Why the Pentagon Should Focus on Taiwan
China is now the official “pacing threat” for the U.S. armed forces. Simply put, the Pentagon considers the People’s Liberation Army its most serious competition. This is a major and vital shift. But competing with China is a tremendously broad concept that could take any number of forms, and the reality is that China is too powerful to permit the U.S. defense establishment to fritter away money. The Defense Department needs to focus. Most of all, it needs to be capable of achieving U.S. objectives against China in a war.
But in which war? Scenarios lie at the core of military force planning. These are the plausible and highly consequential future fights the military uses to plan its future force structure, posture, and training. During the interwar period, the Navy planned for scenarios such as the defense and recapture of the Philippines. During the Cold War, the Pentagon planned for the defense of NATO against a Warsaw Pact invasion. Scenarios help to concentrate the sprawling defense establishment on specific strategic and operational problems. They provide a concrete framework to examine how different military force structures and operational approaches would perform in meeting objectives within a set of constraints, and how long such efforts would take and at what cost.
Thus, planning for one set of scenarios over another can have drastic implications for what the U.S. military will look like and how it will operate. A force shaped for operations in the Middle East, to give an example, would be far different from one optimized for the Western Pacific.
While the Pentagon does not disclose its formal scenarios, outsiders can glean sophisticated and credible defense analysis from, for instance, the RAND Corporation. In the case of China, these include plausible conflicts over Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, or Vietnam.
Of these, a conflict over Taiwan is the key scenario. The defense establishment should focus on preparing the military for a Taiwan scenario above all others. The United States needs to be able to effectively defend Taiwan because it is important to frustrating China’s strategy to achieve hegemony in Asia. Adapting the U.S. military to be able to defend Taiwan will be hard, but it is necessary, and will also allow the United States to defend other allies in Asia against China.
The Trump administration has made this point increasingly clear, but it is a bipartisan one. Taiwan is militarily significant, located as it is in the center of the vital first island chain, and is critical to American credibility in Asia. Other states regard it as the canary in the coal mine — a strong indicator of how far the United States would go to defend them against China. If China were able to suborn Taiwan, the U.S. and allied defense position would be substantially compromised, and U.S. credibility seriously diminished. For these reasons, subjugating Taiwan is very likely China’s best next step toward its strategic goal of regional hegemony.
China presumably would prefer to induce Taiwan to unify peacefully, but the reality is that that is unlikely, given deepening opposition to unification with China on Taiwan. Accordingly, China is likely to need to turn to force to “resolve” the issue. Moreover, it has the resolve and increasingly the power to try to do so: Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province and, under Xi Jinping, has strengthened its commitment to unify the island with the mainland. Moreover, China has built a military specifically to force unification. Beijing’s most attractive military strategy to cleanly and resolutely settle the issue would likely be an invasion, and blunting such an assault should be the United States’ top priority for defending Taiwan. At the same time, the Pentagon also needs to be prepared to relieve Taiwan if China chooses a more indirect strategy, such as a blockade and/or bombardment of the island to try to coerce it into surrender.
Taiwan is the toughest for the United States to defend among its allies and close partners. But focusing on the hardest strategically significant scenario is crucial, not least because China is likely to go for the weak point in America’s defense perimeter. Defending Taiwan calls for the United States to deny China freedom of action less than 100 miles off the Chinese coast, where China’s advantages in numbers and distance are most pronounced. Importantly, defending Taiwan does not require that the U.S. military dominate within the first island chain, but rather deny that dominance to China. This is a lower but achievable standard.
If the United States cannot field military forces capable of defending Taiwan, it is unlikely to be able to credibly deter China from taking it. Focusing on easier scenarios farther from China’s shores will divert attention, resources, and preparation, making Taiwan more vulnerable. This is especially important because, if China is able to suborn Taiwan, it will almost certainly lift its gaze farther afield to countries like the Philippines from an even stronger position. Those previously easy scenarios like the defense of the Philippines will be much harder, since China will then be able to project power from Taiwan rather than having to worry about it.
Focusing on a conflict scenario with China over Taiwan is particularly important because of the potent tendencies in the defense establishment to avoid concentrating on the toughest, most strategically significant contingencies. Bureaucratic imperatives often prize the preservation of existing programs and practices, while a serious examination of the most challenging future warfare scenarios often points to the need for disruptive change and the goring of sacred cows. Especially if defense budgets remain flat, as seems likely at present, such change may require eliminating previously cherished parts of the force. Think of the resistance to give up horse cavalry in the U.S. Army before World War II or the battleship admirals’ hostility to the advent of the aircraft carrier. Organizations with entrenched interests in given force structure will happily use less demanding scenarios to justify the existing force. Such scenarios are not just thought experiments, in other words, but can result in dangerous inertia.
Arguments that Taiwan is “too hard defend” almost invariably assume traditional forms of American power projection rooted in the Cold War-era force structure and operational concepts. As wargaming from RAND and others has shown, the defense of Taiwan that exploits different weapons platforms and systems, emerging technologies, and new ways of operating can be successful. Defending Taiwan would be very challenging, but it is a solvable problem if undertaken with the requisite focus and willingness to change. Such willingness would stem from a basic recognition of the American military’s fundamental purpose: The armed forces should be adapted to the political requirements of the nation, not the political requirements of the nation to legacy force structure and operating patterns.
Fortunately, while such adaptation takes political courage and grit, it can happen. The U.S. Navy embraced submarines and carriers ahead of World War II. Even better, current Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s Force Design 2030 and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown’s Accelerate Change or Lose show that the willingness to implement needed change is alive and well.
Finally, developing a military able to defend Taiwan will also be useful for other, less stressing scenarios in the Western Pacific. Taiwan is the frontline. If the United States develops a force able to defend it, then that force is likely to be able to defend other allies and partners like Japan, Australia, and the Philippines against China. Such a force would able to destroy in a timely fashion a large concentration of China’s maritime forces in the Western Pacific. It would exploit capabilities that can reach Chinese forces within their defense perimeter, such as penetrating strike, long-range fires, and undersea capabilities, along with essential enablers that could withstand Chinese attacks, including agile logistics and a resilient communication and intelligence network. It would also be one at the forefront of applying new sources of military power — data, algorithms, and computing power.
The Defense Department is rightly focused on China in Asia and on restoring the American military’s edge vis-à-vis Beijing. The best way the Pentagon can serve these goals is to prioritize defending Taiwan over all other contingencies in its planning. Doing so will be challenging and likely involve significant change, but it can — and should — be done to deter and, if necessary, prevail in a war with the most challenging rival the United States has faced in a generation.
Elbridge Colby is a principal at The Marathon Initiative. Jim Mitre is the chief strategy officer at Govini. They previously served as lead official for and executive director for the development of the Department of Defense’s 2018 National Defense Strategy.