Taiwan’s Tough Call on How to Stop China: Bigger Weapons or Lots of Cheap Ones

The Taiwanese military has long favored heavy weapons such as tanks and jet fighters in preparation for a longer conflict against Beijing. (AP Photo/Johnson Lai) (AP)
The Taiwanese military has long favored heavy weapons such as tanks and jet fighters in preparation for a longer conflict against Beijing. (AP Photo/Johnson Lai) (AP)


Shoulder-fired missiles, drones and sea mines have been pushed by the U.S. as a less-expensive defense against invasion. Now Taipei must figure out if it needs more tanks and jet fighters in the mix.

TAIPEI—David shouldn’t rely too much on slingshots to repel Goliath. He’ll need plenty of tanks and jet fighters too.

That is the takeaway for defense officials and scholars in Taiwan from the latest developments in Ukraine, where Kyiv has struggled to block Russian advances while waiting for allies to deliver more powerful hardware.

The need for heavy weapons has been a point of contention between Taipei and Washington in discussing how Taiwan would blunt a Chinese attempt to seize the island.

For more than a decade, U.S. officials have encouraged Taiwan to invest in small, relatively cheap weapons such as shoulder-fired missiles, drones and sea mines. The goal would be to bring a Chinese amphibious invasion force to a halt at close range with thousands of small strikes.

Such asymmetrical warfare is a favorite tactic of guerrillas and weaker nations facing big rivals. Ukraine’s initial successes in using asymmetrical weapons such as Javelin missiles in destroying Russian tanks and severing supply convoys showcased the tactic.

More recently, however, Ukraine has felt the want of America’s most powerful big-ticket weapons—from F-16 jets to M1 Abrams tanks, delivered so far in only small quantities. Ukraine had trouble last year breaking through fortified positions established by Russian troops, giving Moscow time to build its strength before a possible spring offensive this year.

Taiwan fears the same plight if China amasses forces around the island in a blockade, or if Beijing’s military establishes a firm beachhead on Taiwan. In such scenarios, small, short-range weapons could be less effective at degrading the enemy, and Taiwan would need bigger hardware, Taiwanese defense officials and analysts say.

“The asymmetrical approach advocated by some people would put the whole of Taiwan into a meat grinder," said I-Chung Lai, a former ruling-party foreign-affairs official now at Taiwan Thinktank, a research organization.

Figuring out the right weapons mix is among the most challenging tasks for Taiwan’s next president, Lai Ching-te, who takes office in May.

For the past few years, Taiwan’s procurement, under U.S. pressure, has put more emphasis on asymmetrical weapons such as Harpoon antiship missiles, Himars rocket launchers and mines.

The Taiwanese military has long favored heavy weapons such as tanks and jet fighters in preparation for a longer conflict against Beijing. If he agrees, President-elect Lai could push the U.S. to deliver more quickly on previously agreed orders for weapons such as M1 Abrams tanks, howitzers and F-16s.

Preparing weapons and munitions in sufficient quantities is vital for Taiwan because it would be harder to deliver supplies during a conflict. While Ukraine can receive supplies by road and rail across its western border, shipments to Taiwan would have to come through air and sea lanes patrolled by China.

The U.S. is deeply intertwined in the discussion because it provides much of Taiwan’s military equipment and helps to train its air, land and sea forces.

Under the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, Taipei edged closer to U.S. thinking about asymmetrical weapons. It stepped up orders for several types of them such as 400 land-launched Harpoon missiles, although the U.S. has struggled to deliver them quickly. Taiwan is also ramping up its own missile production, including Hsiung Feng antiship missiles that are similar to Harpoon missiles.

The U.S. pressure didn’t mean Taipei stopped buying big-ticket items. During the Trump and Biden administrations, Taiwan signed contracts to buy $4.4 billion in asymmetrical weapons, including the Harpoon missiles, compared with $11.7 billion in orders for conventional weapons, according to a tally last year by the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Those conventional weapons include 66 F-16s and 108 M1 Abrams tanks, big orders made during the Trump administration that are due to reach Taiwan in the next few years.

U.S. officials and military scholars have long believed that the expensive hardware is apt to get wiped out by China’s much larger military, the People’s Liberation Army, in the early stages of attack. Simulations of an all-out Chinese invasion run by American think tanks assume most of the Taiwanese air force or navy would be quickly destroyed by Chinese missile strikes.

Without shifting to a full asymmetrical defense approach, Taiwan risks a quick defeat if invaded, said Michael Hunzeker, a security scholar at George Mason University in Virginia. He and others observe that the Taiwanese military’s penchant for pricey weapons limits funds for what the skeptics see as more effective tools such as shoulder-fired missiles.

“For those of us who are critical of the Taiwanese military, if we see what we see, the PLA sees it even better," he said.

Some in Taiwan are also giving Lai similar advice. They say the self-governing democracy of 23.5 million people has no chance of winning a head-to-head battle with Beijing and its two million active-duty military service members.

Lee Hsi-min, Taiwan’s top military officer from 2017 to 2019, started a program to deploy tiny assault boats that could hide in fishing harbors and make hit-and-run style missile attacks on any Chinese invasion force. The program was scrapped after Lee left office.

Lee said Taiwan’s $14 billion military budget wasn’t enough to bring the fight to Beijing in all domains, and the focus should lie in countering the amphibious invasion force that China would ultimately need to seize Taiwan’s beaches and airfields. “We have to prioritize our existence," Lee said.

Those on the other side of the debate say that missing in this picture is consideration of other scenarios in which traditional weaponry would play an important role. One such scenario is a blockade, a strategy documented in Chinese military texts and viewed as more likely than a sudden invasion in a recent survey of 52 American and Taiwanese scholars.

A Chinese blockade would use ships and aircraft to cut Taiwan off from fuel and other supplies, seeking to pressure it to submit without a fight.

Lai, the former ruling-party official at Taiwan Thinktank, said unless Taiwan has powerful naval vessels and updated jet fighters to break through the blockade, it would be effectively ceding its waters to China. A shoulder-mounted Stinger missile would be little use trying to breach a Chinese armada amassed off the coast, he said.

“We can’t just wait for them to arrive on the beaches," Lai said.

A direct analogy to Ukraine could come if Chinese forces succeed in landing on Taiwan. American military strategists generally assume Taiwanese forces could hold out for a few months at most without outside support. But with U.S. intervention, the battle might shift to an effort to dislodge the Chinese military.

In that scenario, Taiwan would need the same equipment Ukraine is urgently requesting, strategists in Taiwan say.

“Asymmetrical weapons are necessary but not sufficient for the challenges Taiwan faces," said Guermantes Lailari, a former U.S. Air Force officer who is now a research fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.

Write to Alastair Gale at alastair.gale@wsj.com

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