Talk to almost anyone about Taiwan’s defense, and, sooner or later, the conversation will turn to the “insurmountable” problems posed by China’s ballistic missiles. During the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the Chinese Communist Party used ballistic missiles as tools of political warfare. The People’s Liberation Army fired rockets into the waters near Taiwan in an attempt to spoil the country’s first free and fair presidential elections. The projectiles were unarmed and the ploy failed. Nonetheless, the psychological damage was done, and the experience would never be forgotten.
Rationally speaking, there is no reason why anyone should fear China’s ballistic missiles more than its cruise missiles — or torpedoes, sea mines, sniper bullets, malicious software, kamikaze drones, or stealth fighters. If anything, we should probably worry most about the insidious spread of hostile propaganda.
Kerry Gershaneck’s new book, Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to “Win without Fighting,” points out we are being bombed by sticky pieces of false information every single day. These poison our democracies and eat away the foundations of our free societies. Gershaneck observes, “The CCP is devilishly good at conducting its own particularly virulent form of [political warfare]. The PRC version of political warfare poses more than a unique challenge—it presents an existential threat to the United States and its friends and allies.”
Perhaps if the Pentagon was run by rational actors, it would decrease spending on new fighter jets, aircraft carriers, and tanks, and invest heavily in the development of an American way of political warfare. But, of course, national security has little to do with logic. The game is all about politics. And politics is all about emotion.
Emotions such as fear are remarkably good at overriding clear thinking, blinding us to more pressing dangers. Consider this: cows kill more people in America each year than bears, sharks, spiders, scorpions, alligators, and mountain lions combined. Yet vanishingly few Americans are afraid of cows — let alone dogs and white-tailed deer, which are even more lethal.
As a Marxist-Leninist regime, the CCP relies on terror tactics to sustain its power at home and grow its strength abroad. That’s why the regime loves ballistic missiles; they stoke Chinese nationalism and drive foreigners into fits of fright. Yet, contrary to the CCP-manufactured myth, China’s ballistic missiles are not capable of leaving Taiwan a smoldering ruin. Nor are they capable of delivering a knockout blow to American military bases in Japan and Guam (unless Beijing tipped them with nuclear weapons — an act of madness that would guarantee the end of the CCP).
It is always smart to be cautious when thinking about war, but unwise to indulge in defeatist fantasies with no foundation in fact.
For the American and Taiwanese militaries, it is unnecessary to develop the exquisite technologies needed to hunt mobile PLA rocket launchers. There are far more important wartime targets in China that are unmovable and can be easily hit with Tomahawk and Hsiung Feng cruise missiles. Such notional targets include: political leadership compounds, military command posts, communications nodes, space ground stations, radars, airfields, ports, rail heads, bridges, and logistics bases. Perhaps the most profitable target of all would be the Chinese power grid.
There are better ways to reduce the Chinese ballistic missile threat than going after hundreds of individual launchers. To this end, the goal for a future, US-led, integrated missile defense shield might involve the numbers 25, 25, 20, 20, and 10. This is neither a code, nor a mathematical formula.
Rather, it’s shorthand for the following modest proposal: the democracies should have enough survivable ballistic missile defense launchers to intercept 25 percent of incoming PLA rounds. They should have enough electronic and cyber warfare capabilities to jam, hack, and defeat another 25 percent. They should have enough camouflage, concealment, and deception to ensure 20 percent of incoming rounds are wasted on false targets or “ghosts.” They should have enough rapid counterattack missiles to destroy 20 percent of the Chinese military’s fixed missile infrastructure on the ground. Finally, they should have enough hardening, dispersal, resiliency, and rapid repair to ensure that when the last 10 percent of China’s ballistic missiles do hit their targets, the impact does not significantly impair allied operations.
Remember: 25, 25, 20, 20, and 10. These cold numbers can help us cut through the heat of emotion.
The Chinese ballistic missiles pointed at East Asia are still deadly, but they carry no hope of victory. Given the elaborate defenses that have been erected around Taiwan against air and missile attacks, it seems likely that the American and Taiwanese militaries could weather the opening hours of the storm, conserving their main strength for the protracted battle around southeastern China and across the Taiwan Strait.
As a vehicle of terror, the ballistic missile is quite effective. But its battlefield impact in practice is little more than that of a heavy artillery shell — and an extraordinarily expensive one at that. Better means of long-range strike have not been available to the Chinese military until recently — a fact that the CCP’s propaganda machine has gone to great lengths to cover up, making it seem as if these glorified catapults were an end in themselves or an “assassin’s mace.” They are actually investments of rapidly diminishing returns.
After the first strike, they are wasting assets capable of little more than harassing raids on ever smaller scales. The PLA’s stockpiles are not sufficient to last for long. From the perspective of Chinese amphibious troops who fear they one day might be ordered across the Strait, rockets are a wholly inadequate and suboptimal means of softening Taiwan up for invasion.
Ballistic missiles are but one instrument in the Chinese national orchestra of violence. Treating them as if they are something more is a trap. They are no scarier than any other weapon in the hands of an expansionist, totalitarian, ultranationalist, genocidal, communist regime. They must be defended against, but are not worth obsessing about.
Ian Easton is a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia.
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