The recent landing in Taiwan by two USMC F/A-18C Hornet, allegedly due to a mechanical fault and the object of a prompt protest by Beijing, has served as a reminder of the Island’s key location. Sitting astride essential sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), halfway between Japan and South East Asia and between China and the open sea, Formosa remains as strategically located as ever, witness to the perennial importance, some would say tyranny, of geography. Taiwan is also uniquely located in terms of culture and intelligence gathering, as stressed by Ian Easton and Randall Schriver, who wrote “If knowledge is power, then no country in the world is better positioned to influence the course of political and security affairs in the Asia-Pacific region than Taiwan. The importance of Taiwan’s strategic location in the heart of East Asia and the Western Pacific for collecting information and monitoring regional events cannot be overstated. Nor can its unique ability to simultaneously access the linguistic and cultural landscapes of the Chinese, Japanese, and English speaking worlds”. Beijing’s dreams and ambitions will not be fulfilled while Formosa remains in hostile hands, her neutralization or “Finlandization” being the very least the PRC needs in order to become the mistress of her nearby seas. This, without entering the equally important and rather thorny question of national identity and the narrative that China will not be whole until she has regained that wayward province which has changed hands so many times, ending up in the most dangerous of all for any despotic ruler: those of her own people.

Democratization may have made unification with China a distant proposition short of force or duress, but it is precisely because there is no clear majority in favor of this option, even among those in the Island who self-identify as Chinese in ethnic or cultural terms, that Beijing has little room to seek genuine peace in the Taiwan Strait. Peace, understood as much more than the mere absence of hostilities, would require the recognition of the people of Taiwan as a political subject, able to determine themselves their own future, including the degree to which they may or may not choose to hold certain political links to the PRC. Since this is anathema to Chinese leaders, and the country’s Han population at large, it is clear that we are facing a long, protracted confrontation, which may be more or less intense at times, and need not necessarily result in an open, conventional, conflict, but which will not simply go away. In that scenario, a key question is how best Taiwan can protect her de facto sovereignty so that she may preserve her freedom to decide her own future. Lately, a growing number of observers have put forward the view that the best alternative for Taipei is to rely on asymmetric warfare, rather than try to compete head on with Beijing in conventional terms. In square terms, James R. Holmes has made it clear that “Taiwan can no longer command the sea”. Hope is not lost though, since, he added “’sea denial’ lies within its modest means”. Not dissimilar to what Iran decided in the wake of her navy’s poor performance against operation Praying Mantis, prompting concern in US naval circles given the unsatisfactory results of the Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02) war games, whose “results were disastrous for the U.S., with over a dozen ships destroyed and thousands killed or wounded as a result of asymmetric and unconventional naval warfare”. “The case of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy constitutes an example of a deliberate decision to employ the advantages of asymmetry”, and furthermore to do so by setting up a second navy, running in parallel with its conventional counterpart, and focused on asymmetric warfare, in a development “acknowledged by Western powers because of the dangers posed by the asymmetry of the IRGCN through mines, small submarines, coastal batteries and numerous heavily armed small craft employing swarming”. To this day, Teheran remains committed to an asymmetric strategy.

One of the early voices to defend this view, and corresponding shift in strategy, is US Naval War College Professor William Murray. Among other papers devoted to Taiwan, he wrote one in 2012, titled “Asymmetric Options for Taiwan’s Defense”, which he presented at a conference at SOAS on “Cross-Strait Relations in the Age of Globalization: Globalization-Security Linkages”, where he argued that “Taipei faces the prospect (either singularly or in combination) of being subjected to a Chinese bombardment, a blockade, or an invasion” and that since “Taiwan’s air force and navy can no longer counter these threats” it follows that “Taipei ought to aggressively develop and field ‘asymmetrical forces’” with the following “key attributes”:

• “low costs relative to the Chinese forces they oppose”
• “an ability to ride out a Chinese precision-munitions bombardment”
• “high effectiveness against Chinese forces attempting to blockade or invade Taiwan”

The weapons to be deployed “would survive by virtue of mobility, redundancy, hardening, deception, and large inventories made possibly by low relative costs”, thus making “Taiwan’s defense difficult for China to overcome with long range precision strike weapons, and thereby make Taiwan far less susceptible to early defeat”

Things had not always been this way. In the old days, when an isolated China labored under perennial internal strife and her military did not have the means to secure air superiority over the Strait, much less attempt amphibious landings, Taiwan seemed secure. The PRC may attack minor islands near her coast, but lacked the ability to pose a serious threat to Taiwan herself. Things began to change at the political level with the Sino-American rapprochement and subsequent de-recognition of the ROC, but what really would end up prompting a major change in the balance of conventional military power in the Strait were the Four Modernizations launched by pragmatists within the Chinese Communist Party in 1979. The resulting opening up to the world and continued economic reforms have resulted in very high, sustained, rates of growth, providing the necessary resources for a major rearmament and military modernization drive. Actually, the decision to change tack from Mao-era economic policy may have resulted in part from the perceived need for a stronger economic base able to sustain a modern military without strangling the civilian sector.

