A Porcupine Strategy for Taiwan: A Large Number of Small Things

As China's rhetoric about 'reunification' with Taiwan and the military's gray-zone activities become more intense, Taiwan should adopt a strategy that includes a large number of small steps to leverage Taiwan's geographic and technological advantages, exploit the People's Liberation Army's vulnerabilities, and help deter a forcible takeover attempt.

General Secretary Xi Jinping reaffirmed the Chinese Communist Party's commitment to "reunification" with Taiwan in his statement on the 100th anniversary of the party's establishment on July 1, 2021 at Tiananmen Square. To that purpose, the People's Liberation Army has increased the scope and severity of its gray-zone operations, including frequent incursions into Taiwanese skies and waterways. "We make no pledge to relinquish the use of force," Xi added, "and reserve the option of adopting all necessary measures." An effort to capture Taiwan by force would be the most extreme of such methods.

The People's Liberation Army's effort to invade Taiwan would be severely complicated by distributed, survivable, and economical fortifications. Taiwan's pricey conventional platforms are valuable in fending off gray-zone invasions, as well as providing political and economic benefits. However, they are unlikely to withstand any cross-strait invasion's opening blows. Implementing a plan that incorporates a large number of minor steps might assist to use Taiwan's geographic and technical advantages, exploit the People's Liberation Army's vulnerabilities, and dissuade a forcible takeover effort.

An airborne or amphibious attack across the Taiwan Strait would be extremely tough and complicated. We've conducted an assessment of the potential for distributed, survivable, affordable defenses to further complicate that difficult task and make Taiwan a harder target for invasion, based on a suggestion made by Robert Blackwill and Philip Zelikow in their Council on Foreign Relations report that advanced technology could provide advantages for Taiwan's defense. This research is part of a larger effort by the Hoover Institution's National Security Task Force to investigate the evolving Indo-Pacific security scene. This research is based in part on conversations with current and former US and Taiwanese officials, and in part on publicly accessible data.

Adopting an asymmetric defense that takes use of Taiwan's inherent advantages while exploiting the People's Liberation Army's weaknesses is not a new or original notion. Since at least 2008, observers have proposed that Taiwan adopt a "porcupine strategy." Mr. Adm. (ret.) From 2017 to 2019, Lee Hsi-min, the chief of staff of Taiwan's armed forces, developed and advocated an overall defense concept based on "a large number of small things," with the main innovation being to supplement legacy aircraft and ships with asymmetric capabilities based on "a large number of small things." Lee argued that small quantities of advanced F-16 fighters and indigenous submarines should be purchased in the future for missions like responding to gray-zone incursions, but that those expensive but potentially vulnerable legacy systems should be supplemented with large quantities of small, mobile, affordable, and resilient anti-air and anti-ship systems that could survive initial strikes and effectively resist airborne or amphibious invasion.

Short-range anti-air and anti-ship defenses might increase the chances of an invasion effort failing or being significantly delayed, whether on the ocean or on the island. The risk of failure, as well as the economic, international, and home political costs of a lengthy struggle, may prevent China from launching an invasion that may be repulsed or linger on with negative internal and international ramifications.

Both Taiwan and the United States agree that investing in a big number of tiny items is a good idea. In his October 2020 talk to the US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, Gen. Chang Guan-chung, vice minister of defense for weaponry, added that

the development of innovative and asymmetric capabilities is aimed at deterring the enemy from invading Taiwan. We are developing systems that are small, numerous, smart, stealthy, fast, mobile, low-cost, survivable, effective, easy to develop, maintain and preserve, and difficult to detect and counter.

In a speech to the same conference, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey used similar language to encourage Taiwan to invest in "a large number of small things – capabilities that can signal to an adversary that an invasion or attack would come at a significant cost." In a statement to the US-China Economic & Security Review Commission in February 2021, George Mason University Professor Michael Hunzeker backed the same emphasis on asymmetric defenses to prevent an invasion effort and recommended Taiwan to invest in "huge quantities of low-cost weaponry."

Effective short-range anti-air and anti-ship defenses could increase the risk that an invasion attempt would fail or be substantially delayed either in the water or on the island. 

Notwithstanding such high-level expressions of support in Taiwan and in the United States for asymmetric defenses based on a large number of small things, actual implementation of this concept has been slow and grudging, at best.

