Week in Taiwan Defense 3&4/2018

U.S.-Taiwan-China relations in 2018, China takes first delivery of S-400 SAM, continuing spat over M503 route, reform of Taiwan’s defense industry, future and possible defense acquisitions, and more in this double issue of the Week in Taiwan Defense.

Issue 3&4 (15 January to 28 January 2018)

Taiwan’s special forces operators during exercise. Image Credit: CC by 青年日報 Youth Daily News/Flickr.

U.S.-Taiwan relations in 2018: Taiwan in Perspective’s Michal Thim argues in a piece for BBC中文/Taiwan Sentinel that recent developments concerning the M503 air route and increase in PLA’s activity around Taiwan suggests that Beijing finally realized that there is no ground in Taiwan for willing unification with China. Thus, shifting status quo will be typical for use of sticks rather than carrots in China’s approach to Taiwan. Taiwan’s closer cooperation with the U.S., Japan, and other regional stakeholders might help create a new, stable status quo.

There is a way forward for China, Taiwan, and the U.S., although not one that China would like. Due to the absence of positive signs from Beijing on the horizon, closer U.S.-Taiwan cooperation is necessary to keep Beijing in check and reassure Tokyo that the U.S. will uphold its East Asian commitments. The U.S. should also help foster closer, richer diplomatic and security ties between Taiwan and Japan, and between Taiwan and other actors on China’s border, especially India and Vietnam. Taiwan has already taken the initiative on many of those issues. Its relations with Japan are a shining example of good neighborly relations. However, U.S. support could help open doors that would otherwise remain closed help mitigate fears of Chinese retaliation.

Original piece in Chinese can be found here: 學者點評:中共統一大業不能再依賴國民黨

S-400 for China: Russia reportedly started deliveries of its most advanced SAM system yet—S-400 Triump (NATO: SA-21 Growler)—to China. S-400 is allegedly able to hit a target as far as 400km depending on a missile type, which would put all of Taiwan within S-400 reach should the system be deployed in Fujian province just across the Taiwan Strait. Wendell Minnick (Shephard Media) quotes Russian expert Vassily Kashin who provides specifics of the planned delivery:

‘The six battalions initially reported in 2014 was wrong. There are two regiments, consisting of four battalions total. My understanding is that initially they will be with 48N6 missiles of various modifications with a range of 250km, while the 400km-range 40N6E will be added later. Technically, an S-400 battalion can have up to 12 launchers although, in Russia, it seems they usually have eight,’ explained Kashin.

Minnick further quotes anonymous US expert who explains that notwithstanding the exact type of missile, the real asset for the PLA is S-400’s targetting radar that could be linked-up with PLA Navy ships operatign around Taiwan and hand them off targetting data.

Sale of S-400 to China prompted debate on the potential use of the system for ‘offensive air defense,’ i.e. use of the system to suppress Taiwan’s air force ability to operate within its air space as its plane could be targetted by SAMs right after the take-off. Michal Thim addressed some of the issues related to ‘offensive air defense’ deployment of S-400 in a 2015 piece for Thinking Taiwan:

The first difficulty is imposed by the curvature of the earth. The missile may well have an effective range of 400km, but that does not mean it can hit targets from zero altitude to the claimed 30km. Taiwan air force (ROCAF) fighter jets taking-off from bases on the west coast would be safe at least until they climb to over 10,000 feet (about 3km). While that is still relatively low compared to usual operational altitude of over 20,000 feet, it is high enough to engage incoming PLA Air Force (PLAAF) combat aircraft. ROCAF jets taking off from east coast bases would enjoy additional protection from Taiwan’s central and coastal mountain ranges. Moreover, target acquisition by S-400 designated radars would be equally compromised.

Secondly, even though the S-400 is capable to reach targets as far as 400km, with greater distance the missile’s performance is compromised as it gradually loses maneuverability after it burns all fuel, thus making it easier for its target to dodge the missile with electronic counter-measures and evasive maneuvers.

Thirdly, even if Taiwan won’t be in a position to execute as effective a SEAD campaign as the IAF did in 1982, it can still apply some elements of “passive SEAD,” including jamming of the SAM radars and innovative employment of UAVs.