Geography, in the shape of a natural moat, has blessed Taiwan, while wider regional political trends are not necessarily to the Island’s disadvantage, in the form of, for example, a gradual “normalization” of Japan as a military power on the back of relentless pressure from China. By simultaneously confronting a wide range of neighbors, Beijing has failed to divide and rule, defeating her adversaries piece meal, and now faces the risk of even tighter links among the maritime democracies, while Moscow keeps helping Vietnam rearm and persistently includes the simulated use of tactical nuclear weapons in “counterterrorism” exercises, in a thinly-disguised warning to Beijing which goes hand in hand with public protestations of eternal friendship. Thus the background to China’s shadow over Taiwan offers elements of comfort to both Beijing on the one hand, and to Taipei and the maritime democracies plus other parties with a vested interest in the balance of power on the other. Having said that, at the end of the day, Taiwan can only survive if she develops the necessary military potential to ideally deter China by imposing unacceptable costs in the event of aggression, and should deterrence fail by resisting for long enough for her Allies to come to the rescue. This is the starting point for our discussion of asymmetric naval warfare in the Strait.

Before we begin, two caveats are necessary. First of all, as General Patton said “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men”, hence the importance of moral rearmament. No matter how good Taiwanese doctrine, equipment, and training, may be, at the end of the day the country’s citizens, soldiers, and sailors, will have to answer a very simple yet vexing question: is it worth to risk life for freedom? Or better to choose the comfort and certainty of slave life? While it is in the geopolitical interest of maritime democracies that Taiwan may reach the same conclusion as another island in the summer of 1940, it up to the Taiwanese themselves to decide. Second, while we shall only deal with conventional and subconventional warfare, it is possible that Taiwan may end up concluding at some point in the future that an independent nuclear deterrent is a necessary ingredient in the Island’s national security policy mix. In that case, asymmetric naval warfare doctrine would have to be coordinated with nuclear doctrine, providing the necessary backbone for full-spectrum warfare. We shall not delve into any of these two issues, but it is necessary to point them out.

An examination of asymmetric naval warfare must begin with a definition. A number exists, but for our purposes we may simply refer to conflict at sea where one side deploys different (often weaker, or technologically less advanced) assets, or tactics, than its more powerful adversary. In other words, instead of seeking to be a match for an adversary, in terms of superior numbers and firepower in the different possible categories of naval power, an asymmetric strategy rests on the assumption of overall enemy superiority, to be confronted by the development of niche capabilities with which to prevent the other side from exploiting that overall superiority. We have to note that asymmetric tactics can be used by both state and non-state actors, that they can go hand in hand with their conventional counterparts, and that they may, or may not, involve “civilian” vessels.

In Van Jackson‘s words, “Taiwan’s ability to defend itself doesn’t require the ability to project power or achieve superiority in any warfighting domain; that’s a very U.S.-centric construct for how to win in combat”. History abounds with examples of asymmetric naval warfare, including the defense of Bataan and Corregidor in 1941-1942, and the Imperial Japanese Navy’s emphasis on night combat in Guadalcanal. We have to be careful not to confuse asymmetric naval warfare with a related yet not identical strategy, the employment of non-lethal force at sea, with a mixture of trawlers, oil rigs, and civilian “activists”, seeking to achieve mastery of a given body of water without the use of weapons. China is making extensive use of such tactics in the South China Sea, and while they may also be used against Taiwan, perhaps in conjunction with more traditional forms of warfare, they are not the object of this short paper. We should note that although counterinsurgency and counterterrorism have taken center stage in recent years, they have not been fully incorporated in doctrinal naval discussions. In 2012, A RAND Corporation study on “Characterizing and Exploring the Implications of Maritime Irregular Warfare” noted that “current conceptions of irregular warfare do not focus on the specific requirements and opportunities related to conducting IW in the maritime realm”. We should again stress, as noted in a Royal Danish Defence College study, that “one general error often made is to associate asymmetry exclusively with irregular opponents”, while both state and non-state actors may resort to it.

With the above definition in mind, what are the assets and capabilities that Taiwan may seek to deploy in order to prevent or at least make it very costly for China to blockade or invade the Island, providing enough time for maritime democracies to intervene? In other words, to lay down a “porcupine strategy”, term employed by William Murray (US Naval War College), offering “Taiwan a way to resist PRC military coercion for weeks or months without presuming immediate U.S. intervention”? We shall devote a section each on hardening, mines, shore launched-anti-ship missiles, light surface combatants, and submarines. The paper will conclude with a set of policy recommendations.

Hardening. Episodes like the fall of France in 1940 have often been interpreted as confirming suspicions of fortifications, seen by many as leading to a timidity of purpose and betraying a defensive mindset. Perhaps most famously, General George S. Patton said that “Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity”. However, military history also shows us many instances in which fortifications have been put to good use, although always as part of wider arrangements and understanding that they are a means to an end, not a goal in themselves. Actually, the Maginot Line was not meant to be a barrier behind which to hide and grow complacent, but rather a way to shorten the lines, gain time for full mobilization, and release units for mobile operations. WWI experience in forts like Fort Douaumont had shown that they were more resilient that at first thought, and this prompted the construction of the Maginot Line.

Moving forward two years later, we can see how the US Navy and the USMC made much better use of fortifications in the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island. Although the battle resulted in defeat, and the goal of holding out until reinforcements could arrive was not achieved, fortifications made a significant contribution to operations. The episode is doubly relevant for our purposes because the grand strategic picture was similar to that Taiwan is facing: holding out before superior forces until reinforcements can arrive.

