Taiwan's homegrown missiles point to an evolving defense doctrine

Today, Defense News cited an AFP article which reported that Taiwan's defense ministry has opted to not deploy a new indigenously-produced multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) on an outlying island six kilometers from the mainland port city of Xiamen. The article cited improving relations with the mainland as the reason for the Taiwan government's decision.

The most interesting feature of this article is what it reveals about Taiwan's expanding missile design and production capability. Taiwan's new MLRS is designed to fire 40 rockets within a minute at targets up to 45 kilometers away. This salvo is designed to suppress at area equal to 80 football fields. According to the article, Taiwan's military intends to use this system to defend against a hypothetical amphibious assault.

The MLRS is not the only new indigenous missile from Taiwan. In December, Taiwan's deputy defense minister claimed that Taiwan was mass-producing two cruise missile models. The first is a long-range land attack cruise missile, similar to the U.S. Tomahawk. The second is a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. We can assume that the land attack cruise missile is designed to hold at risk important fixed targets on the mainland. The anti-ship missile would be used with the MLRS to counter amphibious assaults.

The growth of Taiwan's indigenous missile industry says several things about the Taiwan government's evolving defense doctrine. First, the fact that the government paid the extra expense for indigenous design and production indicates that it concluded that there was little chance of obtaining these capabilities elsewhere, including from the United States.

Second, Taiwan is placing a greater emphasis on missiles for both offense and defense because it may have concluded that neither the United State nor any other country will sell it new fighter aircraft to replace its aging F-16 fleet. In May 2010, the chief of Taiwan's air force expressed a desire to buy the short-takeoff vertical-landing (STOVL) version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, instead of an updated version of the F-16. This request reflected a new fact-of-life -- that the mainland's overwhelming missile inventories can now shut down Taiwan's conventional runways, rendering its F-16s and other conventional takeoff aircraft useless. But there is almost no chance the U.S. government will approve a sale of F-35s to Taiwan. Given the disruption to U.S.-China relations caused by the last Taiwan arms sale, even an F-16 sale looks doubtful. Thus, Taiwan's enthusiasm for indigenously produced missiles, in the hope these missiles will perform missions previously performed by fighter-attack aircraft.

Taiwan's eventual abandonment of fixed-wing aircraft in the face of mainland air and missile superiority foreshadows an evolving military doctrine that may by necessity have to abandon traditional high-tech, high-value weapons and their support structures, which will simply be targets for mainland missile barrages. Taiwan will increasingly have to rely on dispersion and decentralization, something easier to achieve with missiles than with fixed-wing aircraft (the STOVL F-35 being for Taiwan an unobtainable exception to this rule). If the missile gap continues to expand in the mainland's favor, Taiwan might ultimately have to adopt a defense doctrine centered on low-tech "insurgency." Does such an approach to defense in any way match the culture of modern Taiwan? That seems doubtful -- which illuminates the dispiriting problem facing Taiwan's defense planners.

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