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Modernizing the Right Way: Taiwan's Overall Defense Concept

Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept is a plan that can turn the tides in the event of a Chinese invasion. But is it actually being implemented?

Taiwanese infantrymen during the annual Han Kuang exercises, July 2022.

In the Indo-Pacific region, perhaps the greatest risk of conflict is an invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This scenario has been thrown into the global spotlight following U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island nation on August 2. Her visit prompted several PRC military exercises around Taiwan in response. The risk of war forces foreign policy practitioners to consider how Taiwan would perform in a hypothetical invasion by the mainland. This article will discuss current Taiwanese defense plans, including the Operational Defense Concept (ODC), and how efforts to put the ODC into practice are going. Finally, it will examine implications for U.S.-China relations.

During his tenure as chief of staff of Taiwan’s military from 2017 to 2019, Admiral(ret.) Lee Hsi-min formulated and advocated a doctrine he called the Overall Defense Concept. It envisioned the use of smaller and cheaper dispersed weapons in order to repel a future Chinese invasion. Weapons that Adm. Lee specifically calls for include:

  1. Minelaying ships: Taiwan is currently producing Wan Xiang mines, and receiving MK-6 mines from the U.S. They are also developing new ones, including a self-propelled mine, and attempting to export air-deployable MK62 Quickstrike mines.

  2. Anti-air missile systems

  3. Anti-tank missile systems (e.g U.S Javelin missiles)

  4. Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)

  5. Land-based mobile short and medium-range precision munitions: Taiwan has Hsiung Feng 2 and 3 missiles, which can be fired from both warships and land-based launchers. The production of missiles of all types are being increased.

  6. ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities) and electronic warfare capabilities

Such systems have the benefit of being able to survive the rain of missiles that China will invariably send. In contrast, aircraft or conventional warships are difficult to hide or protect, and therefore can be easily targeted and destroyed. ODC systems are harder to find and are much cheaper, which allow for survivability in numbers. In summary, the ODC calls for a “large number of small things.”

Via Republic of China Air Force

Adm. Lee envisions a Taiwanese defense to a hypothetical Chinese invasion as unfolding in four phases. The first phase involves a Chinese bombardment of Taiwan with missiles and aircraft. In addition, China will surely try to sabotage infrastructure, communications, and leadership through infiltrations with special operations forces. It is imperative that Taiwanese forces and their weapon systems survive this through dispersion, camouflage and concealment, deception, and electronic warfare. The “small things” that Adm. Lee calls for will be well-suited for survival. However, fighter aircraft and warships, as well as their bases, are sitting ducks for Chinese strikes and will almost assuredly be knocked out before they can fight.

After the bombardment, the next phase is the littoral battle, when China attempts to send assault ships across the Taiwan Strait. Adm. Lee believes this second phase will be decisive. In addition to mines, which can delay Chinese ships, Taiwanese forces can use land-based anti-ship missiles to deal heavy losses to the invaders.

The third phase is when Chinese forces attempt to establish a beachhead. Historically, amphibious assaults have been one of the most difficult operations carried out by militaries, and Taiwan only has a handful of beaches suitable for amphibious or airborne operations. Therefore, Taiwan has the ability to concentrate forces and firepower on Chinese forces when they are still trying to get ashore.

Provided by the PRC Military News Agency

The last phase uses Taiwan’s reserve force to launch guerilla hit-and-run attacks on Chinese forces. Taiwan’s geography is perfect for such operations, where its forces can attack, then hide in cities or mountains. Currently, the plan is to use the reserve force alongside the regular army as an armored unit. However, Adm. Lee believes they are better suited working independently, as small and mobile guerrilla units. Using reservists as mobile hit-and-run forces would be the best use of them. Ukraine has made extensive use of guerrilla fighters, both those operating under the military and those operating on their own accord, attacking combat and logistical units as well as Russian civilian leadership. Using these guerilla tactics would have three benefits. First, these forces could defeat a Chinese invading force on their own, before outside powers have to come to their aid. These reservists, operating in conjunction with the regular army, could lead to the latter winning major battlefield victories against invading Chinese forces and cause them to retreat from the island altogether. Second, in the event of a takeover of Taiwan by China, the reservist army could continue fighting even after the regular army has ceased to be an effective force. Although such operations are easier said than done, hit-and-run attacks against Chinese forces could prove a thorn in the side of the occupiers. These attacks would surely cause Taiwanese civilians to join the fight in their own way, as was shown in Ukraine, and by tying down both forces in hunting down these groups, make it easier for the U.S. to come to Taiwan’s aid and liberate the island. Taiwanese citizens, on their own accord, have begun to prepare to defend themselves, and underground guerrilla operations have a track record of being a force multiplier for foreign liberators. Finally, by maintaining the fight even after the regular army has been defeated, it's more likely that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid. By maintaining an image of a people who refuse to give in to China, American public support will force the U.S. to do something.

Adm. Lee does recognize the need for such conventional capabilities to combat gray zone incursions, but he argues that the majority of the defense budget should go to asymmetric systems vital to Taiwan’s defense against a Chinese invasion. Some, like anti-ship missiles mounted on ships and on land, may be critical for both low-intensity and high-intensity confrontations with the mainland. However, Taiwan must balance its two missions: confronting incursions over its airspace and defeating a full-scale invasion of the island. These two missions require different weapon systems, forcing Taiwan to prioritize one. Given that an invasion of Taiwan is a more existential risk, Adm. Lee's ODC prioritizes asymmetric capabilities. However, the Taiwanese defense establishment disagrees, instead putting the budget towards capabilities to counter gray zone incursions.

