Taiwan’s Defense Plans Are Going Off the Rails
As the United States talks more and more of defending Taiwan from an attack from the mainland, Taiwan’s military seems to be taking its defense preparations less and less seriously. Policymakers and voters alike increasingly see Taiwan as a friend worth protecting. After all, despite their many differences, the Trump and Biden administrations both signaled support for Taipei while working to bolster its defenses. Just this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Beijing that the United States would “take action” in response to an attack on Taiwan. Taiwan likewise enjoys deep bipartisan support in an otherwise divided Congress. Comedians are even starting to get in on the act. Most striking of all, public opinion polling now suggests that the average American is willing to fight for the island.
Yet before Washington contemplates sending American troops into harm’s way to help Taiwan, it should pause to consider whether Taiwan’s military is doing enough to help itself. While the Tsai administration has proposed a major increase in defense spending, it all comes down to how this money will be spent. Seen through that lens, Taiwan can and should do more — a lot more — especially when it comes to preparing to defend the island from attack. Responsibility for why it is not falls squarely on the shoulders of Taiwan’s military bureaucracy. Most notably, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has abandoned asymmetric defense reform in all but name and has not been reined in by President Tsai Ing-wen. Instead, the ministry is now planning to deter an invasion by threatening to retaliate with missile strikes against the Chinese homeland and by pitting Taiwanese units in direct combat against the vastly superior People’s Liberation Army. Moreover, the ministry has the audacity to tell American audiences that this dramatic shift is fully congruent with an asymmetric posture.
The ministry’s preferred approach to defending Taiwan is unrealistic and destabilizing. Its implementation will both weaken cross-strait deterrence and undermine the Tsai administration’s many other national defense achievements, including major increases in defense spending, reserve reform, and raising threat awareness among voters. Unfortunately, because the Tsai administration has thus far been willing or unable to challenge the Ministry of National Defense, Washington ought to step in to get Taiwanese defense reform back on track.
Old Habits Die Hard
How did Taiwan get to this point, especially when it looked like hope was on the horizon and the Ministry of National Defense was starting to take asymmetric defense reform seriously? The explanation revolves around habit and institutional inertia. For generations, Taiwan’s military planned to counter an invasion force by meeting and defeating it head-on. The idea was that the island’s small fleet of technologically superior, American-made jets, ships, and tanks could offset the People’s Liberation Army’s numerical advantages. Unfortunately, this approach stopped making sense once China’s military modernization efforts gave it the edge quantitively and qualitatively.
As the cross-strait military balance started to shift in China’s favor, American analysts and reform-minded Taiwanese officers began calling on the Ministry of National Defense to stop buying outdated jets, ships, submarines, and tanks so it could invest in an asymmetric posture instead. Asymmetry meant acquiring large numbers of small and cheap capabilities — weapons like coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range mobile air defenses, naval mines, and drones — and using them to wage a prolonged denial campaign in the air, at sea, and on the ground.
For a moment, it seemed like the message was getting through. In 2017, then chief of the General Staff, Adm. Lee Hsi-Min, introduced an innovative and decidedly asymmetric new warfighting framework, the Overall Defense Concept. In this concept, Taiwan’s armed forces finally had a logical blueprint to help them to survive a first strike and wage a prolonged, decentralized, and multilayered campaign of attrition.
Unfortunately, the Overall Defense Concept was more popular with American analysts and officials than it was with currently serving Taiwanese generals and admirals. Driven by personal animosity and the fact that true asymmetry undercuts the rationale for pursuing high-profile, high-prestige, and high-cost weapons, these military leaders and civilian enablers purged the Overall Defense Concept as soon as Lee retired. There are rumors that the ministry has even banned senior officers from using the term and that message has trickled down into the junior ranks. Notably, the term does not appear in either the 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review or the recently released National Defense Review.
