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Deterring a Chinese attack against Taiwan: 16 steps

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on April 2nd, 2004

With the reelection of President Chen Shui Bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led government, Taiwan takes a significant step toward consolidating its democracy, but Chen's victory is also likely to cause Communist China to intensify its preparations for war. To avoid what could be a very hot war on the Taiwan Strait, President George Bush should focus greater and more urgent attention on what is required to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan. As the U.S. Department of Defense has noted in its annual reports on Chinese military modernization, the main goal of this effort is to build a capability needed to wage war against Taiwan, and if needed, the United States. It is possible that such an attack may come as early as one to three years from now barring either an unforeseen diplomatic breakthrough or a radical change in priorities for the Communist government in Beijing.

For Beijing, the reelection of Chen heralds a decisive shift in Taiwan public sentiment against "reunification," the fulfillment of which is a key pillar of legitimacy for the Beijing regime. Beijing has given its People's Liberation Army (PLA) a decisive role to play in fulfilling the goal of "reunification." Thwarting Beijing's plans are essential for U.S. national security interests. These interests are reflected in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and remain valid today: the future of Taiwan should not be settled by armed force but by peaceful means. If the PRC succeeds in militarily conquering Taiwan then the U.S. would quickly lose its power position in Asia. Starting late in the Clinton Administration, the U.S. began to understand the looming PLA threat to Taiwan and began a process of closer engagement with Taipei. In 2001 this process was accelerated by the Bush Administration, especially to promote sorely needed military reforms by Taiwan.

But in Taiwan since 2001, military reform has been fraught with political and financial issues, but Chen's reelection now brings more urgency to this task. The Chen Administration, with quiet advice from Washington, has sought to consolidate new Air Force and Navy capabilities. However, a looming PLA threat makes it essential that the U.S. work with Taiwan to increase Taiwan Army and local defense capabilities as well. In addition, the U.S. should also seek to sell Taiwan very new but promising military technologies that could give Taiwan some key asymmetrical advantages that would strengthen deterrence in the next two years. Finally, Washington must revisit the unfulfilled 2001 Quadrennial Review and significantly improve the U.S. force posture in Asia to deter a PRC attack on Taiwan. Ten steps that Taipei and Washington can do to increase Taiwan's ability to deter a Chinese attack are as follows:

1. Washington should suggest strongly to Taipei that it implement achievable and affordable reforms that serve to strengthen confidence in their military forces to survive initial attack: build better leadership survival capabilities; new survivable C4ISR system; new and many shelters for weapons; strengthen existing shelters; strengthen the NCO corps and greatly increase attractiveness of military service.

2. The U.S. also should suggest to Taipei that it strengthen its civil defense capabilities and defense-in-depth capabilities. This will require strengthening its Reserve forces and their ability to mobilize and join regular army units, or to defend local municipalities. Reserve force weapon stockpiles should also be updated to better enable conduct anti-armor and anti-air operations. Taipei should institute national high school level rudimentary military and emergency medical training.

3. Washington should urge Taiwan to implement as soon as possible new national security laws that protect secret information and allow for proper security screening for all personnel with access to classified information.

4. The U.S. should sell Taiwan either a limited number of ballistic missiles or cruise missiles, or technology to make them. These are needed to build an effective "offensive" capability that can pre-empt an imminent Chinese offensive strike. Sales options should include a 300km range version of the JASSM cruise missile or the ATACMS SRBM. A total "defensive" doctrine for Taiwan is no longer able to sustain deterrence.

5. Urge Taiwan to follow thru quickly on intentions to purchase Patriot PAC 3 anti-missile missiles. But in addition, the U.S. should encourage Taiwan to invest in specific energy-defense weapon development in the U.S. that can later be sold to Taiwan.

6. Urge Taiwan to invest in a series of unmanned aircraft for several purposes, to include high-altitude surveillance and communication nodes, and medium range precision attack. These UAVs should have the main task of finding and attacking PLA SAM sites that will severely restrict Taiwan Air Force defense operations.

7. Taiwan Army modernization is now as essential a component of deterrence as is Air Force and Navy modernization. The U.S. should sell Taiwan a small number of 120mm gun-armed M1A2 main battle tanks. These are needed to deter new and very capable PLA tanks equipped with Russian 125mm guns and Russian gun-launched anti-tank missiles. But more important, the U.S. should sell Taiwan modern 105mm guns to arm a new series of more mobile indigenous wheeled armored infantry fighting vehicles. The U.S. should also suggest that Taiwan also accelerate the purchase of additional attack helicopters.

8. Suggest that Taiwan work with Washington to investigate the purchase of some a new Russian series of very small but capable submarines that should offer significant life-time savings over current conventional submarines. In addition, Taiwan should be urged to rapidly purchase used Lockheed P-3 Orion or S-3 Viking anti-submarine patrol aircraft.