These two bits of history are necessary to understand what a growing number of observers are suggesting, as part of the necessary upgrade in Taiwan’s defenses: the “hardening” of all sorts of facilities, from harbors to plane hangars. The idea is to prepare them to better withstand the expected air and missile onslaught that may constitute the opening state of a Chinese offensive, ensuring that a significant portion survive. Together with measures such as dispersing and camouflaging certain assets, this should guarantee that Taiwan retains the necessary capabilities following a first enemy strike. In the words of William Murray (US Naval War College) “Taiwan should harden key facilities and build redundancies into critical infrastructure and processes so that it could absorb and survive a long-range precision bombardment”.

Concerning dispersal, the classical example are fighter planes, which may be deployed in multiple locations across the Island, ready to operate from all sort of bases, civilian airports, road sections, and improvised landstrips. With regard to hardening, it is an essential aspect of the dispersal strategy posited by experts like James R. Holmes, who wrote that Taiwan can and should “disperse large numbers of small combatants to hardened sites – caves, shelters, fishing ports – around the island’s rough coast. Such vessels could sortie to conduct independent operations against enemy shipping. Or, they could mass their firepower in concerted ‘wolf pack’ attacks on major PLAN formations”

When it comes to camouflage, a political and ethical issue arises, namely whether to conceal military assets among the wider civilian population and facilities. While this may better ensure their survivability, it entails additional risks to civilians. Thus, in a democratic setting, any such decision should be taken in advance, following the necessary debate. Ultimately, the issue may be whether to wage limited, or total (or people’s) war, and thus the choice goes beyond the military sphere. Deploying military assets camouflaged in civilian settings would only work if the necessary political consensus was in place, with people ready to pay the price. While no such decision is easy, it may make life much more difficult for Beijing, not only in purely military terms when it comes to locating such assets, but also from a wider political perspective. Ideally, the PRC would seek to coerce Taiwan into submission by using a minimum amount of force, applied sharply but not extending in time or causing extensive loss of life. Even better would be for the threat to use force to suffice. However, by dispersing military assets among the population, Taiwan would be showing Beijing that no such limited war was possible, that the stakes were much higher, and that it was only through complete victory in the battlefield, a battlefield encompassing urban areas, that she could achieve her goal of mastering the Island.

We should note that the concept of “hardening” does not only apply to the physical protection of military and dual-use assets and facilities. It can also be applied to cyber defense, and civilian (passive) defense. The former demands more attention by Taiwanese authorities and the private sector, in particular as the “Internet of Things” moves forward and more and more physical systems are connected to the Internet. The latter should prompt a major drive by local authorities, with powers in this area, in order to minimize casualties in the event of air and missile attacks.


Land mines have been described as “the poor man’s weapon”, with their naval counterparts labeled “the weapons of choice for a ‘poor man’s navy‘”. They have been extensively used to constrain operations by more powerful naval forces. With the evolution of mine technology, and the development of the so called “smart mines”, their potential has increased. The appearance of unmanned undersea systems could open a new venue for asymmetric naval warfare, half-way between traditional mines and conventional submarines. The concept of the torpedo and the mine may even be converging, giving rise to hybrid systems. Mines can be deployed not only by surface combatants (including fast craft) and submarines, but also by fishing vessels and merchantmen. The former feature extensively in Chinese non-lethal force tactics in the South China Sea, but they could also be employed in a more lethal role. A commentary on the Persian Gulf noted that “Mine laying platforms disguised as civilian craft would not raise suspicion … while submarines can be quite difficult to detect by surface or air assets”.

In 2012 it was reported that Taiwan was working on the development of smart mines, suitable for use in shallow waters and designed with the specific danger of a Chinese invasion in mind. Three previous kinds of mine, developed since the late 1980s, were meant for deeper waters and only featured contact fuses. One of the characteristics of smart mines is that they can be activated with a variety of sensors. Such move is in line with previous advice. For example in 2008 William Murray (US Naval War College) recommended “surf-zone sea mines. These weapons, designed for waters less than ten feet deep, are extraordinarily difficult to counter and would bedevil the planning or execution of any Chinese invasion of Taiwan”, citing former USMC commandant General James L. Jones, who had said in 2002 that “the inability to clear mines from the surf zone is the ‘Achilles’ heel of our maneuver force”. Murray stresses that these mines are “lightweight and portable” and can therefore be “quickly and easily moved from secure bunkers to where they are needed”. An added advantage is that they are “quite inexpensive” compared with other weapons.

One of the naval analysts at specialized website Blau Naval cautions that mines are a “two-way issue”, adding that when discussing them it is first of all necessary to ponder what the goal of overall operations is, in Taiwan’s case “to delay the landing and the consolidation of positions”, while from a Chinese perspective it is to “deny and / or delay access by Allied fleets”. Having said this, in the ROC’s operational sphere mines may play a range of roles. Before a landing, “to temporarily deny landing zones to large surface units, forcing the deployment of MCM (mine countermeasures) ships, which could be vulnerable”, options including the deployment of fixed minefields “relatively easy to identify, in order to force the PLAN to maneuver, ‘leading it’ to an area favorable for the ROC forces”, with the combined employment of shore and air-launched anti-ship missiles. Another possibility is to deploy a fixed minefield easy to detect, and “when the PLAN maneuvers, to deploy SLMM (submarine-launched mobile mines)” in the routes it employed. After a landing, the ROC Navy would try to cut the proper logistical flow, thus degrading the capabilities of the enemy forces onshore. To achieve this, it may deploy SLMM in the routes into the landing zone, and next take the opportunity to launch anti-ship missiles.

Shore launched-anti-ship missiles.

