Snipers initially appear to offer little to a Taiwanese defense against potential Chinese invasion. Being an island nation, protecting Taiwan from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will principally be a contest of air and naval power, leaving ground defense as the last resort in a desperate situation. But, as the PLA’s advantages in size and might have widened, Taiwan’s defensive approach has had to move away from victory and towards deterrence, which may create a place for sniping as part of a larger strategy.

In 2017 the Taiwanese chief of armed forces introduced a new defense concept, commonly referred to as the “porcupine strategy,” that the US advocates and that focuses on inflicting the greatest cost possible on invading forces.1 Such a strategy focuses less on expensive conventional weaponry and more on a large quantity of concealable and agile components such as portable missiles and nimble sea and land vehicles. The idea is not to defeat China, but to make Taiwan too prickly and painful to hold; an environment that snipers would fit into nicely.

Snipers, epitomizing the values of both agility and concealability, would be well worth investing in for the Taiwanese Army. With increased numbers and training, they can make both the cities and mountains of Taiwan a deadly and demoralizing place for the Chinese. If supported and publicized sufficiently, a prestigious sniper program and robust network of porcupine-style defenses could even make the thought of occupation distasteful enough for the Chinese to forego invasion altogether.

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The desired impact of Taiwanese snipers will only be attainable if they can be applied properly, a lesson that is well illustrated in the US experiences in Vietnam.2 Snipers must be free to capitalize on their concealability and agility to be a useful tool as well as to find a place in a well-designed porcupine strategy. This requires a full recognition by leaders that the utility of snipers is not merely as long-range infantry, but as masters of their own fieldcraft with the potential for recon, elimination of important individuals, and the denial of enemy mobility.

Taiwanese troops pose for pictures after conducting drills in front of the media, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan January 15, 2020. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard

To be sure, things will have to go badly wrong for Taiwanese snipers to see any sort of significant use. But if the porcupine strategy is to be embraced fully, they should not be forgotten. They represent a relatively low-cost military component when it comes to money and manpower but require time to train effectively. The buzz surrounding snipers could even prove a helpful substitute for the strong popularity of equipment like new tanks and submarines that would have to be sacrificed to adopt the strategy completely. There is apparent interest in both marksmanship3 and sniping4 in Taiwan that could support such a pivot.

As Taiwan grapples with the threat of an increasingly confident and capable China, planning for the worst possible outcome may be the best way of dissuading it now and in the future. And should the unthinkable land invasion or occupation really occur, a capable contingent of snipers will quickly prove their value.

Stirling E.
Sniper Central Global Affairs Analyst

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