Contention over South China Sea

What is Taiwan’s ‘Porcupine Strategy’ to protect itself if China attacks?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Cold start, Porcupine doctrine

Mains level: Read the attached story

As the long-range, live-fire drills began with China’s Eastern Theatre Command firing several ballistic missiles, Taiwan said that it was “preparing for war without seeking war”. What is Taiwan’s strategy to fight back in case China attempts to occupy it by force?

What is a Military Doctrine?

  • Military doctrine is the expression of how military forces contribute to campaigns, major operations, battles, and engagements.
  • It is a guide to action, rather than being hard and fast rules. Doctrine provides a common frame of reference across the military.

Why do need such a doctrine?

  • It helps standardize operations, facilitating readiness by establishing common ways of accomplishing military tasks.
  • It decides what you buy, produce, or prioritize, all of which flows from deciding your best fighting foot.

What is the ‘Porcupine Doctrine’?

  • This doctrine was proposed in 2008 by US Naval War College research professor William S Murray.
  • It is a strategy of asymmetric warfare focused on fortifying a weak state’s defences to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses rather than taking on its strengths.
  • It is about building defences that would ensure that Taiwan could be attacked and damaged but not defeated, at least without unacceptably high costs and risks.

How does this work?

It identifies three defensive layers in the porcupine approach.

  1. The outer layer is about intelligence and reconnaissance to ensure defence forces are fully prepared. Behind this come plans for guerrilla warfare at sea with aerial support from sophisticated aircraft provided by the US.
  2. The innermost layer relies on the geography and demography of the island.
  3. While the outer surveillance layer would work to prevent a surprise attack, the second one would make it difficult for China to land its troops on the island in the face of a guerrilla campaign at sea using “agile, missile-armed small ships, supported by helicopters and missile launchers”.

Another tactic: Asymmetric systems of defence

  • Asymmetric systems are ones that are small, numerous, smart, stealthy, mobile and hard to be detected and countered and associated with innovative tactics and employments.
  • These asymmetric capabilities will be aimed at striking the operational centre of gravity and key nodes of the enemy.
  • The geographic advantages of the Taiwan Strait shall be tapped to shape favourable conditions to disrupt the operational tempo of the enemy, frustrate its attempts and moves of invasion.
  • Taiwan underlined its shift to an asymmetric approach by adopting the Overall Defence Concept (ODC) in 2018.

Do you know?

Indian armed forces follow the Cold Start Doctrine that involves joint operations between India’s three services and integrated battle groups for offensive operations. A key component is the preparation of India’s forces to be able to quickly mobilize and take offensive actions without crossing the enemy’s nuclear-use threshold.

Need for such a strategy

  • China enjoys overwhelming military superiority over Taiwan.
  • Over the past decade, Beijing has developed far more accurate and precise weapon systems to target Taiwan.
  • China has been more vocal about its intention to “reunite” the island with the mainland, by force or coercion if needed.
  • The PLA has already achieved the capabilities needed to conduct an air and naval blockade, cyberattacks, and missile strikes against Taiwan.
  • PLA leaders now likely assess they have, or will soon have, the initial capability needed to conduct a high-risk invasion of Taiwan (following Russia’s path).

How easy will it be for China?

  • Missile strikes, cyberattacks, air and naval blockade aside, undertaking a full-scale invasion across the Taiwan Strait, with attendant risks of anti-ship and anti-air attacks, could present challenges for China.
  • The PLA is estimated to have air and naval resources to carry out an initial landing of 25,000 or more troops, which could increase if it deploys civilian ships to meet its military objectives.
  • However, it will have to first select and secure a suitable beachhead from among the handful that is available.
  • Also, with small and agile weapons systems, Taiwan can turn its coastline into a kill zone that would deny China a walkover.
  • Beijing would have to rely on cyberattacks, missile strikes on Taiwan’s air bases and runways, and a blockade to choke it into surrendering.


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