What can Taiwan learn from a decade-old exercise in which the weaker party prevailed against its much more formidable opponent?
The days when Taiwan could be confident that it had a qualitative edge vis-à-vis China are long over, and they’re not coming back anytime soon. And while serving as an indication of a nation’s overall strength, the quantitative part — the number of tanks, soldiers and fighter jets — is not a very good indicator of what would happen in a conflict between the two actors. After all, the weaker side in a conflict has often ended up dancing in victory.
Lessons of history aside, it is hardly a disputable fact that while Taiwan has been struggling to acquire modern weapons, particularly for its air force (ROCAF) and navy (ROCN), the other side of the Taiwan Strait has transformed itself from a mediocre fighting force in the early 1990s to an impressive military that underwent modernization of all of its branches and which challenges not only Taiwan’s national security but also the position of the U.S. and its allies in Western Pacific.
This is not an entirely new situation for Taiwan, however; during the 1980s, its air force was equipped with F-5s and F-104s, and with no purchase in sight, it was not exactly a showcase of modern air power — even when compared with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) at the time. Quality briefly tilted again to Taiwan’s favor with the acquisition of 150 F-16A/Bs from the U.S. in the early 1990s. But China countered swiftly, pushing forward its indigenous (albeit relying on the import of Russian engines) fighter program, purchasing Russian Su-27SKs and launching production under license agreement. A decade later, China has embarked on an indigenous 5th-generation fighter project while all Taiwan received between 1990s and now is an upgrade for its fleet of F-16A/Bs with no new sale on the horizon.
The situation today is therefore akin to the 1980s. Taiwan is desperately trying to get new weapons from the U.S. while Washington hesitates. In the 1980s, economics and possibly a political opening of authoritarian Taiwan (though China was authoritarian as well) were limiting Taiwan’s room to maneuver. The momentum did not look well for Taiwan.
Many things happened between then and now. Taiwan has become democratic while China’s promise of political liberalization remains a dream. No one in his or her right mind can pretend that current political developments in China hold promise of a democratic opening. However, it is not soft power that defines China’s regional position and limits that of Taiwan; it is rather Beijing’s ascent to the status of a global power, and its determination to use force to annex Taiwan. A small democracy is being bullied by a much larger authoritarian neighbor. That may not be fair, but that is the harsh reality that Taiwan has to deal with.
Under these conditions, more than a few have argued that Taiwan’s economic reliance on China would eventually push Taipei to agree on unification. I have argued elsewhere that this is not likely to happen. Moreover, nations often decide to fight even when the prospects do not look good for them; think of Poland in 1939 or Ukraine in 2014, to name a more recent example. Another argument goes that China could force Taiwan to accept its conditions by launching a limited missile and air strike campaign. However, air power alone is rarely sufficient to force one into submission, and limited strikes have the potential to galvanize the population in Taiwan.
Leaving aside economic dependence and the limited strike argument, let us therefore look at what are the prospects for Taiwan’s strategists whose ultimate task is to prepare a counter to full-out attack by China.
Let’s be fair: Taiwanese defense planners do not stand idle. Anticipating missile and air strikes on their air bases, Taiwanese pilots regularly practice landing and takeoff on highways. The Navy is in the process of acquiring stealthy missile corvettes equipped with anti-ship missiles that would sneak close to an invasion fleet and send it to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait. Domestic production has delivered capable anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACM). After decades of waiting, Taipei appears determined to launch the domestic production of diesel-electric submarines. Bases are being hardened, mountainous terrain is being utilized, and long-range warning systems are being deployed. All that follows the ultimate purpose: to make the price of use of force against Taiwan so high that a potential invader will think twice before it makes a decision to attack.
Whether that will result in a more comprehensive asymmetrical approach, embraced by politicians on both sides of a very bipartisan aisle and within military brass alike, remains to be soon. However, reading the government’s Quadrennial Defense Review and the main opposition party’s Defense Blue Papers gives hope of a broadly shared consensus that this is the right direction forward, one that furthermore would include investments for procuring advanced weapons domestically and that will require, first and foremost, domestic consensus.
One precondition for success is that all branches of Taiwan’s military understand that under asymmetrical conditions their role may change substantially. The Air force would be under great stress and rather than try the impossible (i.e., compete with the PLAAF for air superiority in a Taiwan theatre) its role would be limited to preserving the capacity to generate enough sorties to prevent Chinese forces having the ability to strike ground targets at will. The same thing applies to Taiwan’s Navy: while its declared role is to protect Taiwan’s sea lines of communication (SLOC), it would find itself ill-positioned to actually attempt that protection. Upgrading port facilities and the airstrip on Itu Aba (Taiping Island) in the South China Sea could give the ROCN some breathing space (and that only if the island is not taken over by the PLA as a part of broader move against Taiwan).
