If Beijing pulls the trigger and sends its forces streaming across the Taiwan Strait, the war could end quickly. Chinese rockets could pummel Taiwanese forces into submission, clearing the way for tens of thousands of Chinese marines to rush ashore on the plains of southwestern Taiwan.
That’s the best-case scenario for China. The worst-case scenario is that the invasion gets hung up on Taiwan’s fortified island of Penghu, the U.S. Navy sends in two or three aircraft carrier battle groups and the war drags out for many bloody weeks.
If that happens, Taiwan could do more than merely defend its islands and beaches. It could strike back at China with a growing arsenal of long-range, supersonic cruise missiles that could reach as far inland as Beijing.
There was a time, not long ago, when Taiwan’s armed forces were both more sophisticated than China’s and, in key categories such as missile-armed warships, more numerous.
This despite China’s billion-plus people hugely outnumbering Taiwan’s own 20 million people.
Chinese reforms in the late 1990s and early 2000s opened up the country’s economy. Two decades of explosive growth fueled a rapid modernization of the Chinese military. In 2020 the People’s Liberation Army possesses more and better ships, planes and vehicles than the Taiwanese military possesses.
Unable directly to compete with China, Taiwan has rewritten its war strategy. Instead of meeting the PLA plane-for-plane, ship-for-ship and tank-for-tank, the Taiwanese military plans to let the Chinese get close—then lob thousands of missiles at them. “Taiwan’s objectives are to deter and delay potential invasion,” the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative explained.
Taiwan’s huge and growing missile arsenal includes Stinger, Chaparral, Patriot, Tien Chien and Tien Kung surface-to-air missiles; Javelin, TOW and Hellfire anti-tank missiles; and Harpoon and Hsiung Feng anti-ship missiles.
Those shorter-range missiles essentially are defensive in nature. For hitting back at China, Taiwan fields Wan Chien air-launched cruise missiles and Yun Feng ground-launched cruise missiles.
The Yun Feng, a product of Taiwan’s own National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, poses the greater threat to China.
The missile can travel as far as a thousand miles with a 500-pound warhead. It’s unclear what kind of guidance systems it includes, but it could be a combination of GPS and self-contained inertial guidance.
The Yun Feng is supersonic thanks to its combined-cycle propulsion. A solid rocket booster accelerate the missile to its cruise speed, at which point an air-fed ramjet takes over. Japan’s fearsome ASM-3 anti-ship missile uses the same kind of propulsion.
In theory, Yun Fengs launching from Taiwan could strike PLA bases in Shanghai and Beijing. Airfields and command centers are the most valuable targets.
“In fielding modern cruise missiles, Taipei conveys to Beijing that a war would not be confined to the island and surrounding waters,” explained the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “Cruise missiles allow Taipei to inflict costs on China, both by striking PLA targets and by bringing the war home for Chinese citizens.”
The PLA could attempt to defend against barrages of Yun Fengs by positioning surface-to-air missile batteries around the most important bases and by suppressing Taiwanese missile units on the ground.
But missile-defenses rarely work. And it’s notoriously difficult to destroy small, mobile launch units when they’re under concealment. During wartime, Taiwan probably would be able to launch most of its Yun Fengs. And most of those would hit something.
Taiwan began fielding the Yun Feng as early as 2014. Testing continued in 2020. It’s unclear how many Yun Fengs Taiwan has deployed or plans to deploy. But the more cruise missiles Taiwan can launch at China, the riskier an invasion becomes for Beijing.