China has a new plan for conquering Taiwan, and it involves numerous false attacks followed by one that is real. This is another example of misdirection, which is a popular but difficult to carry out military strategy. China has other problems, like armed forces with no experience in combat and corruption in the military that is rarely revealed until the military is ordered to fight. Taiwan is also a difficult target because the Taiwanese have spent decades preparing to repel an invasion. As the defender, the Taiwanese have an edge. One of the lesser appreciated factors is that Taiwan was not part of the Chinese empire until 1683, and that was only because Chinese people had been moving to the island since the 1200s and, by the 1600s, were numerous enough to dominate the native population. The Chinese empire then ruled Taiwan until they transferred it to Japan in 1895 after losing a brief, about a year, war with Japan.
The Japanese managed Taiwan more efficiently than the Chinese and by World War II the Taiwanese were generally pro-Japan. This was noted when American military planners were ordered in 1944 to prepare a plan for invading and conquering Taiwan, to use it as a base for warplanes bombing Japan and Japanese troops in China. General MacArthur was commanding forces approaching from the south and pointed out that the Philippines would be easier to invade and conquer than Taiwan while achieving the same strategic objectives. American military planners found that MacArthur was right. Taiwan was and is a nightmare for anyone staging an amphibious operation. The island is only 394 kilometers long and 144 kilometers wide at its widest point. The terrain is rugged with 258 mountains over 3,000 meters high. Many key highways are built in the many valleys and that creates a lot of narrow choke points that can be easily defended, often with the help of tunnels dug into nearby hills and mountains. This makes it very difficult for an invading force to get off the beaches.
Taiwan has few, about a dozen, useful invasion beaches and lots of high ground behind those beaches. Since World War II the population has quadrupled to 24 million. Most live in built up urban areas and this is a nightmare for any invader because all those structures favor the defender. Taiwan has built several air and naval bases that make use of tunnels built into nearby mountains. Many urban areas have built tunnels to protect the population during major storms, and against soldiers during an attempt to invade and conquer the island. Taiwan is also surrounded by about a hundred small islands, most of them uninhabited but large enough to support some troops armed with artillery and anti-ship missiles.
The unique geography of Taiwan is one reason why post-World War II Taiwan emphasized manufacturing and a highly educated population. That led to Taiwan becoming a major provider of electronic and other high-tech items that most industrialized nations, especially China and the United States, depend on. If China seeks to conquer Taiwan, they must avoid destroying the many areas containing manufacturing operations that the Chinese economy depends on.
Currently, Taiwan can confront any invasion with nearly half a million troops. While the active-duty force is only 190,000, Taiwan has two million men with military experience in the reserves and 10-15 ten percent of these are kept at a higher state of readiness to quickly join the active-duty forces in the event of an invasion. Most of the men in the reserves are former conscripts who serve four months of active duty when they turn 18 and then continue serving in the reserves until they are 36. Conscript active-duty service was recently increased to a year.
As the Chinese invasion threat increased over the last two decades, reserve duty has been regarded as more essential to the survival and an independent and more prosperous than China Taiwanese democracy. This means that more reservists are willing to continue serving after 36 and this increases the number of experienced men in the reserves. Taiwanese see themselves as an island version of Switzerland, Israel, or Sweden, all of them dependent on a large, well trained, reserve force to deal with any invasion. These three Western nations have used this mobilization system very successfully, for centuries in the case of Switzerland. China noted how rapidly mobilized Ukrainian forces defeated a 2022 Russian invasion. Ukraine is largely flat terrain with some rivers to provide defensive barriers. But nothing beats an island with few invasion beaches and lots of mountains defended by a well-armed and determined population.
The current Taiwanese reserve system was developed in the last two decades and there is little public data on how well armed and equipped the reservists are. Switzerland has long mandated that reservists keep their rifle, now assault rifle, and ammunition at home. This has worked. Heavier weapons are kept at numerous storage sites throughout the country. Taiwanese military spending has grown considerably over the last six years and a lot of that has gone to the reserve forces to increase the ability to put armed reservists into action more quickly.
The increased military budgets have also improved intelligence devoted to the Chinese military and what they are capable of. This also involves dealing with the growing Chinese use of spies and Taiwanese military officials who have been bribed or blackmailed into secretly working for China.
As a democracy, Taiwan gets a new government periodically and some of those governments are more supportive of defenses against Chinese invasion than others. Since the 1990s the Chinese economy has grown enormously and that was done with the help of existing Taiwanese firms looking to expand into China. That gave China an opportunity to influence Taiwanese politics and elections. The influence is currently less effective for China because most Taiwanese realize that China is determined to make Taiwan part of China once more. Most Taiwanese agree that this is not desirable and as long as the Chinese insist on submission, Taiwan will have to maintain its defenses.
A recent example of this was the 2023 purchase of fourteen M126 Ground Volcano mine dispensing systems. These cost about $13 million each and deliveries are underway but won’t be completed until 2026. Each Ground Volcano system is mounted on a 10-ton truck where short-range mortar tubes are used to launch canisters of mostly anti-vehicle mines designed to disable a vehicle by blowing off a tire or breaking the track on a tank. Each canister contains some anti-personnel mines to make it more difficult for enemy troops to quickly clear the anti-vehicle mines out of the way. Before using Volcano, you can set the self-destruct time for the mines for anything between 4 hours to 15 days. This prevents anyone from retrieving, disarming, and reusing the mines. Ground Volcano dispensers mounted on trucks take from four to twelve minutes to dispense 960 mines that create a mined area 1,100 meters wide and 120 meters deep. Taiwan has about a dozen useful invasion beaches and lots of high ground behind those beaches. The Volcano trucks can be based nearby each beach in a protected, from pre-invasion missile strikes location, and move to its beach and disperse the mines when a Chinese invasion is imminent. There is also Air Volcano in which the dispensers are carried by a UH-60 helicopter that can dispense 960 mines in any terrain in less than a minute.
Volcano was developed in the late 1980s for Cold War type battles against Russian attacks employing hundreds or thousands of armored vehicles. Volcano got some limited use in the 1990s but was put into storage after 2001. In 2017 the U.S. Army took its M126 truck mounted and M139 helicopter mounted Volcano mine dispenser systems out of storage and put them back in active service. Originally each U.S. Army aviation brigade had three of the Air Volcano systems, which were seen as an ideal weapon when you had to quickly weaken and slow down an advancing enemy armor force. Ground Volcano systems were assigned to engineer units to create minefields when more time was available.
For over 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. 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.
One Taiwanese defense practice is to buy a variety of modern weapons, which makes it more difficult for China to come up with countermeasures. For example, during the last decade Taiwan has purchased a wide variety of weapons In 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 could 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 80 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 16-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 GMLRS Guided Multiple Launch Rocket system GPS guided rocket.
GMLRS was first used in 2004. Most users buy rockets equipped with an 82 kg high explosive warhead. The next version of GMLRS will be more accurate and have a range of over a hundred kilometers. These longer range ER GMLRS have a range of 150 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.
Longer range weapons include the AGM-84K SLAM-ER which entered service in 2002. It is a 725 kg 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 pilot of the aircraft carrying the AGM-84K target can change the target or abort a launched missile remotely at any time. SLAM-ER costs nearly over two million dollars each and has a 220 kg 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 load 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 airstrikes 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.