Anatomy of a Taiwan Invasion Part 2: Missile and Naval Domains

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

Anatomy of a Taiwan Invasion Part 2: Missile and Naval Domains

What would be the role of China’s missile and naval forces in an invasion of Taiwan?

Anatomy of a Taiwan Invasion Part 2: Missile and Naval Domains

In this May 24, 2014 photo, China’s Harbin (112) guided missile destroyer takes part in a week-long China-Russia “Joint Sea-2014” navy exercise at the East China Sea off Shanghai, China.

Credit: AP Photo

This is part 2 of a three-part series considering the way in which a Taiwan invasion may be conducted. Part 1 set the political basis and military parameters and timeline for such a contingency, stating a late 2019 onset of conflict. The air domain of the conflict was also discussed, arguing that Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) fighter forces and Republic of China Armed Forces (ROCArF) air defenses and early warning systems would likely suffer significant early losses and disadvantages in terms of situational awareness, fighter sortie rates, and IADS coherency.

Part 2 now will consider the goals and prospects of other People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) kinetic domains, including missile power, naval power, and the beach landing. As described in part 1, this series will only consider first week of active fighting (T-day to T-day+7), with the conclusion that the PLA will seek to have successfully conducted amphibious assaults to have attained at least one or more major beachheads. Part 3 next month will review methods in which the ROCArF may seek to counter existing PLA capabilities as well as to consider what the likely future trajectory of PLA development may mean for ROCArF prospects in the next decade or more.

PLA Missile Availability

The PLA Rocket Force is oriented for conventional and nuclear strike missions. In a Taiwan contingency the PLARF would provide massive precision conventional strike against ROCArF high value targets, through the use of SRBMs, IRBMs, and GLCMs, all launched from high mobile ground based transporter erector launchers capable of so-called shoot and scoot tactics.

Unfortunately there is limited information as to the number of PLARF missile brigades and the exact number of launchers that each brigade fields. It is even more difficult to quantify the total number of missiles of each type in the PLARF’s inventory, given it is virtually assured that missile quantity will greatly outnumber the quantity of launchers so as to provide reload capacity. Various think tanks such as RAND have attempted to model PLA missile inventory in the past, estimating that hundreds and dozens of various categories and types of missiles may be in service by certain time spans. Similar numbers have been reported in other documents and mainstream media as well.

For the purposes of this Taiwan scenario, approximately the full arsenal of 2019 estimates of PLARF SRBMs and over half of the GLCM and IRBM forces will be allocated. Breaking it down by category, as follows:

  • SRBMs: Approximately 1,000 missiles, made up of advanced variants of DF-11, DF-15 and DF-16. Early DF-11 variants field ranges of only about 300 km, however DF-11 variants built in the 2000s up to present feature enhanced ranges of up to 700 km. DF-15 and DF-16 are thought to be capable of engaging targets between 600-900 km and 800-1,000 km, respectively. All these SRBM likely feature different warhead types, including unitary, fragmentation and bunker busting types identified so far.
  • IRBMs: Approximately 100 missiles, made up of DF-21C. The DF-21C is thought to have a range of about 1,500-1,700 km. While such a range is likely significantly overkill for a Taiwan contingency, the greater terminal speed of an IRBM compared to SRBMs would likely complicate missile interception efforts from the ROCArF, and would be used to also strike at higher value targets.
  • GLCMs: About 600 missiles, all of the DF-10/A type, with a range estimated around 1,500 km or more. In terms of characteristics they are often considered similar to Tomahawk LACMs. DF-10s missiles are deployed on three round launchers.

All of the above missiles listed are considered to be precision strike capable, to feature at least satellite guidance and inertial guidance, allowing engagement of fixed targets such as buildings and bases. Some variants may also feature onboard terminal guidance for enhanced accuracy. Furthermore, all systems above are road-mobile and capable of operating from minimally prepared launch positions.

