Anti-ship missiles in the defence of Taiwan: Limited war or people’s war?

Written by Alex Calvo.

More than thirty years on, the shadow of the 1982 Falklands War looms large over East Asia, as made clear by Japanese PM Abe’s increasingly frequent references to the conflict. While democratic politicians may seek inspiration in Lady Thatcher’s refusal to condone aggression, military officers are busy studying the conflict’s many lessons. Among them, the successful deployment by the Argentines of an improvised shore-based anti-ship missile and their employment against HMS Glamorgan. Although the attack, which killed 13 and damaged the ship extensively, came too late to have a decisive impact on the conflict, it was a reminder of the threats to any navy operating close to a hostile shore. Nowadays even greater than in 1982.

The story of the evolution of anti-ship missiles since then is well known, and their cost effectiveness has been repeatedly mentioned in discussing Taiwan’s defense needs. For example by Professor William Murray, from the US Naval War College at the SOAS Conference on Cross-Strait Relations in the Age of Globalization: Globalization-Security Linkages, held on 7-8 November 2012.

The story of HMS Glamorgan was overshadowed by that of HMS Sheffield, hit and sunk by an air-launched Exocet, and ARA Belgrano, torpedoed and sunk by a British submarine. It even receives little more than a passing reference in some standard accounts of the war. However, it is an episode offering plenty of potentially useful lessons. The significance of shore-launched anti-ship cruise missiles has already been extensively noted, and this includes a key characteristic: their mobility.

Argentine Navy technicians removed and adapted an Exocet system from the ARA Guerrico, which had been damaged by British forces defending South Georgia. They called it ITB (Instalacion de Tiro Berreta), “Berreta” roughly meaning “improvised”. The resulting system was bulky and heavy, weighting more than 15 tons. However, the Argentine forces placed it on two trailers, which they hid during the day in Port Stanley, deploying them every night further down a road, waiting for a Royal Navy ship to cross the missile’s arc of fire. The goal was to prevent British intelligence from learning about its presence, or at least exact location.  The technical means at the task force’s disposal were not very advanced, lacking an airborne or satellite capability, but the Argentines suspected that the local population may somehow alert the British forces.

Although the Royal Navy became aware of the presence of a land-based Exocet, it never learned its exact spot until HMS Glamorgan was struck, in the early hours of 12 June. However, even before that successful launch (after two failed attempts against another ship), the mere suspicion that an anti-ship missile was somewhere had resulted in some significant restrictions in British naval operations close to shore.

In the case of the Falklands, the Argentines’ main motivation in hiding their anti-ship missile launcher in the middle of a town during daytime was to prevent it from being spotted. They did not fire it from an urban area, though. Therefore, should the British have somehow learned its location, they may have tried to destroy it without a significant risk of civilian casualties, simply by waiting until it was deployed at night.

As noted earlier, some significant voices are urging Taipei not to try to compete head on with Beijing in terms of naval power, but rather to resort to asymmetric warfare. Should Taipei choose this course of action, and no realistic alternative comes to mind, a difficult decision would loom in the horizon. That is, whether to hide and operate anti-ship missiles from residential areas. This would make it more difficult for Chinese intelligence to detect them, but at the same time it would expose those same areas and their population to collateral damage.

The decision would reflect a larger one, namely whether to wage a limited or a people’s war. The former would mean trying to contain the impact of the conflict on the civilian population, and surrendering should it become clear that no victory in the battlefield was possible. In practical terms that would mean suing for peace should the Chinese succeed in imposing a maritime blockade or landing in force and occupying some of the major cities. On the other hand, a people’s war would mean no clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants, making it more difficult for Beijing to prevail but at the same time subjecting Taiwanese society to potentially higher levels of destruction. Since the Island is a democracy, it is clear that the government by itself cannot take such a decision, and that it should ideally be discussed in advance. An additional reason is that there is no point in pretending to wage a people’s war if the population is not actually ready to do so.

The decision may also have an impact on Taipei’s ability to garner the support of Washington and her allies, most importantly Tokyo. The additional destruction wrought about by a people’s war, in particular in today’s Internet era, would mean increased pressure on the maritime democracies not to look the other way. Also, it would put to rest any Chinese plans for a largely bloodless coup de main, that is a combination of a maritime blockade, limited airstrikes, and an agreement with a new, collaborationist government.

We can thus see how one of the lessons of the Falklands War, the potential of shore-based anti-ship missiles, is not a simple technical matter to be applied by the Taiwanese military, but rather demands a political decision on the kind of war to be waged to defend liberty in the Island.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan). He tweets @Alex__Calvo 

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