Five Recommendations for Left of Boom Security Assistance to Taiwan

USS McCampbell Underway Operations

Time is not on Taiwan’s side. A U.S. Air Force General predicts potential conflict with China in 2025, while the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggests China’s accelerated modernization could advance its ability to seize Taiwan to as early as 2027. Worse, in current wargame simulations run by experts at RAND, the United States fails in preventing Chinese forces “from overrunning Taiwan’s defense forces.”

Pressures of time and potential access limitations to Taiwan in a crisis dictate that the United States and its allies should proactively position themselves “left of boom.” Ideally, this proactive stance will deter the “boom” altogether. Scaling up programs for Taiwan’s military, government, and society, and integrating proven security assistance and cooperation strategies used before (and after) the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine will make deterrence the more likely long-term outcome, even if it risks provoking China and hurting relationships in the short term.

The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed the Taiwan Peace Through Strength Act (2023), outlining five key priorities for strengthening U.S.–Taiwanese defense ties. However, this is insufficient. Drawing from the Department of Defense Minerva Research Team’s extensive research, which includes insights from over 400 interviews with Western security assistance advisors and recipients and in-depth archival research spanning U.S. security assistance missions since 1945, we propose five measures that could help.

First, the United States should establish a Security Assistance Group – Taiwan to coordinate joint force, interagency, and allied efforts to provide security assistance, which would unify the provision of aid, support, and training. Second, there should be a Taiwan Hands Advisor Program to maximize focus across the joint force, without falling into the same pitfalls of the beleaguered AfPak Hands program. Third, civil society engagement and development should be emphasized as an approach to developing Taiwanese resilience, resistance, and will to fight. Fourth, multinational assistance should prioritize innovative solutions to supply problems, allowing the Taiwanese government, military, and society to effectively resist during a protracted conflict. Finally, Washington should assign a National Guard unit to Taiwan as part of its State Partnership Program.

Taiwan’s national-security and defense policies, and its military organization and development, are the responsibility of the people of Taiwan and the government they elect. The United States has been the primary supporter of Taiwan’s defense needs over the past few decades — support that plays a critical role in that country’s autonomy. For instance, Taiwan is awaiting the delivery of $19.2 billion worth of weapons orders from the United States, which includes 66 F-16s and 108 Abrams tanks. Washington cannot dictate Taiwan’s defense policies or its military, but, as an important security partner with Taipei, Washington should consider the five steps outlined below to improve Taiwan’s defense capabilities. Ultimately, some of these actions may be provocative to Beijing. However, Washington should not be deterred. These actions would bolster Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, while making Taipei more confident in cross-strait dialogue with a decreased likelihood of succumbing to Chinese coercion.



Create a Security Assistance Group–Taiwan 

The historical success of the Korean Military Advisory Group and, more recently, U.S.-led security cooperation missions to Ukraine suggest elements of a viable model for assistance. From 1951 to 1979, the United States had a Military Assistance Advisory Group in Taiwan, peaking with 2,437 advisors in-country in 1955. For Ukraine, the Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine and Security Assistance Group – Ukraine have been effective multinational efforts, alongside Canadian and U.K.-led efforts, to provide lethal and non-lethal assistance and training in a unified fashion to minimize waste and maximize improvements across the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine trained over 27,000 Ukrainian personnel between 2015 and 2022, and has trained an additional9,600 Ukrainian troops since 2022. Formed after the 2022 large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Security Assistance Group – Ukraine and Western partners trained over 90,000 Ukrainian servicemembers in the first half of 2023. The United States should act now to create a multinational Security Assistance Group – Taiwan to proactively consolidate joint force and multinational efforts to improve Taiwanese capabilities. This more coordinated approach to increasing defensive capabilities can play an important role in persuading China’s leaders that the costs and risks of invading Taiwan would outweigh its benefits.

The Korean Military Advisory Group experience of 1945–1953 also is instructive. It transformed the Republic of Korea Army from a constabulary force of 25,000 into a modern, 20-division ground force with over 600,000 personnel in less than eight years. Korean Military Advisory Group advisors also spearheaded the development of the Korean military education system, developing 13 different branch-specific schools prior to the war.

The United States has taken important steps recently in this direction. Over the spring, the U.S. military announced plansto expand training efforts with the Taiwanese from 30 American trainers to 100–200 military personnel. This effort is reportedly designed to help Taiwan build a “porcupine” defense that would make the island prohibitively costly to assault. A Security Assistance Group – Taiwan would further facilitate such actions by having other multinational advisors aiding Taiwan, signaling international unity in support of Taiwan’s right to defend its sovereignty. Coding most Security Assistance Group – Taiwan positions as coveted joint billets would ensure each military branch treats security assistance to Taiwan as a priority, leading to a properly staffed mission with the best personnel, not just people who happen to be available.

