Cover: Air Defense Options for Taiwan

Air Defense Options for Taiwan

An Assessment of Relative Costs and Operational Benefits

Published Apr 5, 2016

by Michael J. Lostumbo, David R. Frelinger, James Williams, Barry Wilson


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台湾的 防空选项: 对相对成本与作战成效的评估 (内容摘要)

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Research Questions

  1. Does maintaining limited air defense capability provided by fighter aircraft merit the major financial investment that they entail?
  2. What new air defense allocation strategies could bring Taiwan greater protection, and at what cost?

Taiwan faces one of the most difficult air defense problems in the world. Because of that, it cannot easily look to how other nations have invested in air defenses to guide its force structure decisions. What makes Taiwan's air defense problem so difficult is the combination of its proximity to China and the massive investments that the People's Republic of China has made in a range of systems that threaten Taiwan's aircraft. China's fighter aircraft capabilities have surpassed those of Taiwan in the air. Furthermore, China now has the capability to destroy all of Taiwan's aircraft at their bases. Thus, Taiwan needs to rethink how it can accomplish its air defense goals. Fighter aircraft are not the only element of Taiwan's air defense; surface-to-air missiles are the other major element. This report analyzes how Taiwan might approach air defense, by downsizing and shifting its fighter aircraft force to focus on coercive scenarios, increasing its investment in surface-to-air missiles, and dedicating its surface-based air defense to becoming an enduring warfighting capability able to contribute throughout the duration of a sustained and effective defense of Taiwan. It describes the essential air defense problem posed by the People's Liberation Army, characterizes the current capabilities and level of funding that Taiwan invests in air defense, and then develops several alternative investment strategies. The authors then test those investment strategies in three vignettes that span the range of conflict, from quite limited coercive uses of force to a full invasion.

Key Findings

People's Liberation Army (PLA) Capabilities Force Taiwan to Substantially Rethink and Restructure Its Air Defense Because Taiwan's Fighter Force Faces a Trio of Problems

  • Taiwan's fighter force is vulnerable to missile attack while on the ground.
  • It is outnumbered in the air.
  • It is less capable in the air than the latest PLA aircraft.

Surface-to-Air Missiles' Survivability Makes Them a Preferred Option

  • Multilayered surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) can become an important contributor to Taiwan's defense as enablers of other defensive operations but not to defend fixed targets.
  • They are a difficult capability for China to counter easily.

Taiwan Needs More-Mobile and Shorter-Range Air Defense Systems

  • Taiwan's existing Patriot and TK forces provide relatively long-range capabilities that need to be complemented with a shorter-range, more-survivable system.

Taiwan Can Afford New SAM Investments If It Divests Some of Its Existing Fighter Aircraft Fleet

  • SAMs are affordable within current budget levels if Taiwan divests some of its existing fighter force.


  • To continue to provide a credible deterrent and be seen as having the potential to contest its own airspace, Taiwan needs to invest in and invigorate its SAM force. These should get priority over fighters.
  • As Taiwan assesses its future air defense needs, it should devote most of its air defense resources to investment in its surface-to-air missile (SAM) force. In sizing that force, it should be able to meet the demands on the SAM forces to support maneuver forces in an invasion scenario but also have the capacity to meet some air defense demands in a coercive scenario, which could be a prelude to a larger conflict and thus places an additive demand on the SAM force. Taiwan's fighter force is limited to a supporting role in coercive scenarios involving very low levels of force. In sizing the force, Taiwan should first consider the demand for SAMs.
  • A shorter-range system that could provide a more cost-effective layered air defense should complement current Patriot/TK III systems. A new air defense system could engage aircraft and cruise missiles using ground-launched air-to-air missiles. Such a system could rapidly engage many targets, have a deep magazine, and be built around lower-cost radars networked together that allow them to effectively engage many targets in a short amount of time.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

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