For nearly a decade Taiwan has been trying to come up with a strategy that would enable the small island state to withstand a threatened Chinese attack. It is generally believed that Chinese military power is so large and technically advanced that Taiwanese resistance is useless. Taiwan has not maintained its independence from China for over 70 years and achieved a higher GDP per capita than China just because of luck. The Taiwanese had to be smarter, faster and more flexible than the mainland cousins and their communist police state. Taiwan has once more used those qualities to come up with a unique and apparently successful strategy to deal with any Chinese attack plans. As is their custom, the Taiwanese do not publicize their military plans or weapons development activities. There is enough public information about Taiwanese procurement plans, and what China has aimed at them, to figure it out.
The important indicators have been showing up for years and it’s not that difficult to connect the dots.
In late 2019 Taiwan ordered eleven HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) rocket launchers and 135 AGM-84K SLAM-ERSLAM-ER (Standoff Land Attack Missile - Expanded Response) missiles from the United States. Taiwan already had hundreds of locally produced Hsiung Feng missiles that are like the Harpoon but faster. Taiwan could not produce locally what they needed for their new strategy. It was clear that Taiwan was putting a lot of anti-ship missiles on trucks that can also launch them.
HIMARS rocket launcher vehicles are a useful addition to the anti-ship missile force because they fire GPS guided rockets at targets nearly a hundred kilometers distant. Half of these HIMARS use heavier trucks with armor added. These heavy trucks are normally used as wreckers for retrieving vehicles that get stuck. The Taiwanese order included 65 pods each with six GMLRS rockers and 90 pods with shorter range (and cheaper) practice rockets. The order also includes spares, maintenance equipment and technical support and training.
HIMARS is a cheaper and lighter version of the original American MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System). HIMARS is a truck mounted launcher, with each vehicle carrying only one six rocket pod (instead of two in the original MLRS). The 12-ton truck can fit into a C-130 transport (unlike the 22-ton tracked MLRS vehicle). The first of the initial 900 HIMARS vehicles were issued to American combat units in 2004. The U.S. Army is using most of the HIMARS, with the marines getting the rest. A growing number of American allies have become export customers for HIMARS. The key to the combat success of HIMARS is its use of the 227mm diameter 309 kg (680 pound) GMLRS (guided multiple launch rocket system) GPS guided rocket.
GMLRS was first used in 2004. It initially had a range of 85 kilometers and the ability to land within meters of its intended target at any range. This was because of the GPS, plus a less accurate backup inertial guidance system, for finding its target. Most users buy the rockets equipped with an 82 kg (180 pound) high explosive warhead. The next version of GMLRS will be more accurate and have a range of over a hundred kilometers.
The U.S. Army has bought over 100,000 GMLRS rockets so far, and this weapon has been used with great success in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The guided rocket is, obviously, much more effective than the older, unguided, version and has replaced it.
AGM-84K SLAM-ER entered service in 2002. It is a 725 kg (1,598 pound) cruise missile with a range of 270 kilometers, a speed of 855 kilometers an hour and GPS/shape recognition guidance system that has proved very accurate. Launched from aircraft, the target can be changed or mission aborted remotely by the pilot at any time. SLAM-ER costs nearly over two million dollars each and has a 220 kg (500 pound) warhead based on the one used on the Tomahawk cruise missile. AGM-84K SLAM-ER is a scaled-up RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile. Taiwan also has the similar land-based RGM-84L that can be truck mounted and launched with four missiles per vehicle. These missiles have a range of 124 kilometers. Taiwan adopted the truck mounted concept for its Hsiung Feng III ship or ground launched supersonic anti-ship missiles. Taiwan is planning to have 400 truck launchers with 1,200 Harpoon and Hsiung Feng anti-ship missiles. Denmark pioneered this concept in 1988 and several other nations have adopted it, including Russia.
A large force of Taiwanese mobile, truck mounted anti-ship missiles is seen as the only counter to planned Chinese use of hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles with explosive warheads that can carry out a surprise attack on Taiwan air and naval bases. The truck mounted missiles and a smaller number of truck mounted radars can locate the incoming Chinese invasion fleet and cripple it with an overwhelming number of anti-ship weapons.
Taiwan is also dispersing and hardening its airfields, including basing some aircraft on highways during a crisis. A Chinese invasion would not come as a complete surprise as ships of the invasion fleet would have to be gathered and transports taking aboard troops and vehicles. To give maximum warning Taiwan also purchased dozens of American reconnaissance pods that enable an aircraft flying over Taiwan to record, in detail, what is going on across the 300 kilometers Taiwan Strait that separates China from Taiwan. The United States, Japan and South Korea have taken a keen interest in these Taiwanese preparations because China, along with North Korea, is threatening these two nations as well.
China responded to these Taiwanese tactics by basing their longer-range non-nuclear ballistic missiles away from the coast and practicing launching air strikes on Taiwan from more distant bases. There is still the problem of concealing the assembling of the invasion fleet. China increased its airborne force and number of civilian ferries that were built to be quickly shifted to military use in wartime.
Currently Taiwan has the advantage because a Chinese attack must succeed or the Chinese government and economy are in big trouble. That’s because the aftermath of an invasion attempt would be a blockade of Chinese ports and all the exports and imports China depends on to keep its economy going. Taiwan knows that it does not have to make a successful invasion impossible, but simply too risky for any Chinese leader to attempt.