The launch of China’s third aircraft carrier in June marked a new phase of military pressure on Taiwan. Chinese carrier strike groups, with full operational capability, strengthen Beijing’s blue-water power projection capabilities both to directly attack Taiwan and to prevent other countries from coming to the island’s aid. While some assert that Taiwan cannot counter a Chinese invasion on its own, the results of my analytical wargames show the opposite. The drills by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) last month likely demonstrated Beijing’s intentions to impose a naval blockade on the island in the event of a military confrontation. Taiwan’s military needs to prevent Chinese fleets from moving into their tactical positions or, if unable to prevent the blockade’s establishment, to disrupt ongoing PLA Navy (PLAN) operations.
While Chinese expansion of the PLAN and its capabilities do put Taiwan at risk, Chinese carrier strike groups are not without their vulnerabilities. Attacks on supply and support to the Chinese carrier strike group can damage the PLAN’s operational effectiveness. Specifically, the Type 901 Hulunhu-class fast combat support ship, of which the PLAN has two, is prime for targeting. China’s conventional-powered carriers, despite the fast-growing combat fleets, are still quite limited in their range and endurance, requiring support and logistics ships. Sinking these support ships would disrupt a Chinese blockade or amphibious invasion.
To achieve the aforementioned goal, Taiwan must develop its own anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, which incorporates guided weapons and reconnaissance systems. Currently, Taiwan’s military possesses two possible options for guided anti-ship weapons: the ground-launched Hsiung Feng II/III and the ground- or air-launched AGM-84 Harpoon. With the reconnaissance information gathered by naval surveillance radars and MQ-9B SeaGuardian unmanned aerial vehicles, these legacy anti-ship missiles remain potent defenders of the island. However, as the PLAN is rapidly growing, Taiwan needs more than short- and medium-range options to cope with the PLA threat.
While these legacy systems are effective, they have capability gaps that reduce the effectiveness of Taiwan’s A2/AD plans. One option to close those gaps is the stealthy AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM). The AGM-158C is capable of conducting autonomous targeting and precision strike at standoff distances. Employing the AGM-158C to sink combat support ships, the Achilles’ heel of Chinese carrier strike groups, would inflict catastrophic damage on Chinese invasion plans and force the PLAN to station its fleets farther away from the island.
Building the Scenarios
I designed several scenarios to test and compare the effectiveness of these possible options, using Command: Modern Operations Professional Edition (CMO PE), a powerful commercial-off-the-shelf computer wargame software widely used by the U.S. armed services, NATO, allied militaries, and defense corporations. For example, Northrop Grumman Corporation selected CMO PE as the only wargame software being analyzed for the Gamebreaker program awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. Moreover, CMO PE’s mechanisms for simulating and calculating fleet damage are more sophisticated than other options, including Synthetic Theater Operations Research Model (STORM) and Extended Air Defense Simulation (EADSIM). All weapons system specifications and data used in my simulations were from open-source intelligence (OSINT).
Scenario 1: Chinese Invasion
In the first scenario, the Chinese carrier strike group consisted of eight vessels: one aircraft carrier, one Type 901 fast combat support ship, one Type 055 missile destroyer, three Type 052D missile destroyers, one Type 052C missile destroyer, and one Type 054A missile frigate. The carrier and the combat support ship joined off the coast of Zhejiang province, which is around 220 nautical miles (nm) from northern Taiwan. The missile destroyers and frigate formed two air defense areas, which were 25 nm and 75 nm respectively ahead of the carrier. Carrier-based J-15s fighters and early warning aircraft conducted combat air patrol (CAP) missions out to a range of 175 nm ahead of the carrier.
The mission of Taiwan’s military was to impede a Chinese invasion by sinking the PLAN’s Type 901 combat support ship. In northern Taiwan, the Sky Bow II/III surface-to-air missiles were positioned to defend against air intrusions while E-2K Hawkeye early warning aircraft and MQ-9B provided airborne and maritime surveillance and reconnaissance. For this and the other scenarios, Taiwan received foreign intelligence and long-range targeting information akin to what Ukraine is receiving from the United States and other partners.
Three options tested were the AGM-84L Harpoon Block II, Hsiung Feng II/III, and AGM-158C LRASM. The F-16V, as Taiwan’s most advanced fighter, was selected for launching the air-to-surface guided missiles. Thanks to the capacity and scalability that CMO PE provides, I modified the simulation mechanism and mounted AGM-158Cs on the F-16Vs to test hypothetical scenarios. For each option, I executed at least 30 trials to reduce the possibility of biased results.
