What you need to know
By empowering its cruise missile program, Taiwan is taking its gloves off in its cross-Strait standoff.
Taiwan is reportedly building a new batch of cruise missiles with an extended range of up to 1,200 kilometers, giving them the capability to strike targets deep inside mainland China.
The move is a long-deliberated response to deter Beijing in the midst of a rapidly growing military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait, where a belligerent China has already deployed thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles with the capability to hit the democratic island nation.
Upmedia of Taiwan reported that the Hsiung Feng IIE (HF-2E), the Taiwanese military’s indigenous-produced surface-to-surface cruise missile, is about to conclude the first phase of its production, which started in 2008 with at least 240 missiles built. The second production phase of HF-2E missiles will begin in 2019, with the newest batch of HF-2Es capable of hitting targets up to 1,200 kilometers away.
At least 100 HF-2E missiles with extended range will be built, and a budget of NT$13.6 billion (about US$440 million) has already been allocated, according to Upmedia.
Politically sensitive in nature, Taiwan’s cruise missile and ballistic missile programs are classified and the exact range of HF-2E has never been publicly disclosed. The first batch of HF-2Es, which began production in 2008, were reported to have a range of around 600 kilometers – enough to reach only the coastal areas of China immediately facing Taiwan, mostly in its Fujian province.
Reports over the years, however, have suggested that Taiwan has been experimenting with extending the range of the missiles from their originally designed 600 kilometers to beyond 1,000 kilometers, and that an unspecified number of HF-2E missiles have already had their range upgraded.
To ensure survivability in the onset of a Chinese attack, Taiwan reportedly deploys most of the HF-2E cruise missiles on mobile platforms such as modified trucks and has painted civilian markings on some of these trucks to camouflage them.
A range of 1,200 kilometers would put HF-2E missiles more or less in the same league as the U.S. Tomahawk missile. This would enable Taiwan to attack inland Chinese provinces with valuable military targets, such as Jiangxi and Hunan, where China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force bases station many long-range strike fighter jets and bombers.
Ian Easton, a research fellow at the U.S.-based think tank Project 2049 Institute, told The News Lens in an email that long range missiles such as the HF-2E would give Taiwan the ability to strike back at Chinese targets that were judged to be most threatening toward the island nation’s survival. Such targets could include critical logistics infrastructure supporting PLA offensive operations such as power stations, ports, airports, fuel depots, bridges and rail yards.
The extended range would also enable Taiwan to launch attacks on Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. While cruise missiles with non-nuclear warheads would not be able to inflict large civilian casualties, their high rate of accuracy could allow Taiwan to attack highly visible targets which would be politically humiliating for the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“Taiwan could strike the office buildings in Shanghai and elsewhere that host Chinese military cyber operations, or Chinese Communist Party offices and Ministry of Public Security headquarters in all the major cities,” Easton told The News Lens. “You can imagine the internal unrest that could follow.”
US support critical for the program
Experts familiar with the matter said that the initial batch of the production of HF-2E missiles was constrained to a conservative range of 600 kilometers in 2008 due to a political decision made by Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), the president of Taiwan at the time, who consistently downplayed military threats posed by China and sought to avoid antagonizing Beijing.
Su Chi (蘇起), who served as the secretary-general of the National Security Council under Ma from 2008 to 2010, was known to be a vehement opponent of HF-2E and other strike missile programs and blocked several earlier proposals to extend the range of the missiles.
Since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became president in 2016, however, the government’s desire to accommodate Beijing has waned considerably. Reports started to surface in 2017 that Taiwan was taking its gloves off in empowering its cruise and ballistic missile programs in a standoff against China.
Still, other reports have pointed to the quietly changing attitude of the United States as a key factor in allowing Taiwan to upgrade and extend the range of the HF-2E missiles over the years. It was reported that past U.S. administrations had been reluctant to provide Taiwan with components used in manufacturing guidance systems for the cruise missiles, fearing that they would be seen by Beijing as offensive weapons.
Under President Donald Trump, however, U.S. defense officials have slowly started to overcome long-standing objections among elements in the U.S. government in providing Taiwan with more attack-oriented weapons and technological support.
Taiwan’s Upmedia reported earlier this year that U.S. officials had lifted a restriction in providing Taiwan with advanced ring laser gyroscopes (RLG), critical components in manufacturing the HF-2E’s guidance systems which would ensure a missile’s accuracy in a long range attack.
David Helvey, the U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, also said in an October speech at the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference that the U.S. commends President Tsai’s efforts in enhancing Taiwan’s defense, including the boosting of “asymmetric capabilities” such as “land- and sea-based cruise missiles.”
The rapidly expanding military imbalance between China and Taiwan has been cited as a major reason for the changing U.S. attitude towards cross-Strait military buildup. China’s PLA currently deploys around 2,000 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with the capability of striking Taiwan. It has also continued to expand and modernize its PLA navy and air force and regularly holds military exercises simulating attacks on Taiwan.
“Given the terrible and growing threats facing Taiwan's government and citizens, it makes perfect sense for Taipei to build large numbers of long range cruise missiles,” said Easton. “They will help make China's authoritarian leaders think twice about provoking war against peaceful democracies.”
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based think tank International Assessment and Strategy Center, told The News Lens in an email that supporting Taiwan’s cruise missile efforts would appear to be consistent with the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which freed the United States from decades of self-imposed constraint not to build theater range missiles countering the same threats from China.
“In a decade or so, China's military forces are going to have a far greater global presence, increasing the difficulty for the U.S. to maintain sufficient forces in Asia,” said Fisher. “So it makes sense to help our allies and friends to develop affordable compensating capabilities, such as long range missiles.”
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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