How provocative would this be for China? Besides a focus on foreign internal defense by 1st Special Forces Group, Marines, and other special operators since 2020, the United States currently plans to send 100–200 personnel to assist Taiwan’s forces. We do not advocate a massive surge in U.S. forces but envision a rotational force below the number of Military Assistance Advisory Group personnel deployed to Taiwan between 1951 to 1979. These personnel themselves would not be a defense force or tripwire. They would work across a spectrum of purposes with their Taiwanese counterparts, a version of a hybrid approach in which no particular element of the relationship would be particularly new or provocative, but the whole would be coordinated toward a defensive, and thus, a deterrent, end. Rather than train for the entire panoply of military capabilities and contingencies, the United States would work with Taiwan to identify the most likely and the worst-case scenarios, then focus United States (and partner) security assistance on those particular concerns, such as coastal defense, urban and guerrilla warfare, and asymmetric maritime warfare. Focused scenarios and specialized capabilities will sharpen the porcupine’s quills to puncture Chinese attacks.

Establish a Taiwan Hands Advisor Program

Such a program would provide a steady stream of knowledgeable advisors to Security Assistance Group – Taiwan (if created). The AfPak Hands program, created in 2008 and designed for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan, offered language and cultural training and repeat assignments in the region for selected military officers. Although AfPak Hands concluded in 2020, with many advisors feeling “completely ignored” by U.S. military leadership — per one interview — a fresh Taiwan program could benefit from past mistakes.

A properly designed Taiwan Hands program would require a 6–10-year commitment, offering clear avenues for promotion and basing incentives to maximize knowledge and language development. This program would help American personnel better understand the Taiwanese government, military, and society, signaling a deep U.S. institutional commitment to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. In turn, these personnel would advise the Taiwanese military on not just weapon systems and their operationalization, but on doctrine, training, education, force structure, and the less visible factors that go into building a military effective at warfighting. Fostering a cohort of dedicated American advisors to Taiwan would improve strategic thinking across the joint force, while also solving the current problem of infrequent, episodic engagements with Taiwan’s military. Long-term engagement and continuity would facilitate needed institutional capacity building for Taiwan’s forces, while leading to better planning of U.S. security assistance and cooperation missions with Taiwan and its neighbors.

Invest in Civil Society Development and Assistance

Simply put, improving civil society contributes to Taiwan’s will to fight. Taiwan has long experienced advanced, persistent Chinese cyberattacks and influence operations. Washington can provide additional support to Taipei and its civil society to inoculate the island against Beijing’s cyber intrusions and disinformation activities. Whether boosting U.S. governmental assistance to Taiwan’s cyber defenses, systematically promoting informal efforts at cooperation, or mutual public-private sharing of information and expertise, the United States can help defend Taiwan’s thriving democracy and civil society against disinformation and anti-American conspiracy theories.

Western assistance to build up Taiwanese civil society groups (e.g., charities, clubs, non-governmental organizations, etc.) can play a vital role in a broader irregular statecraft strategy. For example, Spirit of America partners with local non-governmental organizations in Taiwan, helping train over 50,000 citizens to “increase Taiwan’s resiliency by empowering citizens with the skills and confidence to respond in a disaster or security crisis.” This approach contributes to societal resistance, reducing the likelihood of a repeat of Russia’s “little green men” strategy to clandestinely occupy Crimea in 2014. An effective civil society approach would make Taiwan more resilient to a potential “Little Red PRCs” scenario, where China could seize the island through subversive actions without a D-Day-style amphibious assault. For instance, some Ukrainian partisan groups we interviewed were non-government organizations prior to the 2022 invasion, and their close societal bonds and trusted networks enabled them to form guerrilla units to oppose occupying Russian forces. In a crisis, many Taiwanese civil society groups may similarly leverage personal networks as partisans to resist occupying Chinese forces.

Help Taiwan Build Up Reserves

One important practical difference between Ukraine and Taiwan is that the former is a large, continental country, while the latter is a relatively small island (about the size of Connecticut and Vermont combined). In the event of conflict — regardless of whether the United States intervenes — Taiwan will likely need to withstand a Chinese assault for some period of time. This requires building in redundancy or finding sufficient substitutes for societal necessities, such as food, fuel, power generation, water, etc. Taiwan lacks self-sufficiency with essentials like food and fuel, relying heavily on imports; its current reserves need to be boosted and, as Taiwan’s largest source of food imports already, the United States is well positioned to assist. Various reports offer varying timelines, suggesting Taiwan has enough strategic reserves to last 30 to 120 days. This means Taipei will need to develop resilient storage capabilities – and Washington and its allies will need to devise innovative logistical solutions to provide supplies and assistance in a crisis.

