SRBMs Shifting Straits Balance Towards PRC?

>> Monday, November 02, 2009

A few years ago, a student of mine worked out the implications of a large scale Chinese SRBM (short range ballistic missile) attack on Taiwan. He argued that the attack was, based on the historic resilience of regimes to coercion by air assault, unlikely by itself to break the will of the Taiwanese government to resist. It won't surprise readers of this blog to learn that I agreed with this conclusion. However, he didn't really go into the implications of a conventional ballistic missile attack launched against military targets on Taiwan, in particular Taiwan's air bases and fighter aircraft. At Foreign Policy, David Shlapak has an article based on the recent RAND study he co-authored on the likely course and outcome of a PRC-Taiwan conflict. Shlapak argues that a preparatory ballistic missile assault on Taiwan would stand a very high chance of devastating the Taiwanese air force, and of giving China air superiority in any conflict. GPS guidance has rendered SRBMs radically more accurate, improving their ability to strike air bases and other military infrastructure.

Although I haven't read the RAND study, the argument seems pretty compelling to me. I would suggest a few caveats:

  1. It seems highly unlikely that a PRC-Taiwan war would result from a surprise Chinese attack. Rather, Taiwanese forces would probably be at high alert. This means that a larger percentage of the fighter force would be aloft at time of attack. However, if the airbases themselves are rendered unusable, this doesn't matter very much.
  2. Shlapak suggests that US air bases would also be vulnerable to Chinese SRBM or MRBM attack. While this is technically possible, I suspect the Chinese would be deeply reluctant to escalate the conflict through attacks on US targets, including airbases in friendly countries. While we couldn't necessarily expect to have full freedom of action from Guam or elsewhere, I doubt that US forces would fall victim to a surprise attack.

Shlapak argues that dispersing assets, hardening shelters, and increasing missile defense capabilities are the only real options that the Taiwanese have. In this context, I concur with the last point; missile defense may be nearly useless in a strategic nuclear sense, but it's helpful against a large scale conventional ballistic missile attack. However, SRBMs are cheaper than interceptors; it seems likely that the Chinese will simply be able to overwhelm any Taiwanese system with sheer numbers.

I think that the takeaway is this; there was a long window in which Taiwan was probably capable of preventing a Chinese invasion, even assuming no US intervention. That period is closed, or closing; the balance between Taiwan and China, sans the development of Taiwanese nuclear weapons, is moving inexorably in China's direction. This does not mean that war is inevitable, as China has lots of fabulous reasons for not launching a war of conquest. I think that it does, however, mean that China has greater leverage over Taiwan on a whole host of issues of dispute between the two states. It also means that the United States faces a more difficult choice regarding its level of engagement if the PRC-Taiwan relationship goes hot.


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