Some analysts believe that there is no way that Taiwan could defend itself against a concerted assault by the People’s Liberation Army. An amphibious invasion, however, is an inherently complex and difficult operation, and others assess that the People’s Liberation Army “is not unbeatable.” A military operation to seize Taiwan would be one of the most difficult in history, needing vast numbers of ships and planes to cross 100 miles of sea while facing anti-ship and anti-air defense units. Taiwan's defensive geography is advantageous: the majority of the island is mountainous, the strait is treacherous for much of the year, and there are few beaches suitable for large landing operations. Although China has spent years acquiring modern ships and aircraft and training personnel for this mission, many observers, including the authors of the US-China Economic & Security Review Commission's 2020 report to Congress, believe the People's Liberation Army "still lacks the capability to execute a full-scale invasion of Taiwan."

China’s military continues to invest heavily in this mission as part of a broad range of challenges to Taiwan, from ongoing information operations and gray-zone intrusions to acquiring military capabilities to strike, blockade, or invade the island, with the stated objective of achieving “reunification.” The resources available to Taiwan’s military establishment are growing but finite, and they are small compared to the resources available to China. It is therefore important for Taiwan and the United States, as its principal supplier, to find the right balance between investing in costly and potentially vulnerable legacy systems and investing in distributed, affordable, and resilient defenses that could survive initial strikes and counter the ships and aircraft of an invasion force, in order to lead China to question its ability to successfully take Taiwan by force. In the words of Helvey, such a “balanced approach entails funding indigenous development, foreign acquisitions and sustaining or, in some cases, divesting legacy systems to support an effective and constant military deterrent.”

Taiwan’s Ongoing Investments

Despite support for a porcupine strategy in Taiwan and the United States, Taiwan has continued to invest in expensive, high-profile conventional weapons, as seen in the following overview of Taiwan's current military system procurements and US Foreign Military Sales. The minelayer ship, the Harpoon coastal defense cruise missile, the Stinger man-portable air defense missile, and potentially the missile corvettes are all "little things" that can be fielded in "great numbers" among the projects listed below. The majority of Taiwan's defense spending, on the other hand, is still focused on high-priced conventional equipment.

Indigenous Defense Submarine

Taiwan is investing $16 billion in the production of eight diesel submarines. The first submarine began construction in November 2020, after the domestic military industry spent several years designing the submarines, constructing the facility where they will be made, and securing America's permission to supply critical technology. President Tsai Ing-wen described the Indigenous Defense Submarine as "an crucial aspect of allowing our navy to explore asymmetric warfare" during a ceremony marking the start of construction. Others think that the small number of ships, of which only a handful would be accessible on a daily basis, will not influence China's assessment of whether an invasion would be effective, and that they will instead become "priority targets."


Taiwan is spending $4 billion to update 141 current F-16 aircraft acquired in the 1990s to the newest F-16v specs, which include modern radar and electronics. In the spring of 2021, the first of the updated planes went into service. Taiwan is also reportedly spending $8 billion on 66 new F-16v fighter jets to replace its aging fighters. Taiwan's fighters have seen a lot of action in response to China's gray-zone incursions, but their capacity to withstand missile strikes on their bases and operate indefinitely in a confrontation is in doubt.

Tien Kung [Sky Bow] III (TK III) and Patriot PAC-3

The TK III is a trailer-mounted air defense system featuring missile launchers and radars for use against aircraft, cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, and anti-radiation missiles, with performance characteristics similar to the Patriot PAC-3. In Taiwan, both the indigenous TK III and the foreign Patriot PAC-3 systems are widely used. The TK III is in in serial production, and more Patriot PAC-3 interceptors are on the way. In Taiwan, the TK III is popular, thanks in part to licensed American technology. Tsai has paid a visit to the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, which created the system, and has publicly advocated for the system's manufacturing to be sped up. Although its usefulness in combat with the People's Liberation Army has not been established, the TK III is far less expensive to develop and operate than the Patriot PAC-3.

Hsiung Feng [Brave Wind] II and III (HF II and HF III)

Taiwan is producing and deploying two anti-ship cruise missiles that could pose a significant threat to the ships of an invasion force. The HF III is an indigenous supersonic cruise missile capable of striking ships or land targets, with a range sufficient to strike targets on the Chinese mainland. The HF III is deployed on frigates and smaller ships and can be launched from land-based trailers as well. Tsai also asked for production of the HF III to be accelerated during her visit to the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology.

