The best defense is a good offense: Taiwan’s counter-strike capability

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.

Taiwan Missile Ranges
Created for Taiwan in Perspective. Copyright: Evan Centanni,

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.


  1. I am glad I have found this blog! First, a question regarding this statement “even more protracted acquisition of diesel-powered submarines” – who would the potential supplier, of the hardware or technology? I have often wondered but was under the impression that such acquisition would be a pipedream given the diplomatic hell the PRC would rain down on any government involved. especially given the PLA(N)’s almost comical vulnerability to ASW.

    Second, a related observation – it is fascinating how the Taiwanese and Japanese defense postures (my area) is so different given some overlapping interests in keeping a certain growing regional naval power from running wild and upsetting the status quo. Would be very complementary actually in a fantasy world- Japan with its natural defensive posture including naval access denial capabilities and BMD, and Taiwan with its growing ability to deter through “punishment” as you seem to have pointed out.

  2. Thanks for your question! From what I know, there were two to three options (1) U.S. would build those submarines (possibly with some technology transfer from third country); (2) U.S. would buy decommissioned submarines from third country and re-sell them to Taiwan or (3) U.S. would buy new submarines from third country. In any case, such arrangement would help concerned third country (most likely Germany) to be shielded from China’s anger…and China is always angry for a while and then just let it go. Perhaps it would be a bit longer in case of subs but I would not expect them to introduce some harsh punitive measures…my friend wrote 2-part piece on subs for Taiwan:

    I think your observation is spot on although it is not likely that Taiwan’s offensive missile force will grow to some extensive numbers. But on a general level, there is much overlap and just because we do not hear about that in the news every day I would not automatically assume that there are no military-to-military contacts on more closer basis. Did you know that new Taiwan’s early warning radar detected the most recent DPRK missile few minutes earlier than Japan?

    • Thanks for the link and answer, found a few more good sites!

      “But on a general level, there is much overlap and just because we do not hear about that in the news every day I would not automatically assume that there are no military-to-military contacts on more closer basis.”

      A good point. And if East China Sea tensions worsen then Japan may become more explicit about this – essentially since 1978 it has accommodated China’s sensitivities more than anyone regarding Taiwan, content to let the US make a big fuss. Some inside Japan may start to wish revising such an approach – there were signs of that in 2005 – although I think we are still a far distance away from this at least from the Japanese side at this point. Much will depend on what happens in the months after Xi consolidates himself this year, which Japan’s China watchers are particularly keeping an eye on.

      “Did you know that new Taiwan’s early warning radar detected the most recent DPRK missile few minutes earlier than Japan?”

      That I certainly did not know. Very interesting. Actually I wrote a little about the DPRK recent launch over at Japan Security Watch: which very briefly touches on possible implications for Taiwan and BMD. For that matter, we also run “Asia Security Watch” over at We started with JSW and consolidated that, but are now moving into something a bit broader. If you want any particular posts on security featured then we would be happy to accommodate and publish them there for you also with a link back to the original. This particular post would make a great candidate. I switch back and forth between my own personal blog on domestic Japanese politics and security matters myself. No pressure and thanks again for the reply.

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