It is also speculative that the S-400 will be deployed across the Taiwan Strait to conduct ‘offensive air defense’ mission. S-400 will be most capable SAM in China’s inventory and its missile defense capability would be better served by deploying S-400 to protect PLA’s critical infrastructure rather than conduct highly-problematic ‘offensive AD.’ Such use is also unnecessary from PLA’s standpoint. PLAAF has the means to fight for air superiority over Taiwan and using SAM systems for offensive purpose would restrict PLAAF’s own operations.

Technical difficulties aside, “offensive AD” would be a bad option for China. First and foremost, using SAMs for offensive operations restrict one’s use of combat aircraft in the theater of operations — i.e. PLAAF planes would need to stay away in order not to become targets themselves. While this may be considered as hypothetical scenario, it does not make much sense after China invested considerable resources acquiring enough air power to gain air superiority over Taiwan. “Offensive AD” is just an attempt to achieve area-denial as an alternative to achieving air superiority by more traditional means. By definition, this “asymmetrical” approach is preferable only if one’s air forces cannot outperform the opponent’s. The Syrians in 1982 were in this situation, as demonstrated by their stunning defeat following the destruction of their SAMs. While the actual combat performance of PLAAF pilots is an unknown variable, it is hard to imagine they would ever come close to the lows of the Syrian air force in June of 1982.

F-35 for Taiwan: Michael Mazza and Gary Schmitt urge sale of F-35B to Taiwan in the piece published on The National Interest

But to truly address the current imbalance in the air over the Strait and skies of Taiwan requires a quantum leap in Washington’s thinking about what to make available to Taiwan. And there is no asset in that regard as potentially advantageous as the F-35B. Its stealth makes it far more survivable when facing large numbers of enemy aircraft and modern air defenses. And its advanced electronic warfare system has the capacity to locate and jam enemy radars and sensor systems, giving other aircraft, such as Taiwan’s F-16s, a better chance of fighting and surviving. In addition, the F-35B with its short takeoff and vertical landing capability reduces the need for large basing requirements—a capability essential when facing an enemy with an arsenal of accurate cruise and ballistic missiles. Dispersing aircraft will be an increasingly important stratagem for ensuring they survive—a stratagem more difficult to carry out with conventional fighters.

In addition to F-35Bs, authors also argue that reversal of earlier decision not to sell advanced versions of F-16 fighter jets is in order.

Related: read Taiwan in Perspective’s Kitsch Liao’s two analyses on the issue of possible F-35 sale to Taiwan: Top Gun: A Case of F-35 for Taiwan (2014) & Taiwan’s Grail Quest for F-35s

Future of Taiwan’s Defense industry: Out of necessity, Taiwan turned to a domestic defense industry for weapons it cannot acquire abroad. J. Michael Cole (Taiwan Sentinel) argues that it is time to rethink industry’s and government’s approach to become more outward-looking:

A sustainable, if not profitable, indigenous defense industry will perforce have to open up to the world, much more significantly than it has to date. Not only would this enlarge the potential market for defense articles developed or manufactured, in whole or in part, by Taiwanese companies, it would also facilitate the transfer of technologies that are currently unavailable in Taiwan. Another, if derivative, positive offshoot of connecting Taiwan’s defense sector with foreign partners would be political, in that it would create another channel linking Taiwan to the international community. (A role for Taiwan as part of an international consortium could also engender less backlash from Beijing than the acquisition of a complete platform from a foreign firm, thus lowering the political costs for both Taiwan and the foreign countries and firms involved.)

Asymmetric capabilities for the ROC Navy: ROC Navy will look into possibility to build a fleet of 60 small fast missile boats with low observability (stealth) and displacement of mere 45 tons. For comparison, Tuo Jiang-class corvette has displacement of 600 tons and Kuang Hua VI-class fast attack boat 171 tons. Fast and stealthy missile boats equipped with either subsonic Hsiung Feng II or supersonic Hsiung Feng III anti-ship cruise missiles are among counter-measures intended to offset PLA Navy’s conventional superiority. However, not everyone is satisfied with the plan:

The attack boats might be too light to offer a stable platform for the Hsiung Feng II anti-ship missiles, Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Tsai Shih-ying (蔡適應) said.