The HF II is an indigenous earlier generation shorter-range, subsonic anti-ship cruise missile that is currently deployed on a variety of ships and on land, and continues to be produced and upgraded. The relatively small HF II could arm small fast-attack missile boats, which Taiwan is not pursuing, and could be deployed in large numbers on mobile launchers on land as well.

Yun Feng

The National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology also reportedly began production at the end of 2020 of a supersonic land-attack cruise missile with a range sufficient to strike targets as far into the Chinese mainland as Beijing and Shanghai.

Tuo Chiang-Class Corvette

The domestically produced Tuo Chiang-class ships carry HF II (subsonic) and HF III (supersonic) anti-ship cruise missiles, torpedoes, and air-defense missile systems, despite their small displacement of 600 tons compared to the Taiwan navy's 26 frigates and destroyers with displacement ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 tons. Ships in the Tuo Chiang class feature catamaran hulls and can travel at high speeds (up to 43 knots). Although these ships are supposed to be stealthy and have a low radar cross-section, maintaining maritime domain awareness and aiming in a hostile electromagnetic environment would be difficult. Two of these ships are already in use, with nine more scheduled for delivery by 2026. A version for the Taiwanese Coast Guard is also in the works. Taiwan also possesses 31 stealthy missile boats of the Kuang Hua class, each weighing 170-tons and carrying HF II anti-ship missiles.

Naval mines could pose a major challenge to ships approaching Taiwan, and attempts to clear them could delay invasion forces. 

Taiwan has decided, however, not to proceed with the production of small, fast-attack missile boats armed with HF II anti-ship missiles that would be much smaller (50 tons) than the corvettes, would be stealthier and similar in size to fishing boats, could be produced and deployed in much larger numbers than the 11 planned corvettes, and could sally from the coast in a swarm to pose a serious challenge to Chinese ships approaching Taiwan. Failure to pursue small, fast-attack missile boats indicates lack of commitment to a strategy of a large number of small things.

Yu Shan-Class Amphibious Assault and Transport Ship

Taiwan launched the first of four large (10,000 tons displacement) domestically produced amphibious transport docks in the spring of 2021. These multi-mission ships are designed to carry troops and equipment to Taiwan’s off-shore islands as well as its islands in the South China Sea and are armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles as well.

Min Jiang-Class Minelayer

In 2020, the Taiwanese navy received the first of four new 350-ton domestically produced minelaying ships. Naval mines could pose a major challenge to ships approaching Taiwan, and attempts to clear them could delay invasion forces. The minelayer program makes a positive contribution to a strategy based on a large number of small things.

Systems Currently Being Acquired from the United States as Foreign Military Sales

In addition to these systems, Congress has been notified of a number of Foreign Military Sales from the United States to Taiwan that are in the process of being implemented. These include the following:

M1A2 Abrams tank: Taiwan is acquiring 108 M1A2 tanks, the first of which will be delivered in 2023 ($2 billion).

M109 Paladin howitzer: The Biden administration has approved Taiwan’s request for 40 Vietnam-era M109 self-propelled howitzers and related equipment for delivery by 2025 ($750 million).

High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems: 11 mobile launchers and 64 associated missiles will be delivered by 2027 ($430 million).

Mark 48 torpedo: 18 Mark 48 heavy torpedoes will be acquired from the U.S. Navy ($180 million). The Tsai administration cites the sale of heavy torpedoes as evidence of U.S. support for the indigenous submarine program.

Harpoon: 100 Harpoon land-based coastal defense cruise missile launchers, 400 missiles, and 25 associated radars will be produced and sold to Taiwan, the first of which will arrive in 2025 ($2.3 billion). The Harpoon is a good example of a proven anti-ship missile small enough to be deployed in large numbers on mobile launchers.

MQ-9 Reaper: The United States has approved the sale of four MQ-9 high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance drones and associated fixed and mobile ground control equipment to enhance Taiwan’s situational awareness ($600 million).

FIM-92 Stinger: The United States has agreed to sell Taiwan 250 additional Stinger man-portable, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles and associated launchers and training equipment, for use against aircraft, helicopters, and drones, to be delivered by 2026 ($220 million). The Stinger is another good example of a proven weapon small enough to deploy in large numbers.