The closing stages of the 1982 Falklands War were witness to the huge potential of shore-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. The mere intelligence that Argentine had deployed one such unit, improvised from naval Exocets taken from ARA Guerrico (damaged by the Royal Marines in the defense of South Georgia), forced the Royal Navy to order her units to take a wide berth outside the suspected killing zone. This improvised unit was set up after demands for the deployment of additional fast boats were not met. The ITB, as it was know, finally managed to hit and extensively damage HMS Glamorgan, in an episode overshadowed by the much better known cases involving air-launched Exocets and HMS Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor. The potential of such missiles, magnified by technological developments over the last three decades, has not gone unnoticed in East Asia. They offer the potential to deny the mastery of coastal waters to a powerful navy, and may be more survivable than surface combatants. Therefore, they feature in a number of proposals concerning Taiwan, and have also been mooted in countries like the Philippines, facing difficult choices in terms of procurement under limited resources and pressure to rearm. For Japan, they are an essential ingredient of their island defense strategy. As mentioned in some discussions in the Philippines, the impact of these missiles may be even greater if they are deployed in forested areas, making their detection more difficult.

In December last year, the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (Taiwan’s main weapons research and development unit) released footage of the trial launch of its Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missile. The ROC Navy’s Chengkung-class frigates and Chinchiang-class corvettes have already been fitted with these missiles. Their land version is based on “a 6 wheeled trailer carrying 4 canisters. Each canister can launch one HF-3 missile”. After the release of the footage, Su Kuan-chuan (editor of the Taipei-based Chinese-language Defense International) said that supersonic missiles able to “change trajectory and fly at low altitude” were “very difficult to intercept, allowing them to effectively penetrate the air-defense network of any fleet”. With an improved range of 400 km at a speed of mach 3, the Hsiung Feng III is a good example of the kind of weapon able to inspire respect in any amphibious force. In particular if deployed in large numbers, both in trucks and fast craft.

Commenting on the former after it was officially acknowledged in 2013, J. Michael Cole wrote that “The addition of a land-based HF-3 component will add depth to Taiwan’s ability to counter the threat of an amphibious attack by China. Among other things, road-mobile launchers are more easily concealable than large sea vessels and can be dispersed around the island. This will increase the HF-3’s survivability, which is currently limited by the fact that ships limited to a few naval ports are highly vulnerable to missile and air attacks by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)”. On the other hand, with regard to the missiles’ effective range, Shang-su Wu (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University) warns that “surface vessels have limitations in their ability to detect targets beyond the horizon”, meaning that in the absence of “long-range surveillance means, such as radar located on high mountains, maritime aircraft, or other platforms” fast craft cannot engage targets effectively. We could argue the same with regard to shore-lauched missiles. This problem would be most evident should China engage in operations other than a landing, allowing her Navy to operate further away from Taiwanese shores.

While quite a few reports underline the fact that many modern anti-ship missiles are supersonic, this is not necessarily the most important feature in the eyes of all observers. One of the naval analysts at Blau Naval stresses that such missiles “need not be supersonic, what really counts is to give your target the shortest possible reaction time”, something that can be done by employing missiles “with the smallest possible radar signature”, an approach followed by Norway, first with Penguin missiles and now with their NSM successors. Both are sub-sonic. In his view, it is “only really important for missiles to be fast and maneuverable when fire-direction radars and/or electro-optic systems can fix their position”. The same expert recommends Taiwan not to forget portable systems when it comes to coastal defense, “following Finnish practice”. He underlines that the Chinese are aware of the risks involved in having their main amphibious units approach Taiwan during the opening stage of a conflict. This means it is more likely “for the first PLA units to hit the shore to be commandos deployed by submarine, small craft (even civilian vessels), or at most in ‘ship-to-shore connectors’, that is hovercrafts or JHSV catamarans”. His policy prescription is to have ROC forces distributed along the coast “and equipped with the right portable systems, such as Israel’s Spike. This is the system employed by the Finns”.

Light surface combatants (missile-carrying fast craft).

They may not have the glamour of their bigger counterparts, but fast craft equipped with anti-ship missiles are widely seen as a good choice for countries facing the need to deny the command of the sea to more powerful adversaries. Cheaper to build and operate, they are more survivable and can be deployed in greater numbers than larger vessels, being suitable for swarm tactics. Furthermore, their small size makes it possible to base them in a greater range of facilities, including civilian harbors and natural features, protected and far from prying eyes.

Dispersed across the Island, fast craft may be assembled to attack hostile vessels, in hit and run tactics reminiscent of guerrilla warfare. An analysis of such tactics’ potential in the Persian Gulf noted a “key tenet in swarming attacks: packs of small attack craft covertly leave their bases at various times, all heading for the same target”, resulted in “weaker” yet “much more difficult to detect” attacks. While such attacks would not come free, if involving large enough numbers they could deliver a bigger blow than that suffered. For such tactics to be employed, it is necessary to deploy supersonic anti-ship missiles in these platforms. This is exactly what Taiwan is doing, chiefly with the already mentioned Hsiung Feng III, a missile that according to William Murray could “offset much of China’s force modernisation by rendering specific classes of PRC ships and aircraft vulnerable”.