However, the ROCN relies primarily on its bases on Taiwan proper and the Penghu islands, all of which would be among the main targets during the initial strikes. Taiwan’s surface fleet simply cannot operate independently on its bases in Taiwan for an extended period of time unless a friendly power allows them them to resupply elsewhere. Considering the limited options, who that friendly power might be is not too difficult to guess.
In short, the acquisition of means to conduct asymmetrical defense is only part of the deal for Taiwan. The other necessary component is a willingness to adapt to new conditions even if doing so redefines some very core values of the military — its main branches in particular.
In that sense, it may be useful to look at the war game Millennium Exercise 2002 for a lesson of how advantageous it would be to deploy one’s forces in a non-conventional (asymmetrical) manner against a stronger foe. Millennium Exercise 2002 (MC’02) was the largest war game held since the end of the Cold War and its purpose was to simulate a conflict with Iran (although Iraq was also an option). The result of the game was disaster for U.S. forces, as the “red team” led by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul van Riper sank or otherwise incapacitated over half of the invading fleet. Van Riper achieved his success by keeping his missile forces, both land and seaborne, on the move while turning off his air defense systems. Thus, while missile forces were moving around and no one knew exactly where, the U.S. team was prevented from conducting an airborne resupply of deployed land forces for fear of being exposed to mobile SAM systems. In addition, Van Riper used swarming tactics, sending large number of high-speed missile boats and launching land-based anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) against the U.S. fleet, sinking scores in the process. Andrew Krepinevich characterized the result in his 2009 piece in Foreign Affairs magazine (p. 20) as something that “would have been the United States’ worst naval disaster since Pearl Harbor.”
What were the reactions of the referees after the exercise? ‘The “red team” was ordered to turn on its air defense systems and immobilize its missile forces, while the “blue team” was reinforced. Under these conditions, the U.S. forces prevailed as expected. The political purpose of demonstrating the might of U.S. forces had prevailed.
The ingenuity of Van Riper’s move was to refuse to fight the enemy on its terms. This is an axiom that Sun-Tzu, the grandfather of military strategy, understood very well, as did generations of strategists and practitioners after him. Yet, every now and then surprise is delivered at the expense of the (typically) stronger side in the conflict. In an age of smart weapons, it appears to be wise to go “dumb.” Ultimately, it was Van Riper’s non-conventional thinking and his excellent reading of Iran’s capabilities that helped him to overcome the U.S. team. MC’02 gave the U.S. commanders a taste of how difficult it could be to deal with an Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) infrastructure in the hands of a skillful opponent. Back in 2002 the main concern was Iran, with China as “mere” supplier of ASCM capabilities to Tehran. Nowadays it is China’s own A2AD capabilities that threaten to lay waste to forward-deployed U.S. forces and the U.S. Navy surface fleet.
Perhaps the key lesson is that not even the most powerful military can be confident enough about its prospects if it faces a determined adversary that skillfully exploits the former’s weaknesses. Another is that the over-reliance of modern forces on technological advancements, while tempting and to a considerable extent inevitable, may be less useful against an opponent that refuses to play the same game. There are limits to that lesson as well.
Arguably, over time U.S. forces would in all likelihood prevail anyway, although the political costs of the great losses suffered in the process would surely be prohibitive. But that does not need concern Beijing. When we apply the MC’02 logic to a Taiwan contingency, if Beijing decides to conquer Taiwan whatever the costs — including a months-long war of attrition that would leave Taiwan in ruins — it would eventually prevail.
The main task for Taiwan’s defense strategist therefore is to make sure that such a scenario never happens. A recent policy document argues that by 2020 China will be ready to invade Taiwan. While the date should not be taken at face value, it is clear that the PLA capabilities needed for an amphibious invasion are getting stronger. To add to Taiwan’s difficulties, a potential U.S. intervention would be substantially delayed due to China’s A2AD infrastructure. Thus, Taiwan is seeking to have the capability to withstand a PLA attack for four weeks on its own. This is not unrealistic if the right measures are taken. By the time Beijing grows impatient with its initial failure, the U.S. would be ready to intervene and international pressure on China would mount. At least that is the idea behind the four-week endurance capability.
The lesson of MC’02 and from the study of Tehran and Beijing’s A2AD capabilities is that what Iran/China could be to the U.S., Taiwan may become to China. Silent submarines, stealthy missile boats and an island swarming with mobile ASCM and LACM systems is not exactly the desired environment into which to send a slow-moving, vulnerable, invasion fleet. The goal of defending Taiwan may not be that desperate after all.