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Politics & Security

Taiwan Military Expert: 'Porcupine Strategy' Could Deter Chinese Invasion

Here is how Taiwan can deter a predator bigger than itself: Use widely dispersed smaller weaponry to inflict considerable pain — aka the "porcupine strategy."

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taiwan porcupine strategy CSIS
Units of the Taiwanese Army train at a base in southwestern Taiwan's Chiayi County on January 6 (provided by the Taiwan Presidential Office via Kyodo)

The porcupine is a large rodent that defends itself by raising its needle-like quills when confronted by a natural enemy. For that reason, predators cannot easily attack it. As the threat of an armed invasion by China looms larger, a former senior Taiwanese military official and US military experts are urging the authorities in Taiwan to adopt a "porcupine strategy" as soon as possible.

"Taiwan does not have the strength to go toe-to-toe against China in a traditional 'symmetrical war' involving aircraft carriers against aircraft carriers, warplanes against warplanes, and tanks against tanks. After all, there is a disparity of more than twenty times between their defense budgets."

So warns retired admiral Lee Hsi-ming, who served as chief of the General Staff of the Republic of China (Taiwan) from 2017 to 2019. He spoke to a group of reporters, including a Sankei Shimbun correspondent, in Taipei in November of last year. During his time in office, as the military power gap with China rapidly widened, he sought ways to defend Taiwan through "asymmetric operations." In fact, Taiwan's "Overall Defense Concept," which has this strategy at its core, is his brainchild.

Taiwan's asymmetrical warfare strategy is commonly referred to as the "porcupine strategy." A porcupine braces itself by hardening its many quills when faced with a huge predator. Similarly, this strategy is designed to prevent occupation by an invading Chinese force by inflicting severe pain (damage) with smaller weapons widely dispersed throughout the island. 

Taiwan Porcupine Strategy CSIS
President Tsai Ing-wen observes training at a military base in southwestern Taiwan. Chiayi County, Taiwan, on January 6. (provided by the Taiwan President's Office via Kyodo)

An Asymmetric Warfare Strategy

"Taiwan needs an asymmetric strategy to deter China," Lee emphasizes. "That means having a large number of small weapons that are less susceptible to long-range attacks, more mobile, and capable of conducting precision strikes."

In resisting the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian military has been waging guerrilla warfare with asymmetric weapons. These include the "Javelin" portable anti-tank missile system and the "Stinger" surface-to-air missile. They have caused the invaders considerable pain.

Since Lee had touted the importance of asymmetric warfare even before the Ukraine war, he now appears to have been a visionary. 

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At the same time, Lee points out, "Ukraine is also a failure." Unable to deter the invasion ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin, the country has been reduced to ruins. If Putin had anticipated how well Ukraine would fight, he likely would not have decided to launch his invasion.

"The best course of action is to deter the enemy and keep him from making a move," explains Lee. "To that end, Taiwan must prepare itself as quickly as possible. We must demonstrate that we have the capacity to prevent a successful Chinese invasion."

Taiwan Has Only One Option

According to Lee, there are three conventional forms of deterrence. "Punitive deterrence" makes the other party aware that you possess a retaliatory capability, such as nuclear weapons. Then, there is "extended deterrence," which the United States provides to its allies. But Taiwan has neither, as it does not possess nuclear weapons or military ties.

The third form of deterrence is the "strategy of ambiguity," which the US has maintained by not clearly stating what it would do in the event of a Taiwan crisis. President Joe Biden has mentioned several times that there is no legal basis for a US military intervention. As to what the US would actually do in the event of a crisis, as Lee says, "All analysis prior to an actual conflict is mere speculation."

Lee argues that the only option for Taiwan is "deterrence by denial." In other words, a defense capable of physically blocking an attack by the other side. What scenario does Lee offer in which Taiwan would be able to repel the People's Liberation Army (PLA)? 

Taiwan Porcupine Strategy CSIS
Former Chief of the General Staff of Taiwan, Li Xi-ming, responds to an interview in Taipei on November 24, 2022. (© Sankei by Yoshiaki Nishimi)

Predicting China's Moves

Here is an overview based on the interview and Lee's book The Overall Defense Concept: An Asymmetric Approach to Taiwan’s Defense published in Chinese last September. 

