Taiwan is looking for a way to defend its leaders from 'decapitation' as China's military veers closer to the island
- Tension is rising between the US and China over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as a breakaway province.
- China's military has increased its activity around Taiwan since Nancy Pelosi visited there in August.
A "decapitation" attack on political and military leaders at the outset of a conflict is a nightmare for national governments.
During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union feared a nuclear first strike would be preceded by a decapitation strike that would wipe out their leaders and paralyze the networks needed to launch a retaliatory strike.
Today, ultra-fast hypersonic missiles and precision-guidance systems offer the possibility of neutralizing an opponent's command structure before a war begins.
For big nations with strategic depth, like the US and Russia, this might be an acceptable risk. But for Taiwan — which is only about the size of Maryland — the possibility of a Chinese decapitation strike must be taken seriously.
What now concerns observers is more aggressive Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait, including numerous air and naval incursions into Taiwan's air-defense identification zone, which surrounds the island but is not territorial airspace, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in August.
For years, China and Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a breakaway province, have tacitly agreed not to venture too far into the 112-mile strait to avoid an armed clash and the consequent risk of escalation. But Chinese forces are now routinely going beyond the midway point in the strait that once was an unofficial demarcation line.
The problem with these incursions — or with military exercises like those Russia did to prior to invading Ukraine — is that it positions enemy forces close to a nation's territory and in a favorable position to launch a surprise attack.
The thought has certainly occurred to the Chinese military, which seems to have created a replica of Taiwan's Presidential Office Building on a training base.
Given Beijing's vow to "reunify" Taiwan with the mainland — and China's massive military buildup, including investment in long-range precision-strike capabilities — a mockup of Taiwan's own White House is not surprising to see.
Naturally, Taiwan has plans to protect its leaders. Taiwan's military is prepared to defend its capital, Taipei, against a decapitation strike, the nation's defense minister assured the legislature in 2017.
"The 66th Marine Brigade, based in New Taipei City's Linkou Township, was established in 2005 and is responsible for defending Taipei against decapitation strikes," according to a 2017 Taipei Times article.
Recently, the 66th Brigade has been training with US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles — which have devastated Russian tanks in Ukraine — to practice repelling a Chinese invasion.
When asked if Taiwan could launch its own decapitation strikes against China's leadership, a senior Taiwanese general replied merely, "We have our own special forces."
Taiwan's 2023 defense budget requests $4.5 million to purchase five mobile command vehicles, which would help keep the island's chain of command intact in a crisis, the military police command said, according to the Taiwan Times.
The problem with preparing for decapitation is that there is a thin line between prudence and paranoia.
During the Cold War, for example, a Soviet decapitation strike could have damaged the US civilian and military command structure but wouldn't have prevented a retaliatory strike — especially from US ballistic-missile submarines operating stealthily and autonomously at sea — with enough firepower to send Russia back into the Middle Ages.
Absent a miscalculation, the Kremlin was unlikely to authorize a first strike.
Taiwan is in a tougher position. It has no nuclear weapons to deter China. Given Taiwan's proximity to the mainland, it's a safe assumption that Beijing is keeping careful track of the movements of Taiwanese leaders. Massive numbers of Chinese ballistic missiles and aircraft are only a few minutes of flight time away from key Taiwanese targets.
Yet even a successful decapitation strike wouldn't necessarily guarantee a successful Chinese invasion.
Taiwan plans to build more than 1,000 anti-ship missiles that could potentially devastate a Chinese amphibious assault, and it wants the US-made HIMARS rockets that have devastated Russian forces in Ukraine.
While US officials worry that Taiwan's plans to expand and upgrade its F-16 fighter fleet is the wrong choice of weapon against a vastly superior foe, Taiwan will have a small but potent air force and navy.
Taking out the enemy's leaders is a viable strategy in war, but it is no guarantee of victory.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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