Currently, this weapon is deployed on Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, Chinchiang-class corvettes, and Kuang Hua VI fast attack boats. Plans are in place to also equip Lafayette and Knox-class frigates, and perhaps the extra second-hand Perry frigates that the US is delivering. The approval by the US Congress of this transfer re-kindled the debate on what kind of assets better serve Taiwan’s need. While these frigates can support a wide variety of platforms, there are doubts about their survivability, with critics pointing out that they will absorb a significant portion of the available budget and manpower, while not greatly increasing the Island’s defence capabilities. J. Michael Cole wrote that “Taiwan would be better served by procuring — or even better, developing — a smaller, faster, stealthier, and more dispersible force”, adding that for the same amount of money the Island “could procure as many as 14 fully armed 170-tonne Kuang Hua VI fast-attack boats, or several smaller surface combatants in the 500-tonne category, including the ‘carrier killer’ being developed under the Hsun Hai, or ‘Swift Sea‘ program”. Cole believes that “Although small size and dispersibility cannot fully ensure survivability against missile attacks by the PLA, there is a chance that a sufficient number of small surface combatants would survive an initial onslaught to fight another day, something that cannot be said of the 18 3,800-tonne-plus warships that currently form the core of Taiwan’s Navy (four Kidd-class destroyers, eight Perry-class frigates and six La Fayette-class frigates)”.

This controversy shows how, despite all the ramblings about asymmetric warfare, a decision has not yet been taken and fully implemented concerning the ultimate direction of Taiwan’s defense planning. In a way, the Island is at a crossroads, still buying and developing systems more geared to the conditions found a couple of decades ago, while at the same time already working on those suitable for asymmetric warfare. Among them stands out the Hsun Hai (Swift Sea) program, leading to the 500-ton stealthy twin-hull missile corvette Tuo Jiang class, of which 12 are planned, the first delivered in March 2014. Called a “carrier killer” by the local press, they have a top speed of 38 knots and a range of 2,000 nm. This high speed, together with a low radar signature, are key characteristics when it comes to approaching enemy formations. Designed to replace the some 30 170-ton KH-6s equipped with Hsiung Feng II (HF-2) anti-ship missiles, their offensive power is much greater and are better designed for the treacherous weather of the Taiwan Strait. In addition their construction features radar refracting materials and fewer sharp angles. Each Tuo Jiang vessel carries “12 chaff dispensers for both infrared and radio frequency-guided anti-ship missiles (six bow/six stern), one Mark 15 Phalanx close-in weapon system near the stern, four mounts for 12.7mm machine guns, one Otoberda 76mm bow gun, and six Mark 32 torpedoes”, and although her stern deck is not big enough to support a conventional helicopter, she may embark an unmanned aircraft. While the lack of space for a manned helicopter may seem to be a disadvantage, Chris Rawley (Commander in the United States Navy) has noted that “the vision of long range, persistent, even armed UAVs embarked on every surface combatant is slowly edging closer to reality with research programs such as DARPA’s TERN”. This could thus well be a harbinger of things to come.

The remaining confusion about the role of the ROC’s Navy is clear in its main mission as described in its own website, which reads “The main mission for the ROC Navy is to ensure the safety of our maritime space and secure our international shipping line unobstructed…In the war time, we can easily deal with our enemy’s blockade and interception operations to maintain Taiwan’s international shipping line unimpeded, and ensure Taiwan’s safety”. As noted by James R. Holmes, “Preserving free navigation and resupplying outlying islands aren’t sea-denial functions, while territorial defense of the island – the core of sea denial – is strikingly absent from the ROCN’s vision and mission statements”. Holmes stresses how difficult it is for an organization to redefine itself, and argues that “constant, vigilant leadership” by political leaders, the public, and observers, is necessary.

Not everybody sees these new catamarans as the best option for Taiwan. Commenting on the delivery of the two first Tuo Jiang vessels, Shang-su Wu acknowledges their firepower and praises the country’s “ship-bulding and defense industries”, while noting three weak points “insufficient air defense capability, a highly exposed tactical environment, and the unlikely scenario of amphibious invasion” limiting “the strategic value of these new vessels”. Concerning the former, Wu stresses they sport “only a 76 mm gun and a Phalanx 20 mm close-in weapon system, which have limited capacity to engage approaching anti-ship missiles or aircraft, and they would need to be covered by other weapons systems, such as larger frigates and destroyers, fighters, and air defense systems onshore”, adding that other systems are unlikely to afford enough cover in times of war, in part because bigger ships able to provide a defensive umbrella would be forced to withdraw in the face of an expected Chinese onslaught. Here Wu is pointing at one of the problems with small craft, the lack of organic air defenses. In the Falklands, British helicopters exchanged machine gun fire with Argentine fast patrol boats, in a situation where no side had complete mastery of the air.