Having thrown the Overall Defense Concept in the dustbin, the Ministry of National Defense reverted to form. Except this time, defense officials no longer bothered to pretend that Taiwan could afford enough outdated jets, ships, submarines, and tanks to deter — let alone defeat — a determined attacker. Instead, vague references to “grey-zone competition” now justify their pursuit, dressing up the old way of doing things in fashionable jargon. Meanwhile, the ministry is trying to acquire a larger inventory of longer-range missiles in the hopes that it can use the threat of punishment by missile bombardment to convince the Chinese Communist Party not to invade.
Senior defense officials are fully aware that the United States still expects Taiwan to pursue asymmetric defense capabilities. But rather than acquiesce to these painful and costly demands, the ministry has instead coopted and repurposed asymmetry’s lexicon so as to rationalize their decidedly symmetric plans.
Time Is Taiwan’s Most Precious Resource
No matter how hard the Ministry of National Defense might try to convince American audiences otherwise, there is no hiding the fact that it is once again trying to replace its existing inventory of antiquated and hard-to-maintain legacy weapons with newer, shinier versions of the same. Take, for example, the 2019 announced sale of 66 F-16 aircraft for an estimated $8 billion. Or the ministry’s ongoing efforts to build eight indigenously developed submarines for an approximately $16 billion (an amount roughly equivalent to the Tsai administration’s entire 2022 defense budget). And, of course, this fall’s announcement that Taiwan wants to spend nearly $1 billion on 40 M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzers. Meanwhile, genuinely asymmetric capabilities, like the proposed fleet of 45-ton fast-attack missile boats, remain unfunded.
It should go without saying that manned fighter jets, main battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers, and diesel submarines are ill-suited to wage an asymmetric defense of the island. Yet even if one pretends that these legacy platforms have a realistic role to play in an invasion scenario, the question of time remains. Diesel submarines, F-16 jets, M1A2 tanks, and Paladins take a long time to build and field. Years will pass before Taiwan will get its hands on the weapons that are already in the pipeline for production or purchase.
Take, for example, Taiwan’s decision to spend $5 billion upgrading its fleet of 141 F-16A/B jets. Although it inked a deal in 2011, the upgrades did not start until 2016. Five years later, the first combat wing of upgraded F-16s will stand up this month. The air force even spent another $140 million this year to try to speed the process up so it can hopefully finish the last upgrades in another two years — more than a decade after starting the process. Similarly, in a best-case scenario, Taiwan’s navy will not receive its first submarine until 2024 — but there are indications that the program is about to be significantly delayed. The last of the M1A2 main battle tanks purchased in 2019 will not reach the island until 2027.
Nor will these shiny new weapons be ready to go into action the moment they arrive. Units will still need to learn how to use and fix them. The services will still have to develop the maintenance capacity to keep them operational. And the Ministry of National Defense will need to stockpile logistics to ensure that these capabilities will have enough ammunition, fuel, and parts to stay in the fight (at least those that survive a first strike). These critical but oft-ignored changes can take years to implement under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of purchases and platforms already coming down the pipeline, the risk that the Ministry of National Defense might choke on the glut of new toys is real.
Enter the 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review and National Defense Review
By passing fighter jets, amphibious ships, submarines, and armored vehicles off as “asymmetric,” the Ministry of National Defense is attempting to convince Washington (and its own nominal masters in Taipei) that it has a realistic plan for using these legacy platforms to blunt an all-out attack. To support their case, Taiwan’s senior leaders have published the 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review and National Defense Review.
On the surface, these documents might seem like they share the ejected defense concept’s focus on destroying the enemy in the littoral area and annihilating it on the beachhead. But any such parallels are misleading at best, because they tack on two additional goals that are incompatible with a genuine asymmetric posture: namely, resisting the enemy on the opposite shore, and attacking it at sea.