Patriot PAC-3 life extension: Taiwan has invested more than $6 billon to procure and deploy 350 Patriot PAC-3 air defense missiles, which are now in place. The United States agreed in 2020 to an upgrade and life-extension program for these missiles ($620 million). Taiwan is reportedly seeking to purchase 300 of the latest version of the Patriot interceptor missile, which would bring the total number deployed in Taiwan to 650.

Potential Scenarios

As Beijing pursues its objective of "reunification," Taiwan faces a slew of possible challenges. A misinformation, economic pressure, and military infiltration campaign has already begun. Beijing may opt to emulate Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy of gradual hostile escalation in order to damage Taiwan's economic and social institutions while avoiding a strong international reaction. It could also choose from a variety of military options that aren't invasions, such as seizing Taiwan's offshore islands, imposing an air and maritime blockade, or launching air and missile strikes against the island, all of which the US Department of Defense believes the People's Liberation Army is capable of.

Taiwan’s legacy big-ticket investments have useful roles to play in the defense of the island, particularly with regard to gray-zone provocations. The ability to scramble F-16s in response to Chinese aerial incursions, for example, demonstrates Taiwan’s ability and resolve to defend itself both to Beijing and to the people on Taiwan. However, actions short of invasion, while intended to pressure Taiwan into submission, would not directly achieve Beijing’s goal of gaining control of Taiwan and could, in fact, have the opposite effect of stimulating international and regional support for Taiwan and sharpening the resolve of the people on Taiwan. It therefore makes sense for Taiwan to devote a portion of its growing defense budget to incremental resources to prepare for an invasion and to help to deter such an action.

Distributed, mobile, and affordable anti-air and anti-ship defenses could be deployed in sufficiently large numbers that most would survive the initial air and missile strikes and therefore be available to engage Chinese forces crossing the strait and approaching the island.

What would an invasion effort on a large scale look like? And why would an expensive-items-based stance be susceptible in such a situation? The People's Liberation Army would have enough missiles and planes to hit Taiwan's air bases and runways (including highway stretches that might be used as runways) in the early hours of an invasion effort, rendering Taiwan's pricey aircraft unusable. Taiwan's air-defense missile installations and radars, as well as its huge ships and submarines, would be additional targets. Situational awareness would be harmed by cyber assaults and electronic warfare, while special operations troops would be sent to target leadership and infrastructure. Taiwan's expensive conventional systems would be unable to fight Chinese ships, planes, helicopters, and drones as they crossed the Taiwan Strait.

Adding a slew of minor changes to Taiwan's defensive posture might yield a different result. Anti-air and anti-ship defenses that are distributed, transportable, and inexpensive may be deployed in sufficient numbers to withstand early air and missile attacks and so be ready to fight Chinese forces crossing the strait and approaching the island. Small missile boats may survive and swarm out to attack China's ships in the same way. Small drones might offer situational awareness and mines could be planted along the entrances to beaches and ports. The planning and execution of an invasion might be considerably hampered by such dispersed defenses. The possibility of defeat — or a lengthy struggle — may prevent the People's Liberation Army from attempting a forcible takeover of Taiwan.

While this study focuses on distributed, survivable, and cost-effective short-range anti-air and anti-ship defenses, a strategy to deter an invasion would also include ground forces that could withstand initial strikes and be capable of engaging any amphibious forces that make it to the beaches, as well as airborne and special operations forces deployed by helicopter and parachute. In the same vein, Taiwan would devise a strategy for deploying tiny, lethal ground units (e.g., Javelin, Stinger, surveillance and strike drones, and autonomous weapons) that could successfully combat Chinese ground forces on the island. The possibility of a long-term battle on the ground might help prevent an invasion.

Not Yet a Porcupine Strategy

In her May 2020 inaugural address opening her second term in office, Tsai stated that her first national defense objective was “accelerating the development of our asymmetrical capabilities.” In a subsequent interview, she elaborated that

we unveiled our largest ever defense budget, reaching 2.3% of our GDP. I fully expect that this number will continue to grow, but what will be equally important is ensuring that these resources are being spent on the right capabilities. This is why I am committed to accelerating the development of asymmetric capabilities under the overall defense concept. As I mentioned in my inauguration speech, this will be our number one priority.

