Taiwan’s Missile Program Draws Concern
U.S. Fears Surface-to-Surface Arms Will Provoke China
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
The U.S. government is quietly concerned about Taiwan’s effort to develop surface-to-surface missiles, and there are suggestions that Washington may pressure Taipei to cancel the program.
The Taiwanese government first publicly acknowledged efforts to develop surface-to-surface ballistic missiles in May 2005, when Minister of National Defense Lee Jye told lawmakers that the military’s Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology was seeking to develop missiles that could strike China. Lee said the effort was consistent with Taiwan’s “active defense” policy, and that the ministry planned to create a Missile Command upon their completion.
The weapons include the Hsiung Feng 2E (Brave Wind) land-attack cruise missile, intended to deliver a 400-kilogram warhead up to 1,000 kilometers from a mobile launcher, according to Taiwanese news reports. Up to 500 are planned.
These could hit targets along the Chinese coast, but deeper strikes likely will remain impossible as long as Washington declines to furnish the necessary mapping data to Taipei.
Another program, the Tiching Project, tentatively aims to build 120 short-range ballistic missiles that can fly 1,000 kilometers, and 30 medium-range ballistic missiles that can hit targets twice as far away. They will reportedly be based on technology developed for the Tien Kung (Sky Bow) air defense missile system, but little more is known about the program.
Taiwan also is developing a supersonic anti-ship missile, dubbed Hsiung Feng 3, whose 300-kilometer range is long enough to hit Chinese naval bases from launchers on the island. Plans call for building 120 Hsiung Feng-3s within a few years, although local media reports say the Mach 2.5 missile has struggled with propulsion and fire-control problems. A test launch was reported in late 2004.
Taiwan itself is currently targeted by about 800 Chinese short-range ballistic missiles, including the Dong Feng 11 (M-11/CSS-7) and DF-15 (M-9/CCS-6). And ministry officials said in March that they believe China intends to increase the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan to 1,800 within four years.
“Mainland China will, of course, use this development to once again ratchet up their rhetoric against democratic Taiwan,” said one U.S. military source. “This, despite the hypocrisy inherent in complaining about Taiwan’s attempts to develop a limited retaliatory strike capability while the mainland continues to deploy hundreds of ballistic missiles across the Strait.”
But U.S. officials do not think Taiwanese missiles are the answer.
“The Bush administration is quietly opposing Taiwan’s efforts to build a long-range missile, both ballistic and cruise,” said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Richard Bush, who served as the chairman of the board and managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1997 to 2002, said Taipei’s decision to acquire offensive weapons would make it easier for China to take provocative or even hostile measures. The institute is the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan.
“The least effective way to strengthen Taiwan’s security would be to significantly shift the emphasis of its military strategy from one that is essentially defensive and anchored in alliance with the United States to one that has a much greater offensive component,” said Bush, who now directs the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“The logic of those who argue for a shift is that the acquisition of capabilities that can threaten military or population and infrastructure targets on the mainland will deter Beijing from undertaking military action against Taiwan. However tempting and symbolically satisfying this option may be, it is simply not feasible.”
Pentagon and State Department spokesmen were unable to provide comment by press time.
Other observers said Taiwan’s missile plans might aggravate tensions between China and Taiwan and spark a conflict that the self-governing island would likely lose.
“While it may make some tactical sense to have the ability to degrade Chinese military assets should war break out across the Taiwan Strait, employing an offensive capability, particularly during a limited Chinese attack, runs the risk of escalating the conflict, a situation that will not benefit Taiwan given the clear balance of power,” said Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow in the Asian International Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Mitchell said U.S. officials would also worry that Taiwan’s missiles might actually touch off a cross-strait conflict.
Warning From Beijing
Indeed, Beijing is passing its own concerns to Taipei through the indirect channels that substitute for diplomatic relations. One prominent Taiwanese academic was warned during a recent visit to China that Beijing would not tolerate plans to target its key strategic positions. A People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer cautioned Taipei about developing offensive missiles, said Andrew Yang, who is secretary-general of Taipei’s Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.
In the 1980s, U.S. pressure led Taiwan to cancel its ballistic missile program called Tien Ma (Sky Horse) and an accompanying nuclear-weapon effort called Taoyuan Project. Taiwan renewed its missile work — though not its nuclear effort — a decade ago.
The restart came after the United States failed to deter China from building up a missile arsenal, said Michael Pillsbury, a longtime adviser to the Pentagon on China.
Another observer, a former Pentagon official with close ties to Taiwan’s government, said that the development program was consistent with Taipei’s operational planning, which does not assume U.S. intervention in the event of attack by China.
“There is a strong argument to be made that Taiwan’s self-defense requires an ability to strike military targets on the mainland, including command-and-control centers, logistics depots, staging areas, key air bases, etc.,” the former Pentagon official said.
Small Threat to China
But other observers said Taiwan’s missiles won’t much affect the Chinese ability to strike the island. Their missile arsenal is relatively small, for one thing. Moreover, China will likely react to their deployment by dispersing its forces into hardened underground facilities and planning alternate sites for troop mobilization and logistics, said Larry Wortzel, the chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
For point defense, Wortzel said, China might deploy radar-directed chain guns or Gatling guns, and may develop a laser-based countermeasure as well.
And simply launching the missiles may trigger a radar-guided counterstrike, which would mean that the Taiwanese military would have to move away quickly from their launch site, he said.
But Fisher said “asymmetric targeting of key PLA nodes” might be of some benefit.
“The simple arithmetic of the Taiwan Strait means that Taiwan has little choice but to seek such a deterrent. Taiwan can’t afford enough anti-missiles to overcome all the PLA ballistic and cruise missiles,” the International Assessment and Strategy Center analyst said.