The small size of the ships would bar the possibility of installing anything but the most basic of radar systems, if their installation were even possible, which would greatly affect missile capability, Tsai said.

While the ministry’s assessments determined that the attack boats would be able to conduct missions in conditions up to level 5 winds on the Beaufort scale, wind speeds and waves during the winter often exceed level 5, Tsai said, adding that the proposed missile boats would be largely limited by such factors.

Global Taiwan Brief (Issue 2, Vol. 3) released: Far Beyond the Centerline: China’s Assertive Bomber Flights Around Taiwan by David An (Global Taiwan Institute); Why China Should (Still) Feel Good About Taiwan… But Maybe Not For Long by Derek Grossman (RAND Corporation); Taiwan’s Demographic Crunch and its Military Implications by Michael Mazza (AEI); Taiwanese Public Opinion on the Future of Cross-Strait Relations by Austin Horng-En Wang (Duke University).

China’s Hybrid Warfare and Taiwan: Ying Yu Lin (National Chung Cheng University) argues that Taiwan needs to be ready for Beijing exploiting cyber space and disinformation prior to outbreak of hostilities:

With the popularization of internet technology, a combined use of digital technology and public opinion warfare on the internet will become the focus of attention for every country. How to beat the enemy by being one step ahead, prevent against possible war scenarios, and even launch a preemptive strike to gain the high ground in digital public opinion warfare will become areas of concern for Taiwan to probe into in the future.

Chinese Hacking Against Taiwan: A Blessing for the United States?: Philip Hsu argues that it is the time for U.S. to utilize Taiwan’s long-standing experience with the activity of Chinese APT actors:

Given overlapping strategic objectives, the United States remains Taiwan’s main security partner. Some U.S. Federal agencies and corporations recognize Taiwan’s unique position in China’s cyber operations. The U.S. Department of Commerce led a trade mission of 20 U.S. companies to Taiwan last June, and American firms have been actively acquiring Taiwanese cybersecurity companies. Intelligence cooperation related to cybersecurity undoubtedly already takes place between Taiwan and the United States, given the presence of the NSA, and possibly the CIA, on the island.

Aerial refueling for Taiwan?: Richard D. Fisher Jr. and Jamas A. Lyons argue in an editorial for The Washington Times that the U.S. should offer Taiwan aerial refueling planes KC-135:

Tankers would allow F-16 to better maintain a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) presence beyond the range of Chinese SAMs, giving cover to other Taiwan manned fighters searching for errant airliners, rather than using one-way SAMs. KC-135 tankers would also allow Taiwan F-16s to keep constant pace with circling PLAAF bombers and fighters.


MND announces three weapons deals with US: The Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced three arms deals with the US worth a combined NT$13.35 billion (US$453.6 million) for 250 Block FIM-92 Stinger MANPAD missiles, torpedo service life extension packs and Standard Missile-2 spare modules.

Taiwan’s long-range strike capability: Supersonic land-attack cruise missile (SLACM) Cloud Peak (雲峰) continues to be on track now when reports surfaced that the MND plans to extend range of the missile from 1,200km to 2.000km.

China says Taiwan’s ‘permission’ is not needed to open new air route above narrow strait, dismissing objections from Taipei: The Chinese government said Wednesday that it does not need Taiwan’s permission to open new air routes, after Taipei complained that a new route over the narrow Taiwan Strait that separates the two was a security and safety risk.

Chinese aircraft carrier enters Taiwan’s ADIZ: In a press statement, the MND said the vessel exited the ADIZ around noon on Wednesday going northwest and there was no cause for alarm.

Taiwan denies permission for nearly 200 China flights amid routes row: Taiwan has refused permission for nearly 200 flights by Chinese airlines over the strait that separates the two rivals due to the carriers’ use of controversial new travel routes introduced by China.

MAC calls for cross-strait negotiation to resolve air dispute: Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Deputy Minister Chiu Chui-cheng (邱垂正) said Saturday that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should begin negotiations on aviation issues related to Beijing’s recent unilateral decision to launch a flight route close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan’s 2nd Apache combat squadron to enter service in mid-2018: Taiwan’s second squadron of Apache attack helicopters is likely to enter service later this year after the first combat squadron was commissioned last year under the Army Aviation and Special Forces Command, an army officer said Sunday.

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