Taiwan Wants More Missiles. That’s Not a Bad Thing.
Ground-based, short-range missiles are a realistic and relatively quick way to improve cross-Strait deterrence.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense will soon release its new Quadrennial Defense Review, but key details are already emerging. The document crucially affirms Taiwan’s commitment to improving its asymmetric capabilities. It also calls for the island to improve its “deep strike” missile arsenal so as to enhance “layered deterrence.”
The idea that Taiwan might build or buy large numbers of missiles will surely spark controversy, especially among Chinese leaders. The Biden administration should nevertheless consider tacitly—if not materially—supporting the effort. The fact is that Taiwan already has a small arsenal of such missiles. If U.S. officials are serious in their assessment that China might attack Taiwan in the near future, the reality is that the island needs more of them. Lots more. The United States should help.
The reasoning is straightforward. A robust inventory of short-range (up to 620 miles) missiles will improve Taiwan’s ability to deter aggression by allowing it to credibly disrupt, degrade, and interdict Chinese command and control nodes, military airfields, supply depots, and reinforcements in response to an attack. In essence, these weapons send a signal to China that its military forces will not have a safe sanctuary from which to mass, project, and direct combat power, especially during the earliest—and most vulnerable—phases of an invasion.
Without such a capability, Taiwan’s military planners will face an unenviable choice once an invasion fleet is underway. They may need to divert manned aircraft from other urgent tasks to perform missions against the Chinese homeland, which assumes that a sufficient number of Taiwanese aircraft survived the initial onslaught. Alternatively, they may have to wait until Chinese forces come within range of their existing shorter-range systems to begin imposing costs.
A large inventory of ground-based, short-range missiles will also complicate Chinese planning. Amphibious assaults are sufficiently complex and risk-laden as it is. China cannot ignore a missile threat, because these weapons will make coordinating its landing forces, directing long-range strikes, launching aircraft, and staging reinforcements far more difficult. Beijing will therefore have to respond by investing in missile defense as well as in hardening its military facilities. Such spending will come at an opportunity cost to its offensive preparations, diverting attention and resources away from training and force modernization.
Taiwanese missiles will likewise exacerbate China’s already daunting targeting dilemma. People’s Liberation Army planners will have to prioritize finding and destroying these weapons, if not preemptively, then in the earliest stages of an attack. This imperative will force the PLA to divert some of its own missile inventory away from targeting Taiwanese political leadership, public infrastructure, command and control assets, airfields and forces in the field.
Locating and knocking out ground-based missiles is difficult, as U.S. forces discovered during the 1991 Gulf War. Units can hide ground-based missiles “in plain sight” by disguising them as cargo containers and moving them around the island alongside civilian trucks. Unlike air- and sea- launched missiles, ground-based variants do not require exposing one of Taiwan’s few and costly jets or ships to enemy fire in order to launch. By virtue of having fewer weight and size restrictions than air- and sea-launched missiles, ground-based missiles can also have a longer range while carrying a larger payload.
Again, Taiwan is already building these sorts of weapons, including the Hsiung Feng 2E, a subsonic “Tomahawk-like” cruise missile with a maximum range of 600 kilometers; and the Hsiung Feng III, a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile with a 160 kilometer maximum range, but which could conceivably be reconfigured for other purposes. A supersonic land attack cruise missile with a 1,200-kilometer range, the Yun Feng, is also under production, although its longer range is more problematic.
There are several ways the United States can support Taiwan’s missile production efforts. At a minimum, the Biden administration can quietly encourage Taipei’s acquisition of more missiles, while making clear that such an effort will not be grounds for suspending existing, or denying future, arms sales. This position is fully congruent with the Taiwan Relations Act. At a maximum, the Biden administration could transfer relevant technological and production know-how. Either way, Washington should clarify that its support for the pursuit of more short-range missiles is conditional on Taipei’s continued support for “staying the course” in terms of adopting the other critical defense reforms necessary for underpinning a genuine asymmetric posture. The United States should also make it clear that Taiwan must only use its short-range missiles against military targets and in response to an actual invasion; and that any other use of these weapons will make it politically impossible to support Taiwan in a crisis.
Will American support for Taiwan’s pursuit of longer-range weapons anger Beijing? Of course it will, as would any move short of capitulation. In any case, Taiwanese missiles cannot possibly be as provocative as the network of American long-range missiles that Admiral Davidson—commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command—wants to build along the so-called First Island Chain (of which Taiwan is a part).
That said, two reasonable concerns are worth addressing. The first is that more Taiwanese missiles will exacerbate the cross-Strait security dilemma. We would agree were Taiwan and China actually in a security dilemma. They are not. A security dilemma arises when states (incorrectly) infer malign, worst-case scenario intentions about one another based on the military capabilities they are developing. This condition is absent in the cross-Strait relationship, because China’s intentions toward Taiwan are known. Taiwan has every right to defend itself given this proximate and imminent threat.
The second concern is that such an arsenal might tempt Taiwan to launch a first strike against Beijing to knock it out or to drag the United States into a conflict. Both scenarios are highly implausible. Taiwan could never acquire enough conventional missiles to disarm China’s nuclear arsenal—let alone its conventional military power—in an immaculate first strike. Taipei also knows the price for any such preventive attack against China will be more than the Taiwanese people can bear. Moreover, even if Taipei’s real goal were to force Washington to come to its aid, then the United States would not be a helpless victim. Washington could invoke strategic ambiguity to remain on the sidelines. Nor would a clear-cut security commitment to the island necessarily obligate American intervention: any such assurances would likely incorporate loopholes, allowing Washington to sidestep its obligations when it wants to.
Counterintuitively, a robust Taiwanese missile arsenal might even help control escalation if Washington decides to intervene in a cross-Strait conflict. In a scenario in which Taiwan lacks ground based, short-range missiles, U.S. forces will almost certainly request permission to conduct long-range strikes against China in order to “break” its anti-access “kill chain.” This request will put President Biden in a terrible dilemma: he can either approve deep strikes, thereby increasing the risk of so-called inadvertent escalation; or must deny the request, leaving American units vulnerable to long-range missiles strikes as they flow into theater. Taiwanese missiles offer a potential solution. China is less likely to escalate in response to missiles launched against its homeland by Taiwan than it would be in retaliation for deep strikes launched by U.S. aircraft or—worse yet—from Japan or American bases in Guam or Alaska.
The next few months offer an opportunity for the Biden administration to help Taiwan improve its defenses. More missiles will not guarantee Taiwan’s survival by themselves. China’s capabilities are extensive; the threat is too complex and multifaceted. Taiwan must still prioritize urgent reforms of its ground, air, and naval defenses. But helping Taiwan acquire a much larger inventory of ground-based, short-range missiles is a realistic and relatively quick way to improve cross-Strait deterrence, thereby reducing the risk of a war that will prove antithetical to U.S. interests.
Michael A. Hunzeker is an assistant professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where he is also the associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2000–2006 and holds a Ph.D., M.P.A., and M.A. from Princeton University.
Alexander Lanoszka is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University.