Of course surface combatants can form a defensive network providing early warning and multi-vector defence, but as shown in both the Pacific (final offensive against Japan) and the Falklands, this is likely to prompt attacks on ships on picket duty, with Taiwan ill prepared to afford such attrition warfare. With regard to the tactical environment Wu argues that, devoid of air cover, corvettes will “have to hide in coastal terrain in order to wait a proper opportunity to launch attacks”, but these have been open to Chinese spies posing as tourists since 2011, and in war time they could be “examined and continuously monitored by satellites or other means”. Thus, a swarm attack may be nipped in the bud, before participants could even assemble, let alone approach their targets. Concerning an amphibious invasion, he considers this scenario unlikely. While other options are open to Beijing, and this may not be the preferred route for China, it should not be so easily discounted. Furthermore, failing to properly prepare to counter it may add to its attractive, making it more likely. Where it is very difficult not to agree with Wu is in his warnings about the dangers from the extensive presence of Chinese citizens in Taiwan, which may provide cover for the PLA to infiltrate in advance of hostilities. “Taiwan’s army, police, and other forces could be overwhelmed by massive internal attacks, and its command chain subsequently paralyzed. In addition, with its domestic aerospace industry and rapidly expanding civilian passenger lines, including M503, China’s increasing airlift could quickly bring more troops to Taiwan, assuming those already there could neutralize the air defense system”. This is a reminder that even in maritime theaters like East Asia, there is still an important role to play for land forces. No purely aerial, or naval, strategy is likely to succeed. Thus, in the case of fast craft, it is also necessary to guarantee that they will not be detected and attacked from inland. In the 1967 Hong Kong riots, a police boat was sunk in a bomb attack. Another danger is the destruction or otherwise neutralization of their shelters, be they through mining (a possibility pointed out by a Blau Naval analyst) or special forces operations, as seen in the Ukrainian crisis. Russia sunk her Kara-class cruiser Ochakov to blockade the Ukrainian Navy ships located in Novoozerne, later scuttling a second smaller vessel, and succeeding in trapping six warships, which were subsequently boarded. As pointed out by military analyst John Krempasky, this is nothing new, since “Ships [have been] deliberately scuttled in harbor entrances for ages”, a practice which is the object of a recent Popular Mechanics article.

The Tuo Jiang is also suffering from some design problems, which have prompted a pause in sea trials. Senior navy commander Lu Li-shih (呂禮詩) explained in February that “several fundamentals flaws in the corvette’s design, along with it being packed with extra weapons and equipment systems, resulted in the vessel having insufficient buoyancy, which affected its maneuverability and stability”. Lu added that “The core design concept was to build a stealth fast-attack corvette with high maneuverability. However, later on the design was altered in a bid to make the Tuo Jiang-class ‘invincible warships’, loading it with anti-aircraft and anti-ship weaponry, along with submarine-hunting and other combat functions”, something akin to “changing the design for a dress while a lady was already wearing it”. This is a reminder of one of the conundrums of naval design. On the one hand, smaller size results in a less conspicuous visual and radar profile, plus lower costs and lesser personnel requirements, it being very tempting to try to cram as many systems as possible in a hull of limited dimensions. On the other hand, this comes at a price, in terms not just of seaworthiness and range, but resilience when hit. The travails of Taiwanese ship designers and naval officers are nothing new. Commenting on the inter-war Imperial Japanese Navy, Thomas G. Mahnken (US Naval War College) noted that “Japanese designs tended to pack too much armament, speed, and protection into small hulls. Cruiser and destroyer designs often suffered problems with structural integrity. Indeed, the navy had to reconstruct the ships of several classes to improve their seaworthiness”.


Traditionally submarines have been the weapon of choice for navies facing a more powerful adversary. In the Great War and the Second World War, Germany unsuccessfully tried to starve the United Kingdom into submission, while in the latter the US Navy succeeded in unleashing a lethal campaign against Japanese shipping. In 1982, the sinking of ARA Belgrano prompted the Argentine Navy to retreat to port, and currently Vietnam is placing much emphasis on Russian-built Kilo-class submarines. In the case of Taiwan, the existing units, all of them conventional, are approaching the end of their working life. In 2001 US President George W. Bush offered eight diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan, but since American shipyards no longer produce such systems, this would probably involve either an agreement with a European producer or the purchase of second-hand boats. For years this issue has remained on the table, yet without any final agreement in sight. Other options touted have been building boats domestically, an option that seems to be moving forward, or resorting to Japanese or even Russian technology. It is still not fully clear how Taiwan will acquire her next generation of submarines, but there are powerful indications the domestic card remains on the table. Writing on recent positive naval developments in Taiwan, Michal Thim (PhD candidate at Nottingham University’s China Policy Institute, and a member of CIMSEC) stressed “submarine propeller as evidence of Taiwan’s intention to develop submarines domestically”. China has pressured European producers not to sell any more boats to Taiwan, so that the Netherlands and Germany no longer appear as realistic options. Although the issue is complex, some observers remain optimistic. Speaking at the close of the 13th annual US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, 2049 Institute executive director Mark Stokes said “Having a diesel-electric submarine program in play sends a clear signal of Taiwan’s resolve and it would increase Taiwan’s confidence in being able to negotiate with the other side of the Taiwan Strait from a position of strength”.

This continued uncertainty has not prevented many observers from stressing the role that submarines could play in the event of an attempted invasion or blockade. However, in this area we can observe a move away from the “military rationale underlying the [2001] original arms package”, which was “one of a classic symmetrical response to perceived threats”. That is, submarines are still important, but perhaps not exactly in the same way emphasized in previous decades. Concerning this, William Murray explained that “eight modern diesel submarines would presumably defend against the PRC’s increasingly impressive and capable surface forces and submarines” but that, together with the P-3C Orion aircraft and the PAC-3 missiles also included in the 2001 package, “none of these three weapons systems serve Taiwan’s current or immediate future defense needs, that each would be acutely vulnerable to existing Chinese weapons and for Taipei would therefore be a major misallocation of resources”. Specifically, Murray considers diesel submarines to suffer from two disadvantages, rendering them not that suitable for asymmetric defensive naval warfare. First of all, they geared towards offense, not defense. “Diesel submarines can conduct effective operations against an opposing navy and merchant fleet, but only when they are used offensively”. No longer able to search for targets on the surface, they “must now remain submerged, where their battery capacity forces them to hunt at low speeds—approximately four knots”, forced to travel “slowly to locations where enemy vessels might eventually deploy—geographic choke points, sea-lanes, and the waters around enemy harbors and naval bases being the most likely”. Second, they are not effective in an anti-submarine role. “A diesel submarine can, if equipped with appropriate torpedoes, attack another submarine, but modern submarines are very quiet and exceedingly difficult to detect”. Able to find an enemy submarine only at very short range, less than four nautical miles, and traveling at slow speeds, a diesel submarine cannot patrol large areas. “Furthermore, the hunting diesel submarine might well be itself detected and attacked by the hunted boat”. For these reasons, he concludes that “diesel submarines cannot hope to become effective ASW platforms”.