9. Sell Taiwan the AIM-9X helmet display sighted air-to-air missile to confer a balance with the Russian R-73 helmet-sighted AAMs that arm PLAAF Su-27 and Su-30 fighters.

10. Create a new private firm that can facilitate "virtual" training for the Taiwan armed forces with experienced foreign military personnel. Such personnel should be hired to perform in globally distributed combat simulators linked to similar simulators in Taiwan.  


In September 2001 the new Pentagon leadership under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued a Quadrennial Defense Review that made recommendations to increase the deterrent posture of U.S. forces in Asia. Soon overtaken by the requirements of the War on Terrorism, and then the War in Iraq, the Bush Administration has been unable to fulfill these requirements, which included: increasing the presence of U.S. carrier battle groups; strengthening U.S. Air Force air support units; and increasing East Asian area training for Marine forces. The Bush Administration has increased U.S. forces stationed at Guam to three nuclear attack submarines and 12 B-52 bombers. The requirements to support possible military action in support of Taiwan, or against North Korea, however, now mean that it is time to devote new military resources to Asia. Six steps that the U.S. can take would include:

1. Increase the number of in-region combat strike forces that can be used over a Taiwan theater within 12 hours of a clear warning of imminent PLA attack. This will require that the U.S. increase the number of cruise missile-armed SSNs patrolling the Western Pacific and that it make this region the first deployment priority for new Trident SSGNs. The U.S. should also increase the number of F-15C squadrons deployed to Okinawa from two to four, and deploy B-1 bombers, E-2 AWACS, KC-135 refueling and C-17 transport aircraft to Guam. In addition, the U.S. should deploy new F/A-22 air superiority fighters to Guam as soon as possible. These are especially needed to put in theater a U.S. fighter that will be decisively superior to the 300+ Russian Sukhoi Su-27/Su-30 fighters the PLA Air Force may have by 2005. It is also critical to significantly increase the production of all cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions.

2. Washington should also increase U.S. military assets designed to protect its forces in Asia. It is imperative that the U.S. deploy THAAD missiles to Okinawa and Guam to protect against the PLA's highly accurate DF-21C and DF-15 Mod 1 medium-range missiles. If THAAD cannot be made available quickly, then the U.S. should consider the purchase of Israeli ARROW missile interceptors. The U.S. must also redouble security around all its forces based in Asia to protect against 5th column or PLA Special Forces attacks. There should be heightened protective measures for U.S. forces in Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. West Coast that may also be used in the event of a Taiwan conflict.

3. The looming possibility of a war to preserve freedom on Taiwan also means that the U.S. will have to rapidly increase the number of missiles devoted to the mission of National Missile Defense (NMD). China is now increasing the number of long-range missiles, and could have at least 60 new ICBMS and 64 SLBMs in service by 2010. The PLA is also increasing the penetration capability of these missiles, precisely to counter U.S. NMD, and thus, to sustain its ability to threaten the U.S. with nuclear attack if it decides to help defend freedom on Taiwan. An effective National Missile Defense for the United States capable of defeating PLA ICBMs is therefore, a major requirement for the U.S. to come to Taiwan's defense with confidence.

4. The U.S. should consider immediate investments that would increase the ability of the U.S. Navy to defend against a rapidly growing number of effective PLA nuclear and non-nuclear attack submarines. The PLA could have 50 modern and near-modern submarines by 2010, to include three new SSNs, 27 new SSKs plus about 18 older SSKs and three older SSNs. The U.S. Navy should consider the rapid improvement of its anti-submarine capabilities, to include re-activating 5-10 retired Spruance class destroyers to improve its deep-ocean ASW capability. The Navy should also consider re-activating the anti-submarine warfare capability on 4 squadrons of Lockheed S-3 Viking carrier-based ASW aircraft-a capability that was removed in 1999.

5. The U.S. should mount a concerted diplomatic campaign to convince allies like Japan and the Philippines that a PRC attack on Taiwan poses a direct threat to their national security, and thus, should work with the U.S. to deter China. Japan should be asked to provide air and naval combat support for U.S. forces and the Philippines should be asked to provide basing, in the event of an emergency. In addition, the U.S. and the Philippines should begin extensive cooperation in the training of Airborne forces, to include major bi-lateral exercises in the Philippines and the U.S.

6. Finally, the U.S. should begin a public education campaign in Asia and Europe to highlight China's threat to democratic Taiwan, making clear that if China chooses to wage war on Taiwan, it will also be declaring its long-term hostility to every other civilized democratic society. The U.S. should make clear that China does not have the right to settle its differences with Taiwan by war. The U.S. should mount a far louder campaign to convince Europe not lift its Tiananmen-related arms embargo against China-which it may do before this summer. And Washington should begin now to plan to lead a total global economic embargo against China whether it wins or loses a war against Taiwan.

Originally published by the Center for Security Policy.

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