In the weeks leading to T-day, redeployment of launchers, reloads, and associated logistics systems will occur to enable more effective coverage of Taiwan from within China’s interior. Further, the greater range of many missile systems such as DF-16, DF-10, and DF-21C means the launchers for such systems may not even have to be deployed within the ETC to cover the entirety of Taiwan. The PRC’s strategic depth and robust air defenses and ability to contest and likely acquire air superiority over the Taiwan Strait, coupled with the mobility of missile launchers, means ROCArF counter-attacks against PLARF launch platforms will be near impossible to carry out.

Goals of PLA Missile Power

At the onset of T-day, the PLARF will almost certainly seek to launch a number of saturation strikes composed of different missile types. The purpose of initial saturation strikes will be twofold.

  • The first is to greatly degrade or destroy ROCArF missile defense systems. Effective missile defense relies on a combination of early warning radars, targeting radars, and missile launch platforms. The ROCArF field a number of capable missile defense systems including imported Patriot missiles as well as indigenous Sky Sword systems. However these systems are not easily mobile in the way that PLA and Russian systems are, and in Taiwan’s case they also rely on a number of large, fixed and vulnerable radar sites such as PAVE PAWS located in Taiwan’s north. High priority ROC targets would include known missile defense sites and fixed or semi-fixed radar sites, and PLARF missiles would be complemented by PLA air launched KD-20s and KD-88s as described in Part 1. The multi-domain missile bombardment would also rely on support by airborne standoff jamming to complicate ROCArF interception, and airborne ELINT and SIGINT for targeting support.
  • The PLARF’s second purpose is to rapidly strike at time sensitive ROCArF targets such as airbases, C4I centers, and large formations of ground forces. The ability to conduct re-attack as well as interdiction in the later phases of the contingency will depend on the effectiveness of the degradation of ROCArF missile defenses. Similar to the PLAAF, the PLARF will likely seek to conduct interdiction of ROCArF prior to and during the amphibious assault by T-day+7.

PLAN Availability

It is likely the PLAN will seek to press all medium to large amphibious ships in its inventory for the Taiwan contingency, which as of 2019 will include between 25-30 5,000 ton 072 family LSTs and 6 25,000 ton 071 LPDs, as well as a small number of Zubr and Type 726 LCACs. A large number of civilian roll-on-roll-off transport ships will likely be requisitioned as well, however these transport ships will not play a part in the Taiwan contingency until a beachhead or port is established.

PLAN combatants will primarily be drawn from the Eastern and Southern Theater Fleets. The entirety of the ETF’s surface combatants will be allocated for the Taiwan contingency, supported by about half of the STF as well. In terms of modern surface combatants, such a force will be made up of about 15 054A frigates, and 10 052C/D destroyers supported by 12 older 053H3 frigates, a half dozen older destroyers, and 24 or more 056/A corvettes. As some ships will be in deep maintenance, the actual number of ships available to both the PLAN and ROCN will be smaller their total order of battle.

All available PLAN submarines in all three fleets will be sortied, but it is likely that only the most modern diesel submarines such as the 039A/B, 039 and Kilo classes would be deployed against Taiwan. Given the conflict is oriented for late 2019, Chinese aircraft carriers will not be deployed to support operations against Taiwan.

Goals of PLA Naval Power

The PLAN’s first goal from T-day to about T-day+3/4 will be to establish sea control over the Taiwan Strait, so as to enable safe crossing of PLAN amphibious assault ships, and later to allow transit of larger transport and cargo vessels. Sea control of the Strait will inevitably require the elimination of ROCN surface combatants and their small fleet of submarines. It may be tempting to imagine a ship on ship conflict, but it is more likely that the PLA’s primary maritime strikes will be conducted by strike fighters such as JH-7/As and J-16s, with PLAN surface combatants, submarines, and coast based long range AShMs providing additional volume of fire. Given the tight confines of the Taiwan Strait, air superiority will enable ISR forces such as AEW&C, ELINT/SIGINT, and MPAs to provide superior targeting solutions for friendly shooters such as aircraft and ships. The ability of the ROCN’s primary surface combatants to survive in such an environment is bleak, given none of the ROCN’s surface combatants are equipped with modern phased array radar systems or vertical launch systems considered vital for defending against even minor saturation missile attacks. It is unlikely that any major ROCN ships of frigate size or larger would survive in the Taiwan Strait by T-day+3/4, after which the PLAN will seek to assert control over the northern and southern entrances of the Strait.