Although referring to naval systems in general, we should remember when it comes to submarines that in the words of Chris Rawley (Commander in the United States Navy) “Naval swarms will be multidomain. Manned and unmanned platforms will coordinate in the air, under, and on the sea”. Thus submarines are likely to operate together with their unmanned counterparts plus systems such as smart mines. Furthermore, some voices in Taiwan are pushing for the domestic production of small submarines, with a lower tonnage than the foreign boats discussed in recent decades. Thus in 2011, former Defense Minister Michael Tsai said that Taiwan did not need to buy large submarines from the US, recommending instead that Taiwanese corporations MND, NSC, CSBC and other private companies cooperate in the development of a 300-ton boat. Commenting on this for the Jamestown Foundation, Russell Hsiao and Jyh-Perng Wang wrote that “a 300-ton submarine is more suited for operating in the Taiwan Strait”.

Systems integration, doctrine, and naval and political culture.

We should note that an asymmetric naval posture requires much more than the deployment of the different assets discussed above. They have to be properly integrated in terms of training and doctrine. Just to give an example, they may require a higher degree of decentralized decision-making than is the norm in more conventional operations, and officers can only acquire the necessary confidence through extensive realistic training. Furthermore, the concept of asymmetric naval warfare must permeate defense planning at all levels, including research and development, and procurement. Going beyond defense, it must inspire a moral and political rearmament which can underpin a credible deterrent and, if necessary, defensive operations. This means, among others, successfully concluding the move to a professional military, ideally combined with a part-time militia, overcoming suspicions of the military among the population, and helping a young generation used to abundance and material comfort understand that they may be called upon to pay the price for the freedom they have grown accustomed to. Freedom never comes free, and the bill is sooner or later sent. At the international level, despite the limitations of Taiwan’s current status, the Island needs to make a more determined effort to build the necessary relations to maximize exchanges of views and experience, interoperability, and to send the message that she is not standing alone.

The international angle

Although this underlies all proposals for a turn to asymmetric warfare by Taiwan, it is perhaps not a bad idea to emphasize, before we conclude, that they are made in the expectation that an attack or blockade of Taiwan would not be seen by other powers as a domestic affair or a far-away war in a forgotten corner of the world, to be condemned in international fora while no action takes place on the ground. On the contrary, the idea is for Taiwan to resist for long enough to prompt Beijing to raise the stakes, escalating, while other countries, first and foremost the United States and Japan, felt compelled to join the fray. Thus, for Taiwan to develop the “porcupine strategy” mentioned earlier, it is necessary for her partners and Allies to enjoy the necessary credibility in terms of both resolve and capabilities to convince the Island that she will not stand alone in her hour of need. Should that resolve or capabilities be missing, or be seen as missing, then, while not abandoning the asymmetric defense discussed, it would need to be complemented with offensive weapons able to significantly degrade Chinese forces and possibly an independent nuclear deterrent comprising both strategic and tactical weapons.

Just to mention an example of the many actions that maritime democracies would be expected to undertake, it is essential for Japanese forces to retain control of the Ryukyu Islands. As noted by Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, “PLA naval forces must pass through the narrow seas separating the Ryukyus in order to menace Taiwan’s vulnerable east coast”. Thus, the reorientation of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in a South-Western direction, and the deployment of anti-ship missiles in key islands not far from Taiwan, as well as the development of amphibious capabilities, are welcome developments and an essential contribution to the defense of Taiwan. The latter is very much relevant given that should Tokyo lack an island-retaking capability, this may be interpreted by Beijing as an invitation to a preemptive landing in advance of an attack against Taiwan, a possibility also mentioned by Yoshihara and Holmes. More generally, in order to enable Taiwan to deploy the asymmetric, defensive strategy discussed, a number of actors would have to cooperate with Taipei. It cannot be viewed in isolation.

A caveat: guerrilla warfare means hiding among the “people”

When discussing naval asymmetric warfare we have to be careful not to simply equate this concept with that of “guerrillas at sea”, they are related but not equivalent. One of the defining characteristics of insurgency is the hiding of combatants among the wider civilian population. Insurgents will seek to disguise themselves, appearing in the eyes of counterinsurgents as just peasants or city dwellers, while the latter will seek to flush them out by securing the provision of intelligence by civilians (not an easy proposition given threats from insurgents) and conducting a census. As stressed by Bing West, “Every army in history, faced with an insurgency, has understood the criticality of identifying the guerrillas … Every manual on counterinsurgency has stressed the criticality of a census”. Mao underlined that guerrillas are fish among water, deriving their sustenance from the wider civilian population.

