Settling the Debate with the Middle Ground: An Alternative Defense Concept for Taiwan

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Since William S. Murray published his now famous piece Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense Strategy in 2008, discussions about Taiwan’s defense have been dominated by the concept of a “porcupine strategy” centered around asymmetric capabilities that would allow Taiwan to hunker down and hold out until outside help arrives. Today, in the face of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that is many multitudes stronger than when the idea was first presented, many analysts have determined that this strategy is the only way for Taiwan to have a credible defense against an invasion by Chinese forces and have lambasted Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) for ordering weapons from the United States that are not in line with an asymmetric strategy. The F-16V upgrade program, M1A2 tank order, the Yushan class LPD acquisitions, and Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program are just some of Taiwan’s recent defense procurements that have been labeled as unnecessary or incorrect expenditures. There are a number of reasons given for why Taiwan has not adopted a porcupine strategy ranging from the lack of a guarantee that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense to outright stubbornness from the MND. No matter the explanation, Taiwan’s lack of enthusiasm about a porcupine defense, coupled with the lack of agency given to Taiwan by Western analysts, have become something of a point of contention in the relationship between Taipei and Washington. As U.S.-China relations sour and Beijing continues to ramp up it’s ‘Gray-Zone’ pressures against Taiwan, the likelihood of a cross-strait conflict with the potential to involve the United States seems ever greater. These developments have amplified demands for Taiwan to adopt an asymmetric strategy, with some commentators even calling for the United States to sanction Taiwan in order to induce moves towards an asymmetric strategy. I would argue, however, that a porcupine defense is not the end all solution to the challenges Taiwan faces. To be clear: I am not arguing that Taiwan’s current defense strategy is the right one, nor am I saying that the porcupine strategy should be discounted in its entirety. Instead, I view the solution as the middle ground between the two. A strategy that considers the variable scenarios, and subsequently variable needs, that Taiwan’s forces will face in a conflict, and combines the strongest aspects of a symmetric and a porcupine strategy into one Syncretic Defense. 

Figure 1 – Comparing the Benefits and Drawbacks of Two Strategies

Syncretic Defense is centered around the ability of Taiwan’s forces to have flexibility in how they respond to the challenges they face. China’s host of ‘Gray-Zone’ pressures, like flights into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and over the median line of the Taiwan Strait, requires a different strategy than a defense against an all-out invasion. While Syncretic Defense does not benefit from a heavily reduced cost for Taiwan, it is intended to provide Taiwan’s forces with the ability to respond to whatever form the China threat takes. The defense model I propose is not dependent on whether the United States chooses to come to Taiwan’s aid and gives agency to Taipei in its decision making. A major element of this strategy involves the employment of asymmetric capabilities, while an equally important element involves powerful conventional forces with advanced symmetric capabilities. A Syncretic Defense model does not involve a total overhaul of Taiwan’s defense posture and armed forces. Instead, it is focused on “fighting with the army you have.” Modularity and flexibility are the core tenants of a Syncretic Defense model, as Taiwan’s forces need to have the capacity to effectively respond to one kind of threat from the PLA without sacrificing their ability to counter another. This means having strong, survivable conventional forces to counter ‘Gray-Zone’ pressures in peacetime and to act as the main deterrent to the PLA, supported by asymmetric forces that can impose high costs on an invasion force and supplement conventional forces. See Figure 2.

Figure 2 – Syncretic Defense Model

A Syncretic Defense model would prioritize the survivability of Taiwan’s conventional forces through the acquisition of capabilities and adoption of tactics that maximize the likelihood of success in that pursuit. Taiwan’s air force has already developed a range of techniques to increase the survivability of its platforms ranging from underground bunkers to the use of ‘unconventional’ runways. It would likewise increase resources for the hardening of aircraft shelters, runway repairs, and other survivability initiatives. For Taiwan’s ground forces, the ability to survive bombardment by the PLARF, PLAAF, and PLAN is contingent on misdirection tactics, the hardening of Taiwan’s military infrastructure, and the hardening of the ground forces themselves. These three elements of survivability are at the forefront of their development. Taiwan’s navy, too, would focus on survivability, using favorable geographic advantages like Taiwan’s massive mountains and the Penghu archipelago to shield their ships, but likewise fielding powerful defensive systems aboard them to protect against strikes. Taiwan’s conventional forces provide a powerful suite of capabilities to Taiwan’s defense portfolio, and a Syncretic Defense model is focused on making sure these systems can survive long enough to contribute to Taiwan’s defense. This provides Taiwan with strong conventional forces to counter ‘Gray-Zone’ pressures from the PLA in peacetime, and the ability for these forces to play their role in wartime.

