The People’s Liberation Army is unlikely to defeat the Taiwanese military by merely shelling the country’s outlying islands close to the mainland, should hostilities break out between the two militaries. Yet the improved range of the PLA’s missiles, its new stealth fighters and bombers do pose a heightened threat to the self-governed island, which Beijing has vowed to take control of again.
Lawmakers in Taiwan are urging decision-makers to boost the island’s asymmetric defense capabilities, including its arsenal of surface-to-air and shore-based anti-ship missiles.
The call comes after the US military found that the west and northwest of Taiwan, including Taipei, the capital, and Taoyuan, the island’s aviation gateway, would be well within range of the PLA’s new air-defense missiles, according to the Pentagon’s annual report submitted to Congress.
The warning has caused Taiwan to move the bulk of its F-16V fighter fleet further east – to the Chihhang Air Base in Taitung County, which faces the Pacific, so these jets will be out of the reach of the PLA’s surface-to-air missiles during take-off.
However, the PLA’s speedy trial and deployment of more advanced missiles – including some linked to the S-400 air-defense system imported from Russia – along the southeastern coast of Fujian province, could leave all of Taiwan within China’s hit radius.
The S-400 Triumf missile defense system can reportedly hit targets up to 250km away, according to Tass. The Taiwan Strait is approximately 177km off Fujian province, while the island is about 126km wide.
The Pentagon report also identified three tactics likely to be used by the PLA to capture Taiwan: a large-scale missile blitz, limited attacks using precision-guided munitions, and ultimately, an amphibious assault, during which the Chinese could even commit its sole aircraft carrier the Liaoning to battle.
Still, military observers in Taiwan say any bid by the PLA to establish a beachhead for a further sweep inland could be a daunting mission.
Asked to comment on the Pentagon report, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said the PLA’s frequent drills and circumnavigations, as well as breaches of the island’s naval and maritime space undermined regional stability.
She said the report could underscore her government’s bid to procure about 60 new F-16V jets from Lockheed Martin to further shore up air defense, a multi-billion-dollar deal that is under review by both the Pentagon and the US State Department. If approved by the Trump administration and the US Congress, the deal will be the largest arms sales transaction in almost three decades after the George HW Bush sold more than 100 F-16s to the island in the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, Tsai is set to attend a groundbreaking ceremony to kickstart the construction of a new submarine base and repair facility, a pivotal project in the island’s indigenous submarine and warship program to furnish the navy with assets that cannot be procured abroad.
The construction of the site, whose location is a top secret, is expected to be completed by the end of next year, the defense ministry said.
Taiwan has allocated a lump sum of about NT$50 billion (US$1.59 billion) for its new indigenous assault submarines as its navy phases out outmoded vessels imported from the Netherlands and US. The amount will be spread over a period of six years.