Taiwan’s military is to a considerable extent of defensive nature. This is driven by the general assumption – reflected in major defense policy documents such as Quadrennial Defense Review and 2011 National Defense Report – that military’s primary mission is to shield Taiwan from any form of China’s offensive action, including ballistic missile attack or extensive air campaign. Moreover, the likelihood of Taiwan initiating war against any of its neighbors – China included – is relatively low. Scope of Taiwan’s arsenal is also restricted by Taiwan Relations Act provisions limiting U.S. arms sales to defensive articles (although it can be well argued that defensive or offensive nature of particular weapon depends on the intent of its user).
The “for defense only” restriction is indeed problematic one. Concerns about offensive role may even play supporting role in the delayed sale of 66 F-16C/Ds or even more protracted acquisition of diesel-powered submarines to Taiwan. Nevertheless, despite U.S. opposition, Taiwan has decided to acquire such capabilities that would enable Taiwan’s military to conduct missile strikes within Chinese territory. The debate about counter-offensive capability for Taiwan has been in place since late 1990s and despite decrease in Cross-Strait tension after 2008, efforts to acquire surface-to-surface missiles have not disappeared. Shortly after 2008 elections, President Ma Ying-jeou ordered production of 300 land attack cruise missiles Hsiung Feng (Brave Wind) 2E with 600km range (plans for 800km version were reportedly scrapped). Although U.S. appeared to be blocking sale of crucial parts for HF-2E missiles, it did not effectively stopped the production as HF-2Es are being deployed to combat units.
However, development has not stopped with Hsiung Feng missiles family (HF-1/2/3 are domestically built anti-ship missiles) and Taiwan’s nascent surface-to-surface missile force is set to receive significant capability booster some time after 2014. New Cloud Peak (Yunfeng) missile is reported to be able to hit targets as far as 1,200km with possible extended range of 2,000km (see attached map). Mass production of 50-60 missiles would start in 2014 and first units could be deployed in 2015. Little is known about technical details of HF-2E and Yunfeng missiles, including their accuracy (or expected accuracy in case of latter), HF-2E has never been publicly displayed unlike its anti-ship “sisters” HF-2 and HF-3, but it is clear that Taiwan’s defense industry made significant improvements in terms of ability to produce missiles domestically.
From the U.S. perspective, Taiwan’s missile program could be regarded as Pandora box, allowing Taiwan to embark on first strike before formally declaring independence. Yet, logic of such move would be unclear. First, Taiwan would not inflict such damage on PLA to prevent immediate retaliation. Second, any such action would legitimize the full range of Chinese military actions, including amphibious invasion. Third, Taiwanese decision makers would risk losing U.S. support that is conditioned by unprovoked attack by China. Indeed, there is a grey zone in which Taiwan could initiate attack as a preemptive action when it is clear that China has departed towards execution of armed attack against Taiwan. Although such action is not often discussed publicly, it is not foreign to academic circles. In 2011, article in academic journal Issues & Studies discussed an option of preemptive strike under 5 different scenarios. The evidence offered by the author Heng-Yu Lee (李恆宇) suggests that it would be in Taiwan’s interest to strike first when it becomes clear that conflict is inevitable.
Preemptive strike is of course problematic option and initiator of such move risks negative response from international community, Israel’s strike initiating Six-day war in 1967 can serve as an example. However, it seems prudent to assume that Taiwan’s decision makers would green-light preemptive strike only in the presence of strong evidence of the inevitability of Chinese attack and that this evidence would be communicated with the U.S., Taiwan’s EWR radar would be instrumental in providing such evidence. Needless to say that preemptive strike is under any circumstances extremely risky proposition for Taiwan, yet simply giving up on any capability to hit military targets in China does not make Taiwan any safer. In any case, counter-strike ability should have its place in Taiwan’s defense planning even when deliberately excluding preemptive option. Refraining from having such capability would only further exacerbate Taiwan’s disadvantages , effectively sending message to Beijing that its military infrastructure would not be affected should it decide to take Taiwan by force.