountainous, and close to 80 per cent of the whole population living in urban areas. In the event of war, traffic could easily block the maneuvering of mobile units during the chaos.

In addition, such a crowded environment makes concealing infeasible, because they could be found by people passing by. The highly urbanized and mountainous environment also forces mobile platforms to move along specific routes, due to insufficient space for these vehicles to go off-road. The mobile units’ truck-sized platforms are only suitable for certain roads rather than the entire road network, thus narrowing the mobile units’ mobility.

Easy access to geospatial information, such as Google Earth, would allow the PLA to identify those specific routes and tactical locations, possibly with the help of more precise intelligence the PLA might obtain. Accordingly, the PLA can plan tactics to constrain the areas where the mobile units can go by direct attacks to cut roads, and laying sub-munitions hindering repairing.   
 
The disadvantage is worsened for the geopolitical landscape of  Taiwan with population concentrated in the northern part where the capital, Taipei, is located. In northern Taiwan, population density and urbanization is further greater than the rest of the island, as the terrain divided by rivers and mountains where restrict mobile units’ movement.

Of course, Taipei can deploy mobile units in relatively remote areas for greater mobility, but additional distance may not fit the operational demands for SAMs, and making sub-sonic ASCMs and LACMs more likely to be intercepted by the PLA. In other words, a great deal of mobile units has to be deployed in and around Taipei, further impeding their mobility.
 
Preserving mobile units until eventually engaging PLA targets would be an uncertain period facing continuous survival challenges. Before leaving their bases, they are collective targets which could lose a lot in a single strike.

Moving between their bases and tactical positions, they may be traced by satellites, radars, drones, spies and other surveillance means, followed by strikes. After settled in tactical locations, a range of risks being exposed, such as due to re-supply, will remain, and it would be exaggerated when they need to relocate again. In other words, Taiwan may lose more mobile units than its estimation, and it could be lower than a level to repulse an invasion.   
 
Reinforcement and human resource would also affect Taipei’s quantity of mobile firepower. Unlike Ukraine with land borders to receive external supply, Taiwan is an island and, therefore, could be more easily blockaded during wartime, preventing it from receiving any additional mobile firepower assets and munitions.

China’s military exercises in 2022 and 2023 have demonstrate the PLA’s potential to conduct such a blockade surrounding the island. Although Taiwan maintains a considerable and sophisticated defence industry, its raw materials, some sub-systems and parts still depend on external supply. In parallel with the PLA’s massive build-ups, the United States’ stretched military forces, especially its navy, due to several ongoing armed conflicts worldwide imply their potential inability or low willingness to defy China’s blockade.

Taiwan may push its defence industry to the edge for production of standoff firepower in advance, but having sufficient personnel to operate them is another challenge. Suffering the plummeting fertility rate, Taiwan will have an increasingly small talent pool for the military to recruit. Despite re-extending compulsory military service from four months to a year from 2024, conscripts with a limited service would not form the mainstay of mobile units.
 
Finally, Beijing may apply an indirect strategy to bypass Taipei’s asymmetrical strategy of mobile firepower by exploiting the latter’s weakness. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, phasing out nuclear power plants has been an energy policy in Taiwan, particularly highlighted by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

However, natural gas, a major means to replace nuclear power, is low in storage which could only supply Taiwan’s electric power as short as 11 days. Despite Taipei’s effort in expanding natural gas tanks, such facilities are vulnerable to attacks. Thus, Taiwan may fall into a blackout state in less than two weeks of blockade, and lack of electric supply would be highly disruptive to urban residents who are about 80 per cent of the entire population. As such, Taipei would face a serious challenge in maintaining inner stability in the face of blockade alone. If the Taiwanese political leadership could not handle the chaos well, it may give in to Beijing’s demand, leaving mobile units never used for their purpose.
 
All in all, it is reasonable for Taipei to ameliorate its security by introducing an asymmetrical defence strategy which highlights mobile firepower to counter Beijing’s military threat. However, such an unconventional approach is not a panacea and China may be able to find solutions to overcome Taiwan’s defense, if the former chooses to use force. Taipei still has a long way to improve its defence rather than concentrating on a few types of arms .    
 
Reference: Wu, Shang-su. “The Survival of Mobile Firepower: An Uncertain Factor in Taiwan’s Asymmetrical Defense.” Asia Policy, vol. 18 no. 4, 2023, p. 93-114. , Project MUSE, https://doi.org/10.1353/asp.2023.a911627, Wu, S. (2023). The Survival of Mobile Firepower: An Uncertain Factor in Taiwan’s Asymmetrical Defense. Asia Policy 18(4), 93-114. https://doi.org/10.1353/asp.2023.a911627, Wu, Shang-su. “The Survival of Mobile Firepower: An Uncertain Factor in Taiwan’s Asymmetrical Defense.” Asia Policy 18, no. 4 (2023): 93-114. https://doi.org/10.1353/asp.2023.a911627.
 
Endnote: TY - JOUR T1 - The Survival of Mobile Firepower: An Uncertain Factor in Taiwan’s Asymmetrical Defense A1 - Wu, Shang-su JF - Asia Policy UR - https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/136/article/911627 N1 - Volume 18, Number 4, October 2023 ER -
 

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