In essence, these documents reveal that the Ministry of National Defense hopes to extend the battlefield deep inside of China in a way that justifies the pursuit of expensive long-range strike, air superiority, and sea control capabilities. Take the Quadrennial Defense Review’s top priority, long-range precision strike. Ostensibly, the plan is to deter a Chinese attack by threatening to retaliate with long-range strikes on the Chinese homeland. There are myriad problems with this concept. History suggests that these sorts of conventional “punishment” campaigns usually backfire or fail. Instead of breaking a nation’s will to fight, striking targets deep inside its territory tends to stoke outrage and indignation, causing civilians to rally to their government and not against it. And make no mistake: No matter how hard Taiwanese military planners try to only hit legitimate military targets, Beijing will do everything it can to make it look like Taipei is intentionally striking Chinese civilians. Therefore, far from deterring Beijing, Taiwan’s long-range arsenal could inadvertently help the Chinese Communist Party galvanize domestic support.
In any case, Taiwan lacks the surveillance and targeting capabilities needed to accurately strike distant targets. Developing a full and robust “kill chain” will take much longer — and cost more money — than simply buying more missiles. Survivability concerns also loom large, since China will try to preempt Taiwan’s missiles and the sensors and data links that enable them. Even those who think that missiles might make sense under certain, narrowly circumscribed conditions nevertheless still argue that they should be the ministry’s last priority, not its first. Common sense says that Taipei should find a way to survive a body blow from the Chinese before it worries about poking Beijing in the eye. After all, a long-range strike arsenal cannot compensate for the absence of a credible way to prevent Chinese invasion forces from quickly gaining control over Taiwan’s air, sea, and ground space.
Yet instead of worrying about how to wage a prolonged defense of the island — especially in the all-too-likely event that invasion troops make it past the beaches — the 2021 review says that Taiwan’s military must find ways to achieve air superiority and sea control. Never mind the fact that even the U.S. Navy and Air Force are not sure they can attain these goals against a determined, capable, and proximate Chinese foe. The Ministry of National Defense is, with a straight face, committing itself to the pursuit of achieving air and sea control using fourth-generation aircraft, a few dozen major surface combatants, a handful of indigenously produced diesel submarines, and yes — main battle tanks and self-propelled howitzers.
Some key architects of the 2021 review now seem to be moving over to the National Security Council, creating a powerful impediment to asymmetric reform across Taiwan’s national security apparatus. Such a development will not portend well for U.S. efforts to assist Taiwan’s defense modernization and reform. If the champions for large, conventional, expensive platforms (read tanks, artillery, and submarines) control the bureaucratic high ground, there is not much room left for the few reform-minded officers remaining within the ministry to maneuver.
Civilian Control of the Military
Why has the Tsai administration yet to intervene in this critical debate? Such reluctance is especially puzzling given the degree to which President Tsai emphasized national defense at the start of her second term.
There are compelling reasons to think that a cold, hard political calculus is at play. Asymmetry is also a politically tricky concept to sell, particularly in the absence of a clear-cut American security guarantee. After all, Taiwanese voters can see their tax dollars at work whenever a F-16 flies overhead, whereas asymmetric capabilities are low-profile and designed to remain unseen. Moreover, even asymmetry’s most ardent advocates accept that Taiwan’s military will struggle to hold out indefinitely without outside help. Asking the Taiwanese people to prepare for a long and bloody war of attrition — one that might become a fool’s errand if the United States ultimately decides to stay on the sidelines — is a tall order.
It will also be politically costly to impose change on the historically Kuomintang-leaning military bureaucracy. Nor does the Democratic Progressive Party have a deep “bench” of civilian defense experts who can help to translate top-level political guidance into an actionable plan, especially in the face of entrenched resistance. Even if such a bench existed, the Ministry of National Defense has nothing like the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Secretary of Defense, which translates, implements, and enforces political guidance within the U.S. military bureaucracy. Therefore, Tsai may well see no other option than to continually appoint retired generals and admirals to serve as senior civilian defense officials in the hope that they can be incrementally nudged toward reform.
The same calculus can help to explain why Taiwan’s elected leaders are unwilling to challenge their generals and admirals. Taking such a step in order to generate public support for dramatic defense reform could give opposition politicians the opportunity to spin things, perhaps by implying that the administration’s mismanagement of cross-strait relations created the need for such dramatic reforms in the first place.
