The military balance across the Taiwan Straits appears to be moving inexorably against Taiwan. China continues to expand its array of ballistic missiles pointed at the island. The People’s Liberation Army is rapidly expanding its Navy with five new classes of submarines and a variety of surface combatants. The Chinese Air Force is transitioning from a defensive force equipped with relatively obsolescent systems to a smaller, yet more modern force capable of conducting complex air-to-air and air-to-ground operations.
Despite a commitment to maintain a balance of military power across the Taiwan Strait, U.S. Administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have seen fit to let the balance tilt in China’s favor. While permitting sales of some items such as P-3 antisubmarine warfare planes, Patriot air defense missiles and E-2 airborne early warning systems, in other instances Washington has blocked efforts to improve Taiwan’s defenses. Most recently, Washington has refused to act on Taipei’s request to purchase F-16 fighters to replace their worn-out F-5s. It seems clear that Taiwan’s effort to create an adequate conventional deterrent to Chinese aggression is unlikely to succeed.
Therefore, it may be time for a different approach. Perhaps Taiwan should borrow a page from a non-traditional military power: Hezbollah. The strategic and operational situations across the Lebanon-Israel border and the Taiwan Straits have some interesting similarities. In both cases, the balance of traditional military power overwhelmingly favors one side. Rather than accepting its inevitable inferiority, Hezbollah took a different, or asymmetric, approach. Like Taiwan, it built up conventional defenses to counter opposing land forces. Where it made its great strategic leap was in developing a low-cost counter to Israel’s superiority in long-range artillery and air power. Hezbollah has invested in tens of thousands of rockets and ballistic missiles with ranges from 25 to 600 miles. It has dispersed these weapons throughout southern Lebanon to make counter-battery fire by Israel. During the 2006 war, Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel. Current estimates of its inventory are as high as 80,000, although most of these are very short range systems. Nevertheless, this poses a potent deterrent to Israel.
The Taiwan Straits are between 131 and 180 km wide. There are a number of relatively simple rockets and ballistic missiles that exceed this distance. Hezbollah’s arsenal includes the 250 km Fateh, the Iranian-designed Zelzal 2 with a range of between 200 and 400 km and, allegedly, the venerable Scud with ranges of between 300 and 600 km. Systems like these are easily available on the world’s arms market but also could readily be produced by Taiwan at home.
Taiwan might consider the “Hezbollah deterrent.” A large number of conventionally-armed rockets and shorter-range ballistic missiles distributed around the country could pose to China the same kind of threat of massed missile attacks that Beijing now presents to nations along its periphery. A distributed arsenal of rockets and missiles would be extremely difficult for China to neutralize. Moreover, relatively simple precision-guidance technology could dramatically increase the effectiveness of these weapons. A barrage of missiles could play havoc with the PLA’s airfields, naval bases and communications infrastructure. Taiwan could add to its defensive potential by also deploying relatively low-cost armed unmanned aerial systems, the potential of which Hezbollah is also exploring.
Taiwan needs the proverbial “out-of-the-box” approach to its defense. Trying to buy or build a traditional conventional defense is becoming nearly impossible. As China invests more of its great wealth in a high-end military, Taiwan should consider going low-tech.
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