China on Thursday (August 4) launched aggressive and unprecedented military exercises near Taiwan in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island that Beijing claims as part of its territory.
As the long-range, live-fire drills began with China’s Eastern Theatre Command firing several ballistic missiles, Taiwan said that it was “preparing for war without seeking war”. What is Taiwan’s strategy to fight back in case China attempts to occupy it by force?
The “porcupine doctrine”
The “porcupine doctrine”, which was proposed in 2008 by US Naval War College research professor William S Murray, is a strategy of asymmetric warfare focused on fortifying a weak state’s defences to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses rather than taking on its strengths.
It is about building defences that would ensure that Taiwan “could be attacked and damaged but not defeated, at least without unacceptably high costs and risks”, Murray wrote in the Naval War College Review.
Dr Zeno Leoni, a lecturer at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, identifies three defensive layers in the porcupine approach. In an article published on the website of King’s College London last year, he wrote: “The outer layer is about intelligence and reconnaissance to ensure defence forces are fully prepared. Behind this come plans for guerrilla warfare at sea with aerial support from sophisticated aircraft provided by the US. The innermost layer relies on the geography and demography of the island. The ultimate objective of this doctrine is that of surviving and assimilating an aerial offensive well enough to organise a wall of fire that will prevent the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from successfully invading.”
While the outer surveillance layer would work to prevent a surprise attack, the second one would make it difficult for China to land its troops on the island in the face of a guerrilla campaign at sea using “agile, missile-armed small ships, supported by helicopters and missile launchers”, Dr Leoni wrote.
“Even once Chinese boots were on Taiwanese ground, the island’s mountainous topography and urbanised environment would give defenders an advantage when it comes to hampering the progress of an invasion,” he wrote about the innermost layer.
Asymmetric systems of defence
In its 2021 Quadrennial Defence Review, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence defined asymmetric systems as ones that are “small, numerous, smart, stealthy, mobile and hard to be detected and countered”, and “associated with innovative tactics and employments”. According to Taiwan’s former Chief of the General Staff Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, these systems are “a large number of small things”.
The Texas National Security Review, a policy journal backed by the University of Texas, notes that among Taiwan’s current and yet-to-be-delivered military systems, “the minelayer ship, the Harpoon coastal defence cruise missile, the Stinger man-portable air defence missile, and possibly the missile corvettes can be considered ‘small things’ that can be fielded in large numbers”.
Taiwan’s 2021 Defence Review also spoke of efforts to build a multi-layered maritime strike power using “coastal mobile anti-ship missiles, light and rapid maritime force, and advanced naval mines”, apart from using “new offensive and defensive technologies of EW (electronic warfare) and cyber warfare, as well as multi-functional unmanned systems for surveillance and strike”.
These asymmetric capabilities will be aimed at striking the “operational centre of gravity and key nodes of the enemy”, it said. “The geographic advantages of the Taiwan Strait shall be tapped to shape favourable conditions for us to disrupt the operational tempo of the enemy, frustrate its attempts and moves of invasion at decisive points to strike a dispersed enemy with a united blow.”
Taiwan underlined its shift to an asymmetric approach by adopting the Overall Defence Concept (ODC) in 2018. The ODC was developed and introduced during the tenure of Admiral Lee, who served from 2017 to 2019.
An explainer co-written by Admiral Lee in The Diplomat in 2020, said: “The ODC is Taiwan’s current strategy for dealing with a potential Chinese invasion in a resource-constrained environment” while using its “natural advantages, civilian infrastructure and asymmetric warfare capabilities”. These asymmetric systems, the article said, must be cost-effective, easy to maintain, and numerous to disperse at strategic points.
Taiwan, it said, must sustain its capabilities beyond the first phase of a full-scale war by banking on “mobility, concealment, camouflage, deception, electronic jamming, operational redundancy, rapid repair and blast mitigation”. The ODC redefines “victory” in event of a Taiwan-China war as “foiling PLA’s mission of successfully invading and exerting political control over Taiwan”.
The need for such a strategy
China enjoys overwhelming military superiority over Taiwan. Over the past decade, Beijing has developed far more accurate and precise weapon systems to target Taiwan and has been vocal about its intention to “reunite” the island with the mainland, by force or coercion if needed.
In its 2021 report to Congress, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted that the scale of China’s nuclear buildup points to support for a “new strategy of limited nuclear first use”. Such a strategy, it said, would enable Chinese leaders to deter US intervention in a war over Taiwan.
“Chinese leaders likely set 2020 as a key milestone for the PLA to develop the capabilities needed to invade Taiwan. To achieve this goal, for nearly two decades the PLA has systematically planned, trained, and built the forces it believes are required to invade the island. The PLA has already achieved the capabilities needed to conduct an air and naval blockade, cyberattacks, and missile strikes against Taiwan. PLA leaders now likely assess they have, or will soon have, the initial capability needed to conduct a high-risk invasion of Taiwan if ordered to do so by CCP leaders,” the report said.
How easy will it be for China?
Missile strikes, cyberattacks, air and naval blockade aside, undertaking a full-scale invasion across the Taiwan Strait, with attendant risks of anti-ship and anti-air attacks, could present challenges for China. The PLA is estimated to have air and naval resources to carry out an initial landing of 25,000 or more troops, which could increase if it deploys civilian ships to meet its military objectives. However, it will have to first select and secure a suitable beachhead from among the handful that is available. Also, with small and agile weapons systems, Taiwan can turn its coastline into a kill zone that would deny China a walkover. Beijing would have to rely on cyberattacks, missile strikes on Taiwan’s air bases and runways, and a blockade to choke it into surrendering.
“Any near-term PLA invasion would remain a high-risk option. Such an operation would rely on the success of the PLA’s more developed cyberattack, missile strike, and blockade capabilities to sufficiently degrade, isolate, or defeat Taiwan’s defending forces as well as its anti-access and area denial capabilities to prevent decisive US intervention,” the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission report said.
While it remains committed to the asymmetric warfare policy on paper, Taiwan’s defence spending has not evolved swiftly enough to arm itself as per the porcupine strategy. Analysts note that it continues to spend on costly conventional weapons. The security review commission rued that Taiwan’s military leaders have been “resisting steps to adopt a more asymmetric posture”.
But Taiwan insists on striking a balance. A source close to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence told the Financial Times last year, “If we only train how to flee and hide, that will shake morale. If we give up on developing our air force, the PLA will win before the war has even started.”