In the view of Taiwan’s political and military leadership, however, “asymmetrical” is not synonymous with “a large number of small things.” To begin with, most of the above-mentioned procurements, including the indigenous submarine program, F-16s, and tanks, are considered asymmetrical, despite their high cost and vulnerability. Furthermore, Taiwan's Ministry of Defense's Quadrennial Defense Review, published in March 2021, expressly states a variety of force-building objectives, including long-range strike capabilities, air supremacy, and sea control. In Taiwan, long-range missiles capable of targeting mainland China are quite popular. They're in the $8.6 billion special budget for higher defense expenditure proposed in October 2021, for example. Long-range strikes, however, are unlikely to have a significant impact on the People's Liberation Army's capacity to mount an invasion across the strait or threaten enough damage to prevent such an invasion, given Taiwan's limited ability to harm distant targets.

There are a number of reasons why Taiwan’s political and military leadership continue to devote the majority of defense resources to a small number of expensive legacy systems. First, fighters and ships are genuinely useful in the current gray-zone conflict. Jets and ships can respond to China’s intrusions in visible ways that stand up to the People’s Liberation Army.

Second, Taiwan’s leadership sees substantial political benefits in developing domestic industrial capabilities in the shipbuilding, aviation, defense, and electronics sectors, and in becoming self-sufficient in manufacturing high-tech systems, such as jet trainers, submarines, air defenses, missiles, and electronic countermeasures.

Third, Tsai's personal appearances at the start of construction on the first indigenous defense submarine, the launch of the first minelaying ship, the inauguration of an F-16 maintenance center, and a slew of other high-profile procurement events demonstrate the political benefits she sees in associating herself with visible big-ticket procurement programs. As a result, she is demonstrating her dedication to Taiwan's security and sovereignty, as well as promoting Taiwan's economic development and self-sufficiency and confronting the cross-strait threat.

Finally, the Taiwanese government is driven in establishing the defense budget by the military services' procurement preferences, and the services continue to seek the most up-to-date versions of classic gear rather than allocating resources to a huge number of tiny items. Taiwan's air force is looking for contemporary fighter jets, the navy is looking for huge ships and submarines, and the army is looking for modern tanks. Furthermore, Taiwan's government has few military and defense specialists who might assist in translating Tsai's high-level recommendations into a workable plan.

It is therefore not surprising that despite broad support for an “asymmetric” response to the challenge posed by the People’s Liberation Army, the great majority of Taiwan’s defense resources continue to be devoted to expensive aircraft, ships, and air defenses that are likely to be overwhelmed in the opening hours of a major conflict. As noted previously, the Harpoon coastal defense missile, the Stinger air defense missile, the minelaying ship, and perhaps the corvette stand out as steps in the direction of a posture of “a large number of small things.” Nevertheless, considerable work remains in order to realize such a porcupine strategy.

How to Proceed

Taiwan faces a number of challenges from China, including information operations, economic and political coercion, and a range of military threats from gray-zone activities to kinetic attacks to invasion. Effectively responding to these challenges requires a whole-of-government approach that includes securing the country’s energy, information, food, infrastructure, supply chains, and other aspects of a modern society, as well as military preparations. This analysis focuses on one narrow but important segment of the broader challenge — effectively deterring an attempt by China’s military to invade Taiwan from across the strait. To this end, we offer the following recommendations for government and industry officials in the United States and Taiwan:

Support a “Porcupine Strategy” Going Forward

Taiwan’s defense planning should give priority to distributed, affordable defenses with sufficient numbers to survive initial strikes and enough lethality to effectively counter (and thereby deter) invasion across the strait. The United States should support this approach in a variety of ways outlined below. We note that the U.S. Department of Defense has come to the same conclusion, following an analysis that takes into account classified information not publicly available. As Helvey argued in his address to the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference on Oct. 7, 2019,

In the face of an adversary that spends more, fields capabilities faster, and expresses a willingness to use force, Taiwan must employ a force that leverages its strengths in terms of geography, advanced technology, highly skilled workforce, and innovative and patriotic society, all while exploiting its adversary’s vulnerabilities. This means a distributed, maneuverable, and decentralized force — large numbers of small things — that can operate in a degraded electromagnetic environment and under a barrage of missile and air attacks … . These include highly mobile coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range air defense, naval mines, small fast-attack craft, mobile artillery, and advanced surveillance assets, all of which are particularly well suited for Taiwan’s geography and to the mission of island defense … . Such systems are far less expensive to operate and maintain, and are more survivable, compared to more conventional platforms such as fighter aircraft or large naval vessels.