The simulation outcomes were clear. The limited range of the AGM-84L Harpoon (around 77 nm) makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for this option to sink the Type 901. In the simulations, F-16Vs had to fly at least 149 nm forward and penetrate the Chinese combat air patrol zone and naval outer air defense area in order to attack the Type 901 ship. This maneuver forced the air squadrons to expose themselves to heavy enemy fire without protection from the Sky Bow II/III surface-to-air missiles. By adding more F-16V sorties to carry out the missions, success rates did improve; nevertheless, the casualties would be too high to accept if we expect the mission success rates to reach approximately the same performance as the AGM-158C (more on this later).
In the second set of tests, the Hsiung Feng II/III missiles were unable to engage the Type 901 ship as a result of their limited range (80-135 nm) and ground-based launching platforms. After adjusting the scenario setting and sailing the Chinese fleets through the Miyako Strait, to the north of Taiwan, the Hsiung Feng II/III missiles were able to strike the designated target. However, that adjustment may raise a question about the reality of the scenario. A more realistic premise would be that the Chinese navy remains positioned outside the Hsiung Feng II/III bubble until it can be suppressed.
By adding the third, and for now hypothetical, option of using the AGM-158C, the Taiwanese started to turn the tables. The AGM-158C’s incredible 500 nm range allowed Taiwanese F-16Vs to launch strikes while protected by the Sky Bow II/III surface-to-air missile umbrella. Moreover, in the simulations, the AGM-158C missiles demonstrated the capability to consistently penetrate hostile air defense systems, sinking the Chinese Type 901 combat support ship. Obviously, the long-range anti-ship missile is a feasible and better option for sniping at Chinese vessels hiding behind their air defense shield.
Scenario 2: Naval Blockade
In the second scenario, the PLAN took the opportunity of military drills to transit through the Miyako Strait. A Chinese carrier strike group assembled in waters 220 nm away from eastern Taiwan, aiming to suppress Taiwan’s military bases and armed forces and to cut off the island’s connections to any possible foreign support. Taiwan’s goal was to sink the Type 901 ship and force the PLAN to retreat, eventually lifting the blockade.
Unlike the first scenario, the Chinese naval fleets in the Philippine Sea were now facing air threats from all directions. China’s carrier strike group not only had to counter anti-ship missiles from its western flank, but also left its eastern flank open to maritime attacks. During a U.S. Senate committee hearing, former U.S. PACOM Commander Adm. Harry Harris urged the faster development of LRASMs to counter PLA threats. The Pentagon has worked out an operation plan in recent years wherein B-1B Lancer strategic bombers or even C-17A Globemaster III airlifters traveling from Guam or the continental United States could launch AGM-158Cs against the Chinese navy. My proposition is that Taiwan’s Air Force can actually be the executor of this operational plan.
For this scenario, I further designed a mission that had Taiwanese F-16Vs launched from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, carrying AGM-158Cs to sink the Chinese Type 901 combat support ship. The premise was that Taipei and Washington had a tacit agreement, allowing Taiwan to pre-position AGM-158Cs in Guam and to transit some F-16Vs with mounted conformal fuel tanks to the base once the PLAN’s drills turned hostile. With the assistance of aerial refueling and long-range targeting information from the United States, it took around two hours for Taiwan’s F-16Vs, taking off from Guam, to reach their attacking positions. The results were devastating for the Chinese Type 901 ships, as Taiwan was able to launch standoff attacks on the PLAN’s Achilles heel from both flanks. Regardless of the political barriers, my simulations demonstrated that this option is feasible at the tactical level.
Building Taiwan’s A2/AD Bubble
Overall, the purpose of this article was not to propose the AGM-158C as the sole countermeasure Taiwan needs; nor do I underestimate the value of the legacy Harpoons and other anti-ship weapons. Rather, AGM-158C missiles together with other defense options can strengthen Taiwan’s deterrence posture by forming a multi-layered anti-ship system. Ukraine’s sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, has already demonstrated that with intelligence sharing of targeting information a disadvantaged military can cause devastating damage to a stronger enemy force. To repel the PLAN, Taiwan needs more than just its legacy short- and medium-range countermeasures. The AGM-158C missiles will force the PLAN to position its carrier strike groups farther away from Taiwan and thus increase the uncertainty and risks of China’s operation plans.