Few observers inside or outside of Taipei think that the Tsai administration is willing to pay such a price at the ballot box. Indeed, the administration seems to act as if it is trapped: Voters will not support dramatic measures like conscription or a massive increase in defense spending unless they think the threat is real, but telling voters that the threat is real will cause them to panic and will cost votes.
Yet this “chicken and egg” line of reasoning has more than a whiff of self-interest. National defense leadership should always come from the top. Neither the Ministry of National Defense nor the Taiwanese people will embrace costly and painful reform until Taiwan’s elected officials convey the existential nature of the threat; offer a clear vision for how and why an asymmetric defense posture can meaningfully improve deterrence; and to expend political capital necessary — even if it costs them an election — to make it a reality.
It Is Time for Washington to Step In
This challenge is not Taiwan’s alone to navigate, because the costs of failure are not Taiwan’s alone to bear. As Washington edges ever closer to defining Taiwan’s security as a core national interest, Taiwan—and American allies around the region—will expect American military power to fill any lingering deterrence gaps that Taiwan cannot, or will not, handle itself.
Thankfully, Washington has options. Here are three recommendations.
First, it is time for Washington to confront Taipei. To this end, the Biden administration should organize a behind-the-scenes meeting with Tsai and her senior national security officials. The sole purpose of this
“come-to-Jesus” intervention should be to communicate the unambiguous expectation that the Tsai administration immediately implement the Overall Defense Concept. Senior Biden political officials should also make clear that Washington will only support the sale of weapons, platforms, and capabilities that are fully congruent with that concept. At the same time, because the United States has a bad habit of sending contradictory signals about defense reform and arms sales, the Biden administration should also coordinate and enforce clear and consistent messaging across all of the agencies that interact with Taiwan. Clear signaling is essential to prevent those who oppose or resent the Overall Defense Concept from coopting the rhetoric of asymmetry to justify their usual priorities.
Second, Congress should give this message teeth by passing the Arm Taiwan Act recently introduced in the Senate. This important bill clearly links future arms sales with Taipei’s ability to make real progress toward developing denial concepts, acquiring the right capabilities (as defined by Washington), and recruiting, training, and equipping so as to match these new denial capabilities with a credible warfighting doctrine. Heavy-handed though they may seem, conditional arms sales can help the Tsai administration undertake the bureaucratically painful and politically costly steps associated with reform. Moreover, Congress should fully fund the $3 billion provision within the Arm Taiwan Act to help Taiwan purchase denial capabilities outside of the normal Foreign Military Sales process. Doing so will both free up Taiwan’s defense budget to pay for other urgent doctrinal, training, logistical, and maintenance requirements needed to support asymmetric operations, and will blunt the critique proffered by some in the United States and Taiwan that U.S. arms sales are just a form of protection money.
Third, the Department of Defense should develop operational warfighting plans that complement a Taiwanese posture of denial. The fact is that Taiwan will struggle to defend itself from attack without external support. It is increasingly clear that the Taiwanese people are willing to fight. But it is unreasonable to ask them to sacrifice for a hopeless cause. By making it clear that American war plans are designed to serve as a counterpunch to the island’s denial-oriented posture, Washington can help the Tsai Administration convince Taiwanese voters—and Chinese military planners—that an asymmetric defense will work. Specifically, by holding out and absorbing as much Chinese military power as possible, Taiwan can buy time for U.S. forces to intervene while exposing vulnerabilities for U.S. forces to exploit.
Some will argue that friends require a soft touch. I would ordinarily agree. Unfortunately, these are not ordinary times. Storm clouds are gathering, and the stark reality is that one day soon Washington might find it necessary to send Americans into harm’s way to defend Taiwan. Washington, therefore, has a profound moral obligation to do everything in its power to make sure that Taiwan is doing everything in its power to provide for its own defense.
Michael A. Hunzeker (@MichaelHunzeker) is an assistant professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where he is also associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies. He served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2006.