Chung Shyang II UAV

Old-Fashioned Weapons Are a Key to Taiwan’s Defense

A confrontation in the Indo-Pacific between China and Taiwan would have a ground component. Taiwanese forces—ideally aided by American counterparts—would have to resist an amphibious-airborne assault by the People’s Liberation Army. Prevailing in such an engagement would require the ability to hit targets on mainland China to shatter the country’s logistics system and perforate its reconnaissance ability.

Since the Vietnam War, munitions have become increasingly precise, allowing an attacker to destroy specific targets with fewer weapons. Yet modern militaries still suffer from a reconnaissance problem. As Russia’s air force learned in 2022, if you don’t know where the enemy is, precise weapons aren’t that useful.

An array of small helicopter drones and large fixed-wing drones have begun to bridge the gap between reconnaissance and precision targeting in that conflict. Ukraine has used these to great effect to identify and engage specific targets rapidly and to correct fire.
Russia and Ukraine are employing thousands of drones along the front line, constantly eyeing each other within a 20-mile diameter bubble. Piercing that bubble requires an attacker to destroy electronic and air defenses near the front line and launch longer-range reconnaissance drones into the gap to identify and hit deep targets.

Yet both forces have also relied on so-called legacy systems. Drones and antitank weapons haven’t rendered tanks obsolete, and neither have antiship missiles done so for warships. Any weapon is useful in the right context. The Ukraine war has shown the interplay between the deep fight—using missile strikes to starve the enemy’s front line of supplies and stall reserve movement—and the close fight—the traditional combat phase between tanks and infantry.

A war over Taiwan would have the same dynamic. The PLA has little incentive to conduct a lengthy blockade, given the naval power of the U.S. and other allied combatants. More likely are early strikes on fixed targets, such as American and allied bases throughout the First Island Chain, Guam and the U.S. West Coast. The more the PLA can disrupt America’s logistics and decimate its forces as the conflict opens, the longer it could isolate Taiwan.

To do that, PLA ground forces would have to create a beachhead on the island, capture a major port, land forces on that beachhead, and then break into the country’s interior. But amphibious operations are logistically intense. Transporting men and materiel over water is hard, even across a relatively small body of water like the Taiwan Strait. The PLA has only a limited number of amphibious ships for an assault—six combined arms brigades theoretically capable of amphibious operations, but with limited experience. China’s likely plan, then, is to use civilian ferries to make up the difference. Yet these ships are exceptionally vulnerable, and so with enough missiles, Taiwan and its allies could likely disrupt an invasion.

Read the rest at WSJ.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.

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