For Taiwan’s out-numbered fighter aircraft to have any impact at all in a conflict with China, they must first make it off the ground—and that could become impossible due to the 1,300 ballistic missiles and hundreds of air-, sea-, and ground-launched cruise missiles the People’s Liberation Army can array against the island.
A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation notes: “Taiwan is unfortunately situated very near a country that…has invested extensively in a wider range of capabilities that will make it very difficult for Taiwan to fly fighter aircraft into combat.”
Taiwan’s ships at port, critical radar and communication facilities, and vital fuel and weapons depots are also vulnerable targets.
So the question seems clear: Can Taipei’s air force survive a Chinese first strike?
Can Taiwan Air Defenses Save the Day?
Taiwan does have a multi-layer air defense system with which to try to stave off various forms of attack. The top and middle-tier systems are operated by ROC Air Force and the lower tier by the Army.
The top layer is formed by around six batteries of Tien Kung-II and -III (Sky Bow) missiles, the latter with a range of 124 miles and ability to travel up to seven times the speed of sound. A separate truck-born Chang Shan radar cues the missile’s inertial guidance system towards a target. In the terminal phase, an active-radar seeker in the nose guides the missile towards its target.
Next, with a range of twenty miles, come Taiwan’s seven batteries of Patriot missile launchers with around 400 PAC-3 MSE missiles. The Sky Bow and PAC-3 are Taiwan’s only systems capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. However, this also makes them priority targets.
Therefore, they are in turn protected by a medium-range layer of weapons, including nineteen old MIM-23 Hawk radar-guided missile batteries with a range of 30 miles, and radar-equipped Skyguard GDF6 batteries, which combine medium-range Sparrow missiles and short-range 35-millimeter cannons that can spurt air-bursting shells full of tungsten fragments.
Short-Range Air Defense Systems (SHORADS), effective versus low-flying aircraft, drones and cruise missiles form the bottom layer of the air defense gauntlet.
These include over four thousand American-built FIM-92 Stinger missiles for point defense, loaded into man-portable launchers, deployed on fixed tripod mounts, and on top of seventy-four Avenger Humvees.
Taiwan also has adopted a ground-launched variant of Tien Chien-1 (“Sky Sword”) air-to-air missile, which itself is derived from the U.S. Sidewinder. The TC-1L variant has a range of 5.5 miles and a maximum speed of Mach 2. Four can be mounted on top of Taiwan’s Antelope air defense vehicles, which also heft their own MPQ-78 pulse-doppler radars to aid in cuing the heat-seeking missiles onto the target. Taiwan also still fields old U.S.-built Chaparral missile systems armed with Sidewinder missiles.
China’s Strategy: Destroy Taiwan’s Air Force on the Ground
Formidable as these defenses may seem, Taiwan doesn’t have enough to win in a straight-out war of attrition with the People’s Liberation Army. This is not shocking, given that mainland China has fifty-eight times the population of Taiwan.
Even in a qualitative sense, the military balance looks grim for Taiwan as the PLA procure modern fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. The Rand study found that Taiwan’s outnumbered fighters all suffered heavier losses than they inflicted in simulated air battles—save for its modernized F-16s.
The study also describes the step-by-step approach the PLA might use to dismantle Taiwan’s air defenses. The first stage would see massive barrages of missiles designed to over-saturate air defenses, aimed at knocking out air defense radars—estimated to require between 124 to 370 missiles.
Once the radars are knocked out, blinding Taiwan’s long- and medium-range SAM batteries, these, in turn, would be picked off by a second wave of attacks.
Once the long-air air-defense missiles are out of the picture, PLA aircraft could overfly Taiwan at high altitude and deploy precision-guided munitions without placing themselves at risk.
The third stage would focus on cratering the runways of Taiwanese airbases. The study estimates that between 41–155 missiles could suffice depending on their precision. With the runways unusable, ROC fighters would struggle to get off the ground, and could then be methodically picked off with aerial bombing.
The ROC Air Force does benefit from fortified underground airbases built into the sides of the mountain at Hualian and Taitung. These might suffice to protect the aircraft, but they could end up bottled inside if their runways are out of action. Taiwan’s jets could also make use of highways instead of airbase runways—but the tempo of operations using such fallbacks would be sporadic at best.
Solutions for Taipei?
The Randy study advocates that Taiwan should shift spending away from manned fighters towards deploying twenty-one to forty more air defense platoons equipped with medium-range AIM-120 missiles, short-range Sidewinders and radar vehicles. These could provide denser coverage of the island and are mobile enough to avoid retaliatory attacks.
More broadly, the study’s authors argue that Taiwan’s air defenses must fight the PLA asymmetrically, prioritizing the survival of its most capable systems over trying to intercept every missile and airplane.
One strategy would be for Taiwan’s long-range SAMs to ‘go to ground’, making it hard for the PLA to find and destroy them. This would force PLA forces slow down the tempo of operations and continue using expensive and limited supplies of long-range missiles—knowing the SAM threat might reemerge the moment they let down their guard.
A different approach would be for Taiwan to husband its SAMs, saving them to contest PLA air superiority during a limited window of time—say during a critical sea or land battle.
Currently, Taiwan is acquiring additional Short-Range air defense systems, and improving the air-defense capabilities of its warships.
These goals may dovetail with the development of the Sea Oryx missile—an enhanced version of the TC-1 with a more powerful motor, and datalinks allowing the heat-seeking missiles to be cued by radar. These can be deployed onto a 24-tube launcher tied to a ship’s fire control systems, or to a 12-shot launcher with its own organic radar and infrared sensors. The latter could also be deployed on a truck, as seen in this video.
In 2018, Taiwan also requested quotes on automated rapid-firing air-defense guns—a request likely aimed at procuring additional six-barreled Mark 15 Phalanx air defense cannons, originally developed as a last-ditch anti-missile defense for warships at sea. Taiwan already has several Mark 15s on ships and on land for defense of its critical Leshan mountain radar site, and may wish to deploy more to protect its vulnerable airfields from missiles.
The ROC Navy is also rumored to be interested in installing long-range Skybow-III missiles into its Tuo River-class corvettes. True or not, in January Taiwan received two Mark 41 vertical launch systems with which to study how to build their own domestic equivalent of the U.S. Aegis combat system, which is designed to coordinate air defense weapons and radars.
Devising the perfect air defense strategy for Taiwan may be impossible. However, Taipei will continue to buttress its defenses in the hopes of making resort to violence by Beijing an unappealing prospect. However, Taipei will have to take into account which of its systems are more likely to survive Beijing’ massive missile arsenal.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.