PWH Undergraduate Essay Prize Asymmetric Weapons: The Most Bang for Your Buck (Literally)
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May 13, 2022
Noah Sylvia | Perry World House Undergraduate Essay Prize 2022
As of early April 2022, Ukraine continues to resist the Russian invasion, defying expectations that the country would collapse under the eastern juggernaut. Although Ukraine has used expensive conventional systems, such as tanks and aircraft, to great effect, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons remain Ukraine’s most important assets in countering Russia’s armor and air systems. This elucidates a reality about modern warfare: asymmetric weapons are the most efficient type of weapon for a smaller nation to deter or defend against a larger aggressor, especially given a larger state’s relative advantage in resources.
Broadly, symmetric weapons are similar to the enemy’s weapons and attempt to outmatch and overpower them, while asymmetric weapons engage the enemy on terms that maximize one’s own advantages while minimizing the enemy’s relative size or technological advantages. For instance, when fighting an enemy tank, a symmetric weapon system would be a tank, while an asymmetric system could be an anti-tank weapon, such as the Javelin. For the purpose of destroying an enemy tank, both the tank and a Javelin produce similar results, yet the latter is less expensive and more portable than the former. The relative inexpensiveness of asymmetric weapons helps negate the resource advantage of the larger state, highlighting the main benefit of asymmetric weapons; asymmetric weapons theoretically allow actors many of the same capabilities of symmetric weapons at a fraction of the cost. A modern main battle tank costs anywhere from fifty to one hundred times more than a single Javelin round, yet both can eliminate an armored adversary. Likewise, sea-mines or even a midget submarine is more than capable of eliminating an enemy ship and cost far less than producing a destroyer or submarine. Major powers, such as the United States, China, and Russia, can easily afford to procure large numbers of symmetric weapons, but smaller states, such as Taiwan, Poland, the Baltics, or the Caucasus, are much more budget-constrained and would be unable to field the same number of tanks as Russia or aircraft as the U.S. For this reason, smaller states focused on defending against a larger aggressor are best served by investing in asymmetric weapons.
Arguably, the most relevant case study for analyzing the costs and benefits of procuring asymmetric weapons is the current debate regarding Taiwan’s defense strategy against a Chinese invasion. Taiwan’s main military challenge is a scenario in which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) attempts to “reunify” the island through force, i.e., an all-out military invasion. Taiwan must be capable of deterring such an invasion, for the PRC will not invade if “the costs of the conflict outweigh the benefits,” according to a U.S. report. Yet, if unable to deter an invasion, Taiwan must defend itself from the PRC while surviving long enough for a potential U.S. intervention.
Although numerically inferior, the Taiwanese military enjoyed a significant technological superiority over the mainland since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, which, combined with a geographic advantage, proved enough to render a successful invasion infeasible. However, the rapid military modernization by the Chinese military “has eroded or negated many of these advantages.” For this reason, Taiwan is attempting to mitigate this change by adopting some asymmetric capabilities.
This case study will focus on three key domains of attack in a potential invasion: missile and rocket, air, and naval. The PRC possesses a numerical and technological advantage over Taiwan regarding missile and rocket attacks, which could saturate key targets to preempt the invasion, although Taiwan’s missiles still present a threat to mainland targets. Taiwan finds itself outmatched and outgunned in both the air and naval domains, for its navy and air force are equipped with weapons for fighting an inferior opponent, not a rapidly developing military juggernaut.
