Air Defense Options for Taiwan: An Assessment of Relative Costs and Operational Benefits
RAND Corporation Santa Monica United States
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Taiwan faces one of the most difficult air defense problems in the world, and, because of that, it cannot easily look to how other nations have invested in air defenses to guide its force structure decisions. What makes Taiwans air defense problem so difficult is the combination of its proximity to China, coupled with the massive investments that the Peoples Republic of China PRC has made in a range of systems that threaten Taiwans aircraftnot just while they are in the air but also while they are on the ground. If a major conflict were initiated, China now has the capability to destroy all of Taiwans aircraft at their bases, except those that can be hidden in Taiwans two mountain sheltersbut those protected aircraft might provide little solace because, although the aircraft might be safe in these caves, Taiwan cannot use them from those shelters for sustained combat operations. Thus, Taiwan needs to rethink how it can accomplish its air defense goals in a major conflict without heavy reliance on its fighter aircraft. Fighter aircraft are not the only element of Taiwans air defense surface-to-air missiles SAMs are the other major element. Here we see more promise, if Taiwan can both use its SAMs to their best advantagethat is, against aircraft and cruise missiles, not primarily against ballistic missilesand employ them in a way that increases their survivabilitythat is, by operating them for short periods of time, followed by rapid teardown and movement. Used in this way, Taiwans SAMs could become an important contributor to the defense of Taiwan and a difficult capability for the Peoples Liberation Army PLA to easily counter. Still, air defense in a major war is only one possible category of demands for Taiwans air defenses. A variety of more-limited military conflicts could draw on air defense capabilities.