Yet, although Mao talked about water, he was basically thinking of land warfare. However, is this approach also possible at sea? Indeed it is, but just like on land the insurgent will seek cover among civilians, so will his maritime counterpart. As already discussed, fast craft may have a hard time closing in their target under enemy air superiority, despite their speed and low profile. Insurgents do not resort to such characteristics, instead they seek to attack targets by posing as civilians, which at sea may mean merchantmen, trawlers, or yachts, until it is too late to react. This is a tactic also open to conventional surface combatants, as demonstrated by HMS Glamorgan in 1982 when it took part in some drills with USS Coral Sea’s carrier group. Faced with a much superior force and a lack of naval fixed-wing aviation, with a single warship sporting a significant surface combat capability, the Royal Navy went asymmetric. As explained by Admiral Sandy Woodward “Only Glamorgan, with her four Exocets and effective range of twenty miles, could inflict real damage on the Coral Sea, and Admiral Brown knew this”. With “No cover. No hiding place. No air support of my own either”, and his opponent enjoying “effective visibility” of 250 miles, Woodward ordered his ships to split, approaching the American carrier group from different directions, only to be located and “sunk” by US aircraft, but HMS Glamorgan managed to avoid detection and, once night fell, set straight for the carrier, although not as expected. “I ordered every light in the ship to be switched on, plus as many extras as we could find. I intended that from any distance we would look exactly like a cruise liner” and, when challenged by a US Navy destroyer, “My in-house Peter Sellers imitator, already primed for the job, replied in his very best Anglo-Indian: ‘This is the liner Rawalpindi, bound from Bombay to the port of Dubai. Good Night, and jolly good luck! He sounded like the head waiter from the Surbiton tandoori’”. HMS Glamorgan radioed later, to inform USS Coral Sea “to break the apalling news to Tom Brown that we were now in a position to put his ship on the bottom of the Indian Ocean and there was nothing he could do about it. ‘We fired four Exocets twenty seconds ago,’ he added for good measure”.

A reminder that warships do not operate in a vacuum. Thus, Taiwan may seek to deploy anti-ship missiles on trawlers, merchantmen, and other civilian vessels. Concerning this, some voices consider that progress in sensors, communication technology, and automation, may increase the naval value of fishing vessels, and that the gap between military and civilian radar systems has narrowed significantly, a development which may also be taking place to some extent in the realm of sonar.

Of course, in such scenario, China may react by declaring a total exclusion zone, or seek to conduct a “census” of ships operating in the waters around Taiwan. This would provide an opening for other maritime democracies to intervene, however, given that these waters are essential for the seaborne trade of many nations. By contesting such exclusion zone, and stressing freedom of navigation, Allied powers like the United States and Japan may try to establish a “sanctuary” for Taiwanese sea guerrillas, in a division of labor where Washington and Tokyo would ensure “civilians” could stay (no “reconcentration of population”), while Taipei hit at Chinese warships and other targets. While this is a possible scenario, it would not be easy to reach such decisions. Among other factors, maritime democracies may be reluctant to deviate from the international law narrative that seeks to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, with the purpose of restricting hostilities and protecting the latter. They may also fear an escalation possibly leading to a wider war with China.

On the other hand, should it be China which followed the asymmetric route, in line with her actions in the South China Sea, a possible response by maritime democracies may be a regional, collective defense treaty, featuring the development of maritime militias and the deployment of small contingents onboard merchantmen and fishing vessels. One notch up may come a maritime census, identifying all vessels operating in the region, first and foremost trawlers, and a policy of seizing those engaged in combat operations, with combat re-defined to also include instances of non-lethal force. For example, ramming trawlers would fall in this category. Again, such decision would have to surmount significant obstacles, but recent talk of sanctions and “grey on white” operations against China, traditional taboos, shows how quickly the gloves can go off when faced with the loss of essential regions.

Policy recommendations.

From our analysis, a set of policy recommendations may arise. First of all, to lay down the necessary doctrine to ensure that Taiwan moves away from any temptation to match China in conventional terms, choosing instead to maximize the potential for asymmetric tactics at sea. Second, to acquire and deploy the necessary assets, including a renewal of her submarine fleet, an expansion of missile-carrying fast craft (or if deemed better, other platforms), and the deployment of mobile shore-launched anti-ship missiles. In connection to this, an open debate is needed on how far the population is ready to go in opposing armed coercion, and at the political level it is also necessary to improve the status and prestige of the military, completing its professionalization and combining it with the necessary part-time reserves and militia. Training must fully reflect the new priorities, and must be geared toward the education of a new generation of officers willing and able to take decisions without constant recourse up the chain of command. These reforms must be a whole-of-government move, involving for example the private sector in terms of cyber security and local authorities with regard to civilian defense. At the international level, a gradual normalization of exchanges is necessary, with isolated gestures such as the recent landing of two F/A-18C Hornet giving rise to more open and regular cooperation. China is most unlikely to renounce the use of force to bring Taiwan into her fold. Therefore, the only realistic alternative for the Island, other than surrender, is the development of the necessary set of military capabilities to make aggression a costly exercise and furthermore, one not guaranteed to bring success to the attacker. Given the growing capabilities on the other side of the Strait, asymmetric warfare seems the only realistic alternative, always understanding it in a wider regional and international framework. Concerning this framework, an essential element is Japan, whose “normalization” as a military power is an essential pillar of any credible strategy to defend Formosa. The case of Taiwan illustrates the need for flexible, wide-ranging thinking, in maritime and naval affairs. Thus, the debate on the defence of the Island should also benefit countries in other regions.

Alex Calvo

Alex Calvo

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defense policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), he is writing a book about Asia's role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work can be found at