To transition to a force posture that emphasizes distributed defenses, Taiwan's future budgets should include funding for the acquisition of systems that are so numerous, distributed, and mobile that they cannot all be targeted by Chinese missile strikes, as well as the training and support required to conduct effective combat operations. These fortifications would be able to withstand and attack Chinese military ships, planes, helicopters, and drones attempting to traverse the Taiwan Strait and land. The Phalanx close-in weapon system, the Hellfire missile, the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System rocket, the Israeli Spike missile, and additional Javelin and Stinger missiles are all low-cost, proven short-range weapons that could be adapted and deployed in large numbers to make approaching Taiwan by sea or air more difficult. Small fast-attack missile boats, additional naval mines and minelaying capabilities, and additional land-based coastal defense cruise missiles could further threaten approaching ships. Drones could provide reconnaissance and targeting information.

Taiwan may be able to develop certain short-range defenses with American technological support, while the US may be able to supply others. Other defensive systems, beginning with Japan, might be designed and built in collaboration with other countries in the area. Issues involving the transfer of sensitive technology may need to be addressed for some systems created in the United States. Some nations have regulations prohibiting weapons sales to Taiwan, which might lead to ally opposition to sales of systems developed jointly by the US and its allies. There are enough potential short-range defenses to provide effective and economical solutions.

Americans should refrain from using the term “asymmetric,” which can be stretched to include any proposed system. 

Taiwan should undertake a longer-term development program in addition to near-term plans based on current systems in order to prepare for the People's Liberation Army's increasing capabilities. Looking ahead, and taking into account Taiwan's advanced technical capabilities, a large number of small things could include land-based coastal defenses employing advanced technologies against ships, aircraft, and swarms of drones; networks of small, fast, manned and unmanned surface craft and unmanned underwater systems to complicate Chinese naval operations; and drones to improve situational awareness. With technological cooperation from the US and maybe other countries, such systems might be designed and manufactured in Taiwan.

Support Legacy Programs

Taiwan should keep its heritage projects for conventional systems going, but at a scale that allows for the development and acquisition of dispersed, survivable, and inexpensive defenses. Taiwan's conventional systems, notably its F-16s, are critical for confronting gray-zone provocations that fall short of armed confrontation, provide economic and industrial gains, and have military and political backing. The potential cost of purchasing and running traditional platforms, on the other hand, is substantial. Taiwan's government should set aside funds in the military budget to purchase cheap short-range defenses as well as the people, training, communications, and situational awareness needed to operate efficiently and contribute to invasion deterrence.

Avoid the Term “Asymmetric”

Americans should refrain from using the term “asymmetric,” which can be stretched to include any proposed system. Since Taiwan’s indigenous submarine, F-16s, and tanks have all been called asymmetric by Taiwan government officials, use of that term by Americans could be said to imply support for such legacy systems. Nevertheless, the underlying concept of an asymmetric response remains sound: Rather than attempt to match China’s air and sea capabilities, Taiwan should leverage its strengths (especially its geography and technology) and exploit the People’s Liberation Army’s vulnerabilities (especially the need to move large amounts of men and equipment across 100 miles of contested water and airspace). The shorthand for this concept should be “a large number of small things.”

Cooperate on Strategy and Procurements

The US and Taiwanese governments should collaborate to examine the People's Liberation Army's broad range of difficulties and the military capabilities Taiwan requires to address those challenges. Simulations and wargames might help the Taiwanese and US governments understand the benefits of implementing dispersed, low-cost defenses and offer a foundation for policy reforms. The perception that the US is dictating policies to Taiwan would be avoided with such a cooperative approach.

Much of the analysis that led to Taiwan's purchase of Harpoon coastal defense cruise missiles came from the Department of Defense. In the future, American research can contribute to a collaborative approach that specifies a set of competencies that Taiwan should have.