By failing to invest enough in asymmetric weapons systems — systems that can impose heavy casualties on a hypothetical invasion force — Chinese war planners may perceive very low costs of conflict. They may believe that Chinese forces can quickly incapacitate Taiwan before American forces can arrive to defend. The result is that China is undeterred and far more likely to choose to invade in the near future . Not only does Taiwan stand a lower chance of surviving a conflict, but by tipping the scales in China’s favor through poor policy, it may even encourage one. Under the ODC, a Taiwanese army with asymmetric capabilities can make an invasion too expensive and risky for the Chinese. But in the current situation, China may contemplate a full-scale invasion as a real possibility

How has the ODC affected Chinese thinking? From the military point of view, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has invested heavily in urban combat capabilities in preparation for an invasion of Taiwan. The PLA has planned for grueling urban combat by investing in UAVs and other unmanned autonomous systems. These capabilities are designed to surveil the battlefield for enemy forces, and direct fire from aircraft or artillery against Taiwanese positions. At the Zhurihe Urban Combat Training Ground, the PLA has built areas that look suspiciously similar to places in Taiwan, including highway cloverleaf interchanges, which resemble two interchanges between Taichung Airport and the Taiwanese Air Force’s Ching Chuan Kang Air Base, a mockup of a Taiwanese air base, as well as replicas of the Presidential Office Building and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The latter was showcased in propaganda from a 2015 exercise, where infantry from the Beijing Military Region practiced a “decapitation” operation where an enemy convoy was ambushed and killed inside the Taiwanese Presidential Office Building.

2015 satellite images of the Zurihe Urban Combat Training Ground, containing major Taiwanese military objectives, and, for some reason, the Eiffel Tower. (Image by Victor Robert Lee and Airbus Defense & Space)

2014 promotional image of the 12th Group Army training at Zhurihe.

The PLA has also grown the number of ships in the PLA Navy(PLAN) significantly over the past decade. The U.S. Department of Defense states that “the PLAN is the largest navy in the world,” with around 440 ships of various types, from aircraft carriers, submarines, amphibious assault ships, and small missile boats. The PLAN also is expected to grow to 505 ships by 2025 and 545 by 2030. In addition, the PLAN can call upon China’s massive civilian ship fleet, which it can use to ferry troops across the Taiwan Strait or as decoys for real troop carriers or warships. Even with large numbers of coastal anti-ship missile batteries, Taiwan will have trouble taking out every single one of China’s ships bound for the island.

Looking at developments in the PLA, it is clear that China has not been deterred through Taiwan’s current actions. In addition, the aggressive moves in response to Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan show China’s confidence and willingness to threaten Taiwan, and the failure of the latter’s ability to deter such actions.

For the U.S., the failure of Taiwan to adequately pursue the recommendations laid out in the ODC is especially problematic. A weaker Taiwan that has trouble defending itself puts the U.S in a much more difficult situation when it inevitably has to come to the island’s aid. Even if it inevitably falls, the guerrilla reservist army that Adm. Lee advocates for can make occupying Taiwan significantly harder for the Chinese. A Taiwan that fails to deter China will force the U.S. to make the choice of whether or not to defend the island, a situation that ideally should not occur.

What are some options for the U.S. to rectify Taiwan’s current failure to follow the ODC? Adm. James O. Ellis and James Timbie argue that in order to encourage such policies, the U.S. should cooperate more on procurements for the Taiwanese military. They argue that the U.S. should encourage them to purchase asymmetric weapon systems, making its support clear for the ODC. Additionally, they support the U.S. providing Taiwan training, especially in electronic warfare. Michael Hunzeker, associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies at George Mason University, also argues that the U.S. should not only double down on its support for Taiwan, but also that its operational plans should complement Taiwan’s. By guaranteeing that U.S. forces will come to Taiwan’s aid in an invasion scenario by China, through it being written into U.S. planning, Taiwan will be more willing to adopt a denial-oriented asymmetric policy. Adm. Lee Hsi-min himself believes that bilateral security cooperation, where American and Taiwanese senior defense officials work together on policy, is the linchpin of deterrence strategy.

Taiwan is in a difficult geopolitical situation. Its neighbor, China, is significantly larger, stronger, and disputes Taiwan’s territory and sovereignty. China also has a much larger defense budget. spending $154 billion in 2018 compared to Taiwan’s $10 billion. But these disadvantages can be offset by Adm. Lee’s ODC, which seeks to make Taiwan’s army survivable against a barrage of Chinese missiles and deter them through the possibility of a long, drawn out war for the island. However, this plan has not been fully adopted by Taiwanese defense policymakers. To steer Taiwan back on track, experts argue that the U.S. has a vital role to play in not only selling arms to the country, but also adding its voice to the policy debate.

In a hypothetical invasion, as this essay lays out, the capabilities that would be most effective in helping deter a Chinese invasion have not been aggressively pursued by Taiwan’s military. Through the ODC, Taiwan’s forces can deter China by imposing heavy costs on an invasion force. However, repealing a full-scale invasion is not the only mission that its forces are tasked with. Instead, they must deal with gray-zone incursions, daily flyovers into Taiwanese airspace by Chinese aircraft, and violations of its territorial waters by PLA vessels. In these day-to-day confrontations with the mainland, the conventional weapons systems, such as warships and fighter aircraft, are much more useful. Hence, Taiwan must seriously find a way to balance their dual missions, or it will face terrible — potentially existential — consequences for Taiwan’s future and the fate of U.S.-China relations.

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