Taiwan Turning Itself into a Fortress
Chinese attackers to put up with much nastier things than porcupine spines
By: Jens Kastner
Nearly 25 years after the “Porcupine Strategy” was first disseminated by US Naval War College professor William Murray, Taiwan has been making remarkable under-the-radar progress in turning itself into a fortress as the Chinese military gets ever closer to Taiwanese waters and airspace.
Although China’s psywar machinery has belittled the Taiwanese military’s capabilities, a recently-passed US$9 billion budget augmentation beefs up the island's shore-based coastal defense missiles as well as naval mine capability – the navy recently inaugurated its first fast minelayer squadron – and the Taiwanese army is awaiting delivery of American M109A6 self-propelled howitzers and GPS fuzes that guide the shells to precision hits. American marines heavily relied on this weapon system when fighting jihadists in Iraq and Syria with low attacker casualties.
Taiwan has been bolstered by growing US commitment to the territory, which China claims as its own. Former President Donald Trump first broke the ice with a call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen shortly after his 2016 election, the first such call since President Richard Nixon formulated the so-called two-China policy in 1972 and followed up with additional defense commitments.
Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Paris reiterated that the US commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and expressed concern about what he described as China's provocative military activity in the region. In August 2021 the Biden administration informed Congress of a proposed $750 million weapons sale including the M109A6 Medium Self-Propelled Howitzer Systems and related equipment.
Meanwhile, Taiwan has been seeking to purchase the M136 Volcano ground vehicle mine dispensing system from the US that enables the quick delivery of land mines to large areas. The cost for the invaders would also be raised by enhancing urban warfare capabilities, as 36 infantry platoons have conducted intensive urban terrain operations at a mock town near Kaohsiung over the past two years.
This all comes on top of continuing efforts to modernize tactical air and naval capabilities and enhance their resilience for survival against an initial Chinese onslaught. This includes modernizing the existing legacy F-16 fleet to the modern Viper standard, acquiring brand-new Vipers, and the validation of the force dispersal strategy, including emergency runway operations using motorways, to enhance force protection and combat power preservation.
“While Taiwan has adopted a chiefly asymmetric defense posture in response to the shift in military balance across the strait as the PLA expands its capabilities, it's by no means just a ‘porcupine defense’ deterrence by denial approach,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore.
“Taiwan is also investing in R&D on long-range strike missile capabilities, putting emphasis on surface-to-surface missiles that can cover a major part of the coastal provinces of the mainland PRC, and even extended-range variants that can directly target Beijing,” he said, “which is most plausibly regarded as more robust than a pure denial approach in raising the costs of Beijing's aggression towards the island.”
Speaking to Asia Sentinel, Koh added that the plan is also to establish a robust integrated air and missile defense umbrella, revolving around the American-supplied Patriot and indigenous Tien Kung air defense missile systems.
“Meanwhile, the navy is still seeking major surface combatants, such as next-generation frigates, but the program has faced technical bottlenecks, so now the emphasis is on smaller combat vessels of corvette size, and not to forget the new submarines,” Koh said, referring to Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program, which recently saw the keel laying of its first prototype.
Similarly, Dr. Yisuo Tzeng, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei, pointed out that with land-mobile anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-amphibious landing weapons either on their way or rapidly placed in the order of battle, steady progress has been made in implementing the porcupine strategy.
“An indispensable cornerstone of ‘Fortress Taiwan’ remains in the buildup of urban warfare capability, which is leading up to a multi-layered deterrence of China’s reckless invasion,” Tzeng said. “Simulated tactical urban warfare training has been test running in Taiwan’s ground forces units, because a great number of riflemen poured into urban combats in and of itself generates a great deal of deterrence in the face of adversarial forces.”
Wendell Minnick, Taiwan-based military specialist for 25 years and formerly the Asia Bureau Chief for Defense News, noted that Taiwan has had an asymmetrical strategy long before Murray came up with the porcupine analogy.
Minnick pointed out that Taiwan already had significant underground facilities including the Hengshan Defense Command deep inside a mountain in Dahzi; Stone Mountain aircraft facility at the Taitung Air Force Base; and the Chiashan Mountain Complex at Hualien Air Force base; in addition to deep mountain facilities at the Air Defense Command Center near Taida University in Taipei and across the island.
“Even though Murray’s thesis has become a meme in US media, think tanks and Pentagon circles who harp on and on about ‘asymmetrical, asymmetrical, asymmetrical,’ no one in Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense takes it seriously,” Minnick said.
“Taiwan does view US arms sales as important, partially to give Taiwan a conventional answer to a Chinese invasion, but also because Taiwan views the arms sales as a financial payment of sorts for US assurances to protect it against the big ape-like monstrosity that the Chinese military has become,” he added.