The PLA is likely to conduct large-scale military exercises around Taiwan to camouflage the invasion preparations. Then, they will suddenly shift to attack mode, launching more than 1,500 medium- and short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. The goal will be to thoroughly destroy Taiwan's military and infrastructure facilities, such as airfields, ports, radar bases, and power plants. 

Having gained air superiority, the Chinese forces will cross the Taiwan Strait with their main invasion forces carried aboard amphibious assault ships and civilian cargo ships.

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Small Arms Can Survive Bombing

The Taiwanese side will suffer devastating blows to its fighter planes and large naval vessels from the bombing. However, most of the smaller mobile weapon systems that had been deployed in a dispersed manner will have survived. These would include vehicle-mounted anti-ship missiles deployed along the coast, small missile-equipped boats, multiple rocket launchers (MLR), and mobile missiles.

As soon as the PLA landing forces enter the waters near Taiwan, the Taiwan military will launch focused attacks from the sea, shore, and air on enemy command ships and amphibious warfare ships. 

Small missile boats and coastal anti-ship missiles will be the main actors. The landing forces' defenses will be most vulnerable at the water's edge. Therefore, it is here that land-based Hellfire missiles and other precision weapons will deliver deadly blows to the invaders. 

If the invasion force still manages to land, the Taiwanese Army will deploy a "defense in depth" strategy. This will reduce the opponent's strength through a battle of attrition. Additionally, volunteer "homeland defense units" will conduct guerrilla warfare in cooperation with the regular army in urban and mountainous areas.

Lee's argument boils down to this. Traditional large weapons such as warships, fighter planes, and tanks would be sure to suffer tremendous damage from missile attacks in the early stages of any invasion. 

Furthermore, in terms of traditional weapon systems, China has greatly surpassed Taiwan in both quality and quantity. Therefore, Taiwan should not pour funds from its limited defense budget into such high-cost weaponry. Instead, it should focus on small asymmetric weapons that can survive bombing and inflict serious blows on an invading force.

Taiwan porcupine strategy CSIS
A Ukrainian serviceman holds a Stinger anti-aircraft missile at a position in a front line in Mykolaiv region, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, Ukraine August 11, 2022. (REUTERS/Anna Kudriavtseva)

The Porcupine Strategy Meets Resistance

However, since Lee's retirement, the shift to the Overall Defense Concept he advocates has made no headway.

"My successor is not very keen on it [the concept]," Lee admits. "We're back to the original strategy of building military aircraft and naval vessels and buying tanks."

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Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen administration and the military high command understand the importance of asymmetric weapons. But there is strong resistance within the armed forces to the Overall Defense Concept, which calls for owning a minimum number of state-of-the-art fighter aircraft and warships.

State-of-the-art fighter jets and warships can indeed be useful in dealing with "gray-zone situations" involving intimidation by the Chinese military that is one step short of the use of force.

Such weapon systems also serve to raise the morale of the Taiwanese people. Purchasing such weapon systems from the US holds political significance as well.

Taiwan Cannot Win Alone

In addition, Taiwan faces high hurdles if it is to win on its own. On January 9, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a prominent US think tank, released the results of tabletop simulations of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in 2026. Out of 24 simulated attacks, China was the clear victor in two cases.

In the first instance, the United States did not directly intervene. In the second instance, Japan maintained strict neutrality and did not allow the use of American bases in Japan. 

However, the results also showed that even if Taiwan were to fight on its own, it would take China ten weeks to capture the capital of Taipei. Moreover, the invaders would suffer around 70,000 casualties, including 23,000 deaths. 

For the Chinese authorities, who would want to minimize casualties by fighting quickly and decisively, these numbers should be unsettling. If Taiwan were to continue to deploy asymmetric forces, that could make the Chinese military's struggles even more pronounced. The CSIS report noted, "The value of the 'porcupine strategy' was demonstrated by the project's modeling and wargames."

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Proving particularly effective in the games were the 400 Harpoon missiles that Taiwan has contracted to buy from the US. In the simulations, they were hugely effective in weakening the initial Chinese invasion.

However, the same report judged that the Taiwan military leadership has vacillated in adopting the porcupine strategy.

The clock is ticking for Taiwan. 


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(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Yoshiaki Nishimi

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