In the air domain, Taiwan continues to procure the highly capable, but highly expensive, F-16 fighter from the United States, though not in numbers able to match the PRC Air Force, especially given the expected losses from initial PRC missile strikes on Taiwanese air bases. It is estimated that Taiwan will spend tens of billions of dollars simply maintaining its own fleet, and many billions more to purchase and upgrade F-16s. The continued attempts to procure fixed-wing aircraft despite numeric inferiority and lack of survivability in an initial strike diminishes the funds available to purchase the types of weapons able to actually match the PRC’s air capability: anti-aircraft weapons. Surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries intended to deny the PRC significant air capability over the island are more mobile and resilient than aircraft, not to mention less expensive. Taiwan can maximize this anti-air capability by combining its few long-range systems, namely the U.S.-exported Patriot Missile System and the domestically-produced Tien-Kung III, with a variety of lower-cost medium- and short- range SAMs. This “layered defense” allows for greater survivability of anti-air capability from missile strikes and provides the most impervious defense to strike capacity. Additionally, a 2016 RAND report posited the concept of “air defense platoons,” which combines ground-launched air-to-air missiles with lower-cost Sentinel radars to create a flexible, relatively inexpensive addition to Taiwan’s air defense. Other platforms for air defense include drones, either as loitering munitions or unmanned combat aerial vehicles, which can be used for air-to-air or air-to-surface strikes. Unmanned vehicles are less expensive than their manned counterparts and are smaller, so they can be stored and transported more easily to avoid Chinese missile strikes.
In the naval realm, Taiwan must repel a massive fleet of Chinese transport- and war-ships crossing the strait in the event of an invasion. Most notably, the Taiwanese navy is seeking to bolster its capabilities through a $16 billion investment to build eight diesel submarines, and has its eyes on developing new frigates. Yet, medium to large surface, and even undersea, ships are incredibly vulnerable to the PRC’s anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons (not to mention a greater number of more advanced surface ships and submarines possessed), meaning few, if any, of these expensive procurements would survive more than a few days. Additionally, these platforms take many years to produce, test, and deploy, leaving the island with fewer defenses in the interim. Instead of relying on a few expensive, and ultimately ineffective, systems, Taiwan should focus on acquiring weapons that diminish the PRC’s advantage in large naval arms. For instance, since Taiwan would play the role of defender, creating a series of minefields within the strait would, at the very least, slow the advance of the Chinese fleet, with the benefit that high-speed minelayers are a fraction of a modern submarine’s cost. Additionally, small missile patrol boats, undersea and/or surface drones, anti-ship missiles, and even mini-submarines constitute more potent threats to Chinese naval assets, as they are smaller and harder to target, more survivable than large frigates or submarines, and, since they are relatively inexpensive, Taiwan can amass hundreds. This “large number of small things” may truly be the most effective method of waging war against the PRC.
While focusing on asymmetric weapon investment seems the obvious choice, the case for symmetric weapons remains potent. Such prestigious weapons boost the Taiwanese population’s and military’s morale, as tanks and F-16s look more formidable than their asymmetric counterparts and are capable of a greater variety of less direct military actions. Additionally, the sale of large U.S. systems is seen to bolster the U.S. commitment to Taiwanese defense against the PRC. Yet, the benefits of asymmetric weapons exceed their alternative; they are less expensive, more resilient, and more effective. Additionally, asymmetric weapons could even have a greater deterrence value than symmetric systems, for if Taiwan properly signaled its abilities, the PRC would realize the increased threat and be less likely to risk an invasion. Of course, it must be admitted that procuring asymmetric weapons does not immediately constitute victory in an invasion, for political will and strategy are equally important, but they do provide the advantage to the defender.
The implications of the Taiwan case study are threefold. First, smaller nations threatened by potential invasion from larger aggressors must reorient their weapon acquisitions away from a few large systems towards smaller, less expensive weapons that diminish the aggressor’s resource advantage. The parity that these weapons introduce to the battlefield allow smaller states to defend themselves against larger, more advanced opponents. Second, states with asymmetric weapons should signal the strength and efficacy of their weapons to create the strongest deterrent effect against potential aggressors while bolstering their own domestic morale. Signaling to domestic audiences and potential foreign aggressors is key to effective deterrence and also lends credibility to the threat of deterrence-through-denial or deterrence-through-punishment. Finally, all states should continue their development of asymmetric systems, such as drone swarms, loitering munitions, and even cyber capabilities, as the advantage they lend to smaller states reduces the threat of sovereignty violations in the international system. Preserving the rules-based international order should be a goal of all states, so the ability to lend credible deterrence to all states, regardless of size, should be given the utmost priority.
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