Equally vital is ensuring quality Taiwanese forces, given that its standing military is 188,000 personnel, with the supposed ability to activate 2.3 million reservists. While Taiwan has demonstrated an excellent ability to mobilize its military and society for disaster response, combat reserve readiness is inadequate. Improving the ability of Taiwan’s reserve forces could be achieved by making it the primary task of the 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade. They could dedicate a large advisor team towards developing training plans and military preparedness that aligns with Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept to ensure year-around reserve readiness across the force. Moreover, these advisors could facilitate planning approaches with Taiwan’s forces to devise strategies for dispersing enough resources, fuel, and supplies across the country to ensure resilience across the government, military, and society. This would allow Taiwan’s defenders to sustain military operations longer than Chinese leadership anticipates.

Assign a National Guard Unit to Taiwan

The State Partnership Program strengthens defense ties, improves interoperability, and promotes defense reform. In August 2023, Taiwanese troops reportedly participated in military exercises in Michigan with National Guard troops, yet no guard unit has been formally assigned to Taiwan. Assigning a state National Guard unit to Taiwan through the State Partnership Program would signify a readiness to foster personal networks between Guard members and their counterparts within the Taiwanese government and military circles.

How would Beijing perceive such activities? Historically, China has acquiesced to United States training of Taiwanese military personnel, provided it is conducted discreetly. Indeed, there is a longstanding practice of Taiwanese pilots receiving F-16 training in Arizona. Similarly, collaborative efforts between a National Guard unit and Taiwanese forces could minimize provocation by being held on American soil, such as in Guam. This low-profile approach is critical to avoid drawing unwanted attention and potential embarrassment for China, which might otherwise feel compelled to respond in a public and possibly escalatory manner.

Establishing enduring relationships between U.S. military leaders and Taiwanese counterparts would be invaluable. In our interviews with American advisors and Ukrainians, many emphasized how the partnership between the California Air National Guard and the Ukrainian Air Force significantly bolstered the latter’s resilience and tactical adaptability when facing the Russian Air Force. This collaboration was so profound that numerous California Guardsmen learned Ukrainian, and in some cases, even formed personal connections, including marrying Ukrainians.


Taken together, the five steps outlined in this article would signal Washington’s long-term commitment to support Taiwan and deter China. The United States can no longer strategically afford a lackadaisical approach to Taiwan. Codifying and institutionalizing our suggested security assistance and cooperation concepts would finally move the needle back in Taiwan’s favor, developing the needed defensive posture to counter bellicose Chinese cross-strait actions. These five steps are not a silver bullet, but in conjunction with firm measures by Taiwan’s leadership and other U.S. allies, they would improve Taiwan’s resilience, as well as its ability to deter, resist, outthink, and outfight China.



Dr. Brian C. Chao (@winebluewater) is an assistant professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College and a non-resident associate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China. His research interests include cross-Taiwan Strait relations, geostrategy, great-power politics, U.S. defense and foreign policies in the Asia-Pacific, and Pacific navies. His work appears in International Relations of the Asia-Pacific; Territory, Politics, Governance; and edited volumes on Asia-Pacific security and Navies in multipolar systems, as well as the China Brief, The Diplomat, East Asia Forum, and The National Interest, among others. 

Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, Ph.D., (@JaharaMatisek) is a military professor in the national security affairs department at the United States Naval War College, a 2023 Non-Resident Fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative (joint production of Princeton’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and the Modern War Institute at West Point), and United States Department of Defense Minerva co-principal investigator for improving United States security assistance. Lt. Col. Matisek has published over 90 articles and essays in peer-reviewed journals and policy-relevant outlets on strategy, warfare, and security assistance. He is a command pilot that previously served as a senior fellow for the Homeland Defense Institute and associate professor in the Military and Strategic Studies Department at the United States Air Force Academy.

Dr. William Reno is a professor and chair of the Political Science Department at Northwestern University. He has conducted fieldwork and interviews in conflict zones across Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East for over thirty years, having authored three books: Corruption and State Politics in Sierra LeoneWarlord Politics and African States, and Warfare in Independent Africa. Dr. Reno has published over two hundred articles in peer-reviewed journals, and policy-relevant periodicals, and edited volumes on civil wars, rebels, and military assistance. He is the principal investigator for the U.S. Department of Defense Minerva-funded program studying how the United States can improve foreign military training.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This article was supported by Levy Chair funding at the United States Naval War College and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.

Image: Petty Officer 2nd Class Markus Castaneda