 Support Deployment and Training

The United States should support Taiwan in fielding effective defenses. Acquiring a large number of small things alone will not be sufficient to cause the People’s Liberation Army to hesitate to invade Taiwan. In order to have a deterrent effect, these systems would need to be deployed in a distributed manner that is resilient to attack; personnel would need to be trained to maintain and operate the systems; communications networks resilient to cyber attack would need to be established to connect operators with commanders and reconnaissance information; procedures would have to be put in place for operations in a hostile electromagnetic environment; and resilient infrastructure would need to be established to repair and replenish equipment.

To properly deploy the systems required in a porcupine strategy and engage in military exercises, Taiwan's active-duty soldiers would need to be organized and trained. However, gaps have been detected in Taiwan's active-duty and reserve forces' training and exercise. Furthermore, in the case of an invasion, Taiwan's active-duty troops would require reserve support to repel any assault units that land on the island and to lead a resistance against takeover. The successful execution of a porcupine strategy might inspire fresh thinking about how Taiwan satisfies the personnel needs of its active-duty, reserve, and civil defense forces, taking into consideration Taiwan's technical strength as well as the demographic concerns of an aging population.

The United States could help Taiwan to deploy large numbers of small things in a distributed and survivable way and assist it with training and conducting military exercises that lead to readiness for combat. Such assistance would be consistent with providing “defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” as permitted by the Taiwan Relations Act. Provision of such assistance could encourage Taiwan to devote more resources to a porcupine strategy.

Support Situational Awareness

A robust information network would be required to collect data from distributed sensors and offer situational awareness and coordination to distributed shooters in support of distributed and mobile defenses. Because an invasion would be followed by extensive attacks on command and information networks, aiming to disrupt communications and create disinformation and confusion, this would be a technological and financial issue. The United States should aid Taiwan in the purchase of survivable sensors and robust networks for situational awareness, as well as preparing to supply Taiwan with information from US surveillance networks in the event of a conflict. The capacity to function successfully in the face of severe cyber, electronic warfare, and kinetic attacks against information networks is a significant issue, one that the US can assist Taiwan in overcoming.

Support Stockpiling

The effective defense of Taiwan will require creating stockpiles of ammunition, spares, supplies, and fuel in advance because resupplying Taiwan in a time of tension or conflict would be a challenge. Some stockpiles could be built by Taiwan, and the United States could pre-position war reserve stocks in Taiwan as it does in other countries. A model could be Israel, which has its own stocks as well as U.S. war reserve stocks to draw upon as needed. Strategic reserves of energy and food would also add to Taiwan’s resilience.

Support Maintaining Effectiveness and Lethality

Countermeasures that the People’s Liberation Army could adopt in response to Taiwan’s anti-air and anti-ship missiles, particularly electronic warfare countermeasures, will continue to evolve. Taiwan’s large number of small things would need to evolve as well if they are to retain their effectiveness and their deterrent value. The United States can work with Taiwan to maintain the ability of Taiwan’s defensive systems to function effectively in an increasingly hostile electronic warfare environment.


The People’s Liberation Army poses a formidable threat to Taiwan. Investing more of Taiwan's limited defense resources in dispersed, mobile, inexpensive, and deadly anti-air and anti-ship systems might help Taiwan capitalize on its advantages while exploiting China's military's weaknesses. Whether one prefers clarity or ambiguity in America's defense commitment to Taiwan, or whether invasion is a near-term threat or a long-term possibility, this porcupine policy makes sense. This method has the endorsement of the US government and expert community, as well as high-level support in Taiwan. However, Taiwan's top military continues to oppose the move, preferring to preserve a more conventional concentration on pricey planes, ships, and tanks. While this resistance will be difficult to overcome, we believe that analytically based and scenario-focused US cooperation and support could encourage the Taiwanese government to place a greater emphasis on resilient and effective defenses, making the People's Liberation Army doubt its ability to take Taiwan by force.

James Timbie is an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. As a senior adviser at the State Department from 1983 to 2016 he played a central role in the negotiation of the INF and START nuclear arms reductions agreements with the Soviet Union and Russia and the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action with Iran. He has a PhD in physics from Stanford University.

Adm. James O. Ellis Jr. is an Annenberg Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His 39-year Navy career included service as a fighter pilot, commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, battle group commander leading the 1996 contingency response operations in the Taiwan Strait, and final assignment as commander of the United States Strategic Command. He subsequently has served on the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board and the vice president’s National Space Council. He has a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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