The largest change made to the structure of Taiwan’s forces in a Syncretic Defense model is the creation of “asymmetric militias,” essentially a Taiwan Territorial Defense Force (TTDF) modeled off the Ukrainian TDF, an idea that has seen support from a number of high-profile commentators in the wake of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine last year. A TTDF would be broken into two principal parts: civil defense operations and local defense forces. Civil defense operations would employ Taiwan’s civilian assets and personnel to support wartime activities. Engineers and construction firms would assist in the construction of defensive obstacles, bunkers, and runway repairs. Fishing boats would act as a screen for Taiwan’s navy, and their crews could even be trained as minelayers to seed the Taiwan Strait. The goal of civil defense operations would be to utilize the full capacity of Taiwan’s civilian power for the purpose of its defense. Local defense forces will work alongside Taiwan’s reserve units, but with a focus on unconventional tactics. The TTDF would be fast, light, and armed with systems like the Stinger, Javelin, and light vehicles should be trained to conduct unconventional operations in support of local area defense missions. These forces could cause additional strain to PLA sustainment by attacking backline forces. For major offensive operations, the TTDF could be attached to Taiwan’s conventional and reserve forces to maximize combat power and available capabilities. These units would act as the backbone of an organized insurgency against an occupation by the PLA.  This kind of cooperation has been seen throughout the war in Ukraine with great success.

In a Syncretic Defense model, Taiwan’s reserves would facilitate cooperation between conventional and asymmetric forces through a division between active reserve units and local garrisons, a structure that Taiwan has already begun to adopt. Active reserve units would act in concert with Taiwan’s conventional forces for symmetric operations like the defense of beach landing sites and counterattacks against lost territory. For asymmetric forces Taiwan’s “Locally Integrated Reserve Forces” (LIRs) would conduct local area defense missions alongside the TTDF, providing significant asymmetric combat power in support of these operations. LIRs are essentially a heavy version of the TTDF, fielding systems like HIMARS, Taiwan’s Thunderbolt, and some heavier vehicles. LIRs could likewise attach themselves to Taiwan’s conventional forces and active reserve units in support of larger operations against the PLA. Taiwan’s Coast Guard would likewise operate in a similar manner, employing naval mines, hit-and-run missile attacks, and unmanned capabilities in support of local area defense, while being available to take part in larger-scale maritime operations. The modularity of Taiwan’s reserves, in conjunction with the strengthening of conventional forces and the creation of a TTDF would maximize the ability of Taiwan’s reserves to contribute to Taiwan’s defense.

As I have tried to stress above, China presents a diverse set of threats to Taiwan in peacetime and wartime, and it is imperative that Taiwan does not sacrifice its ability to counter one threat in favor of countering another. Taiwan’s current defense model lacks a strong asymmetric force needed to increase the cost of an invasion, and its conventional forces are powerful, but not survivable. While a guarantee of support from the United States coupled with an extensive defense-cooperation initiative would, in my view, act as the best deterrent to a potential invasion, Washington’s policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ has not, and does not seem to be on the verge of changing. No matter the state of U.S. policy, Taiwan needs to take every possible action to deter China from undertaking an invasion as well as to counter the degradation of Taiwan’s strategic position through ‘Gray-Zone’ operations. A Syncretic Defense model is intended to provide Taiwan with the means to stand a chance against the PLA whether they can count on help from the West or not.

Ben Lewis
Independent defense analyst focused on the People’s Liberation Army and Taiwan security issues. Based in Washington D.C.