To Terminate or Not? Taiwan’s ‘Cloud Peak’ Medium-Range Missile Program

Photo Credit:AP/達志影像
Why you need to know

A recent report by the ‘China Times’ claims Taiwan has decided to abandon efforts to develop a medium-range missile that could hit Beijing or Shanghai. While aborting the program would make sense, Taipei won’t be doing so for the reasons stated in the article.

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Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) on Tuesday denied claims by the Chinese-language China Times that Taiwan has decided to scrap efforts to develop a medium-range surface-to-surface missile capable of hitting Beijing and Shanghai as a “goodwill gesture to China.”

Citing unnamed “official” sources, the China Times “exclusive” report said the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration had decided to terminate the Yun Feng (“Cloud Peak”) program, initiated during the Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) era, for three reasons: a readjustment of Taiwan’s military strategy, the absence of a Taiwanese nuclear program, and a “goodwill gesture” to China.

Calling the report “pure speculation,” Taiwan’s MND has declined to further comment due to the sensitivity of the issue. (As a side note, we should also keep in mind that the Beijing-friendly China Times doesn’t necessarily have an envious track record when it comes to reporting the facts.)

Whatever the merits of this news report, terminating the Yun Feng program — which contrary to what the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times claims was not suspended during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) era — would probably be the sensible thing to do, and not for the reasons stated by the China Times.

For one thing, efforts by the National Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) to develop a missile with a maximum range estimated at 2,000 km would stir tensions with Washington, which is extremely sensitive to Taiwan acquiring or developing medium/long-range offensive technology. Taiwan likely would have to rely on U.S. components (e.g., for warhead miniaturization) to successfully develop such a missile, and export control officers in the U.S. are unlikely to look favorably upon such technology transfers. Thus, without U.S. assistance, Yun Feng probably never stood a chance of taking off, pardon the pun.

Another reason why the program should be abandoned is that it makes no sense from a defensive perspective. Given the missile’s range, the ground-based launchers would be prime targets for China’s Second Artillery Corps and air attacks during the first phase of hostilities. Due to geographical limitations, an inability to field and disperse enough launchers (even road-mobile ones) and vulnerability to PLA observation, a medium-range missile simply is not a survivable option.

Additionally, China’s air defense capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds thanks largely to the transfer of technology from Russia (e.g., S-300/400), meaning that missiles launched against key military, C4ISR or infrastructure targets deep inside China (the notion that Taiwan would couple such missiles with a nuclear warhead is absurdist confabulation on the part of the China Times and Global Times) would face a high probability of being intercepted, especially as those areas are where the PLA is expected to deploy its most advanced air defense batteries.

For years now, Taiwan has committed to a defensive strategy focusing on area denial in the Taiwan Strait and a counterstrike capability against military installations along the Fujian coast. Systems such as the anti-ship Hsiung Feng 3 (HF-3) and the HF-2E land-attack cruise missile, which are already deployed, serve that purpose. More of those, deployed on low-signature fast-attack vessels and dispersible road-mobile launchers, combined with a new submarine fleet, Mk-48 Advanced Capability (ADCAP) torpedoes and UGM-84L Sub-launched Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles, improved air defense systems and anti-radiation missiles (e.g., AGM-88 HARM), would provide a much more potent deterrent/counter-landing capability than a limited number of medium-range missiles of limited utility.    

Despite what the Global Times, commenting on the China Times report, editorialized on Tuesday, Taiwan remains defensible against a variety of likely attack scenarios, even amid a shifting balance of power in the Taiwan Strait (my apologies again to retired PLA Lieutenant General Wang Hongguang [王洪光], a former Deputy Commander of the Nanjng Military Region, who in April 2015 famously called me “mentally challenged” for making such an argument). Unless Beijing plans to reduce Taiwan to a heap of ash, which given China’s nuclear arsenal simply cannot be defended against, no matter the targeted country, the limited offensive strategies it has at its disposal can be defended against or be subject to deterrence such that Beijing would be reluctant to employ them. That, above all, is the key to Taiwan’s defense strategy.

Putting the Yun Feng program is probably the sensible thing to do, but not, as the Global Times posits, because Taiwan has no hope to ensure its national defense. There are more logical and economical ways to do so, and the Tsai administration has to prioritize. Rather than a gesture of goodwill, such a decision, if indeed it has been made, would be recognition that the program wasn’t worth the investment and did not meet Taiwan’s current defense needs.

If propaganda (or humor) is your thing, the last three paragraphs of the Global Times editorial are well worth reading; and if you have the stomach for it, so are the reader comments underneath.

 

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

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