Sino-Taiwanese relations have been chilly ever since Tsai Ing-wen became president of the Republic of China (RoC) in May 2016, which resurfaced the million-dollar question of “How best to defend Taiwan during a cross-Strait crisis or conflict?”
Most analysts would agree on Taiwan’s need to adopt an asymmetric strategy to counter the overwhelming might of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Aircraft, submarines, and missile boats are the most-touted capabilities that would reduce the odds of challenging the PLA Navy in war. In this regard, the RoC Air Force (RoCAF) is armed with the Boeing’s Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM), while the navy has Hsiung Feng (HF) II/III ASCM-armed Fast Attack Craft (FAC). Taipei has also initiated the so-called “Indigenous Defence Submarine” programme to bolster its sub-surface warfare prowess.
What is much less discussed when analysing Taiwan’s military strategy against China is the mobile coastal defence cruise missile (CDCM) system. Information on its ground-based ASCM platforms is scant. The 2018 edition of the authoritative Military Balance published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) makes no mention of this capability. To be sure, a road-mobile HF-3 launcher was unveiled during a defence trade show in Taipei in 2013, but little has been made known about Taiwanese land-based anti-ship capabilities since. This gap in the literature does little justice to the CDCM platform, as it is of immense utility in Taiwan’s defence planning.
The platform’s mobility means that it could significantly complicate China’s operational calculus, as these weapons compress the available sea space where the PLA Navy can operate. The noted strategic affairs commentator Robert Kaplan once said: “Never provide your adversary with only a few problems to solve… because if you do, he’ll solve them.” It is worth noting that Taiwan’s latest quadrennial defence review stresses the importance of “multi-domain deterrence”. A terrestrial ship-attack capability would go some way towards achieving this as the Chinese would face threats emanating from all three operating domains.
Should the Taiwanese deploy CDCM platforms in large numbers, the Chinese would be challenged to find them without significant intelligence and surveillance assets. Adopting ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactics, a road-mobile CDCM launcher could fire its weapons and move away quickly to prevent retribution. It is worth noting that during the 2006 Lebanon War, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) found it extremely difficult to locate the mobile missile launchers of Hezbollah. In the same vein, the 1991 ‘Great Scud Hunt’ in Iraq and 1999 Kosovo war show that finding and targeting such platforms is not easy. The CDCM launchers could also be camouflaged or hidden in plain sight in innocuous shipping containers. Indeed, the Taiwanese would do well to learn about the Russian Club-K container missile system and adapt their ASCMs to be deployable in a similar configuration. Such capabilities being placed in many locations across the length of Taiwan could significantly dilute the combat effectiveness of the PLA’s air and missile power.
To be sure, a FAC, with its speed and agility, is also a highly mobile asset, but it needs to be out at sea before war begins to preclude being targeted by the widely expected surprise Chinese missile barrage that would hit the few major Taiwanese naval bases in existence. Ditto the RoCAF and its air bases. Moreover, even if the airplanes or naval craft were to be at a distance from their home bases at the start of hostilities, they would have to return to replenish. By then, their home bases might already have been incapacitated. In addition, ships, even small stealthy ones like the RoC Navy’s Tuo Chiang-class corvette, have a much larger visual, electronic, and radar signature compared to the ASCM-toting land vehicles.
Taiwan’s current accent is on the indigenous submarine programme, but the jury is still out on whether the island has the requisite capacity and resources for this endeavour. The submarine is widely considered the gold standard of maritime asymmetric warfare platforms, but perhaps it is time for Taiwan’s defence authorities to reconsider this notion. Going forward – if it has not already done so – Taipei would do well to place greater emphasis on mobile coastal defence cruise missile platforms as part of the anti-access/area-denial (A2D2) strategy against Beijing. In war, these weapons could exude effects out of proportion to their size and cost. During peacetime, they can contribute to deterrence and, concomitantly, strategic stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Note: Ben Ho is an associate research fellow with the military studies programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org