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A home-grown supersonic Hsiung-feng 3 (Brave Wind) ship-to-ship missile is displayed during a military parade as part of National Day celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan, on Oct. 10, 2007. (TONY HUANG/AFP/Getty Images)
Despite the growing gap between China and Taiwan’s economies and the size of their militaries, experts believe that Taiwan possesses the capabilities to strike back if China attacks or invades the island. Cruise missiles deployed by Taiwan, according to experts, could prove to be a critical factor in deterring aggression by China.
Global Taiwan Institute, a think tank in Washington dedicated to research Taiwan issues hosted a “Taiwan Defense Trends” panel on April 12. Panelists included several prominent China analysts and experts on defense issues in Asia. The panel’s discussion centered on the latest Quadrennial Defense Review published by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense in March, which highlighted the rapid growth of China’s military capabilities and Taiwan’s continuing fear that China would one day attack or invade the island.
In discussing Taiwan’s defense strategy Eric Gomez, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute briefly raised the issue that Taiwan’s deployment of cruise missiles could potentially escalate conflict with mainland China. Gomez said the result would be “outright negative” if Taiwan were to pursue such counter-strike capability.
Michael Mazza, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) disagreed with Gomez. Mazza argued that Taiwan is unlikely to attack mainland China in an unprovoked fashion and that “a strong argument can be made” for Taiwan to maintain the ability to strike back at China.
Cruise missiles can serve as “political tool” for maintaining deterrence against China’s aggression, according to Mazza; the ability to strike back at the mainland—even if only on a limited scale—would force Chinese people to question the communist regime’s aggression against Taiwan.
Ian Easton, a Research Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute also voiced strong support for Taiwan’s counter-strike capability. Taiwan’s cruise missile program has already developed into maturity since the 1990s, according to Easton, and it is “for the reason of politeness” that Taiwan keeps a low profile on the deployment of these weapons.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) currently deploys more than a thousand short and medium range ballistic missiles aiming at Taiwan. During the administration of Taiwan’s former President Ma Ying-jeou from 2008 to 2016, who was widely perceived as more friendly and receptive toward the influence of China’s regime, the number of PLA missiles aiming at Taiwan did not decrease but actually increased by almost two fold. Extensive discussions have arisen among experts both in Taiwan and in the United States as to the possible countermeasures to the threats posed by China’s ballistic missiles.
“Of course Taiwan needs the ability to hold Shanghai at risk if China holds Taipei at risk,” said Easton. “Taiwan’s missiles raining down on China would be politically humiliating for the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and it would have devastating impacts on its legitimacy.”
To limit Taiwan’s counter attack ability, the United States would have to offer Taiwan the kind of defense treaty and security guarantee similar to that with Japan. Without such assurance, Taiwan of course needs cruise missiles to maintain strategic deterrence against China’s aggression, said Easton.
Amy Chang, a non-resident affiliate with the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School also said that Taiwan’s cruise missiles would have an impact on China’s strategic calculus when it comes to potential future conflict across the Taiwan Strait.
The Taiwanese military has already fielded an unknown number of its indigenously designed and produced Hsiung Feng IIE (HF-2E) cruise missiles as weapon of deterrence against China. The exact range of Hsiung Feng IIE, while never publicly disclosed, is widely speculated to be over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) which would put it in the same league as the U.S. Tomahawk missile. Both Hsiung Feng IIE and the Tomahawk missile are propelled by turbofan engines to maximize their attack range, and both are capable of flying at very low attitude to avoid detection and interception by an enemy’s air defense.
Just last week, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a large scale Tomahawk missile strike at a Syrian air base. Of the 60 Tomahawk missiles launched from two U.S. Navy destroyers, 58 successfully hit their intended targets, according to U.S. officials. None of the Tomahawk missiles were intercepted by Russia’s S-400 air defense systems deployed in Syria, despite wide expectations and claims regarding S-400’s advanced anti-air and anti-missile capabilities.
China has acquired a significant number of the less advanced S-300 systems and has deployed several battalions in the Taiwan Strait region. China is also said to be in the process of acquiring the advanced S-400 system. The successful U.S. Tomahawk strike on April 6, however, cast doubt on the efficacy of the S-300/S-400 systems in intercepting low flying cruise missiles such as the Tomahawks.
It is not known how Taiwan’s leadership will use its Hsiung Feng IIE cruise missiles in response to aggression from China. Given their long range and precision, however, Taiwan can opt to attack both tactical and strategic targets inside mainland China.
Michael Tsai, a former Minister of Defense of Taiwan said in a phone interview with the Epoch Times that he concurs with the opinions voiced by some U.S. experts on the panel regarding the necessity for Taiwan to maintain counter-strike capability in the form of cruise missiles. Such capability is a vital part of Taiwan’s deterrence against China, said Tsai.
Tsai stressed however that as a principle Taiwan will likely only attack military targets inside China and will do its best to avoid inflicting casualties on civilians. Primary targets for Taiwan’s cruise missiles are those that pose an immediate threat to Taiwan’s security such as PLA’s ballistic missile launchers, air and naval bases, and staging areas that would be used to launch an invasion. “Taiwan will only attack where the aggression coming from,” said Tsai.
By Paul Huang
The Epoch Times
Paul Huang is a master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and is affiliated with the Taiwan edition of The Epoch Times.