Prior to T-day, PLAN amphibious assault ships will be loading themselves with PLA Marines and amphibious capable PLAA units. These ships will transport amphibious assault forces onto beaches, either by directly releasing vehicles and troops onto beaches (LSTs), or to deploy helicopters and amphibious capable vehicles from a dozen or more kilometers off the beach (LPDs). After sea control and air superiority over the Strait is established by T-day+6, LPDs and LSTs will be escorted to the beaches by PLAN frigates and corvettes primarily, perhaps with overwatch by one or two more capable destroyers, and also heavily supported PLA military aviation. PLAN amphibious ships will likely be targeted by any remaining ROCN fast attack craft and ROCAF fighter aircraft, as well as land based ROC AShMs. In the tight confines of the Taiwan Strait, AEW&C and fighters will likely provide the first layer of defense rather than destroyers like 052C/Ds.

Additionally, independent of the main amphibious landing against Taiwan proper, small naval task forces supported by air power may seek to demand the surrender of ROC islands such as Taiping Island in the South China Sea, as well as the much closer Kinmen on Fujian province’s doorstep. The military value of these garrisons during the conflict is limited, therefore either a small scale blockade to bypass them or an outright attempt to strike and subsequently land on these islands may be sought.

The Amphibious Landings

For this contingency, the PLAMC and a select number of amphibious capable PLA Army units will have the primary purpose of assaulting beaches, and establishing beachheads or seizing ports to enable regular Army reinforcements to cross. The amphibious assault phase of any Taiwan invasion discussion tends to always be the most contested and controversial. For example, it has been claimed that the PLA would only have two windows throughout a year lasting a few weeks at a time, to conduct any sort of Strait crossing, or that the PLA would attempt a contested landing using simple small civilian craft. While it is certainly true that certain periods of the year allow for easier crossings, it is a significant assumption to believe that those are the only period in which the PLA has prepared itself to invade Taiwan for.

PLA reforms of recent years means the PLAMC has expanded from about 12,000 troops between two brigades, to 40,000 at full strength between eight brigades (four being combined arms brigades). At least five PLA Army amphibious combined brigades have also been reorganized.

This author believes that initial amphibious landings will be conducted using PLAN LSTs and LPDs loaded with amphibious assault vehicles to land on Taiwan’s western side, by about T-day+7, by which point significant air and missile interdiction against ROCA defenders will have occurred. PLA airborne and space based ISR will seek to identify the beaches defended most lightly for landing. ISR platforms such as Tu-154M SAR planes and UAVs will monitor the major routes of transport extending from the beach so as to interdict any ROCA forces repositioning to reinforce an assaulted beach. Medium weight transport helicopters and attack helicopters deploying from across the Strait will also seek to support the amphibious landings.

However by T-day+7, it becomes very difficult to gauge how successfully the amphibious assault may proceed. The ability of the ROCA and other ground elements to coordinate and defend against a landing will depend on the damage inflicted by prior PLA strikes and interdiction. Furthermore, by this point in the conflict morale and resolve on both sides will likely be significantly affected and can no longer be ignored at the level of the individual soldier or the strategic level of command.

Therefore, for the purposes of this series, the results of the amphibious assault cannot be considered in detail, given it would depend on how the preceding stages of the conflict unfolded. The ability of the ROCArF to successfully repel a PLA amphibious landing, and the PLA’s ability to successfully conduct an amphibious landing, will likely be strongly dependent on the outcome of the air, naval and missile domains.