Vol. 2, Issue 24
The Global Taiwan Brief Volume 2, Issue 24
Will the Trump Administration Invite Taiwan to RIMPAC 2018?
By: Russell Hsiao
Taiwan in the New 2017 DoD China Military Power Report
By: David An
Taiwan’s 2017 Quadrennial Defense Review in Context
By: Derek Grossman, Michael S. Chase, and Logan Ma
Taiwan’s Grail Quest for F-35s
By: Kitsch Liao
Will the Trump Administration Invite Taiwan to RIMPAC 2018?
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
The US Navy announced on May 29 that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been invited to attend the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC 2018). “All 26 nations that participated in RIMPAC 2016 have been invited to return for RIMPAC 2018,” a spokesman for the US Third Fleet said. Held every two years by the US Pacific Fleet, RIMPAC is the world’s largest multinational maritime exercise that began in 1971. Despite controversy over China’s decision to deploy a spy ship to monitor the exercises in 2014—the year it made its debut in the exercise—the Pentagon permitted China to be invited to the recently concluded planning conference for the exercise held in San Diego. Two additional planning conferences are scheduled before the exercise is to take place next summer. While the Pentagon’s decision to invite the PLAN follows congressionally-mandated guidelines governing military-to-military and naval-to-naval engagements with China, its invitation to 2018 raises the question of whether or not the Trump administration will also invite Taiwan to participate in 2018 RIMPAC.
Taiwan has sought to join RIMPAC since as early as 1998—when China began sending observers to the exercise—but its efforts have been met with resistance largely due to concerns in Washington over how Beijing will react. The PLAN was not invited to participate in the exercise until 2014. In recent years, Congressional support for Taiwan’s participation in RIMPAC has grown: specifically, the House of Representatives has sought to pressure the executive branch to invite Taiwan. In the end, these measures have proven unsuccessful as the legislative process tempered any prescriptive provisions on the matter.
Indeed, the US House of Representatives passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2015, stating unequivocally:
The Secretary of Defense shall invite the military forces of Taiwan to participate in any maritime exercise known as the Rim of the Pacific Exercise if the Secretary has invited the military forces of the People’s Republic of China to participate in such maritime exercise.
The Senate version of the amendments included no such provision. While the House ultimately rescinded the language requiring the Secretary of Defense to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC, the 2017 NDAA that former President Barack Obama signed into law on December 23, 2016 broadly sanctions military exchanges with Taiwan (US Public Law No: 114-328). The Act defines exchanges as “an activity, exercise, event, or observation opportunity between members of the Armed Forces and officials of the Department of Defense, on the one hand, and armed forces personnel and officials of Taiwan, on the other hand.” Although not prescriptive, the NDAA acknowledges that the Secretary of Defense has the authority to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC.
In spite of the NDAA’s measured language, the PRC Foreign Ministry, in characteristic fashion and in an attempt to contain US policy towards Taiwan, criticized the action for expanding Taiwan’s international space. Three days after the NDAA was signed into law, in reference to the Taiwan-related provision, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated: “Although the Taiwan-related content in the US Act has no legal binding force, it still severely violates the three joint communiqués and interferes in China’s domestic affairs. China will by no means accept this. We urge the US side to honor its commitment on the Taiwan question, put an end to military exchanges with and arms sales to Taiwan and avoid undermining China-US relations or cross-Straits peace and stability.”
Setting aside the problems with allowing Beijing to dictate what the United States can and cannot do under the US “One-China” policy, inviting Taiwan to participate in RIMPAC would not only be consistent with the sense of Congress that “[t]he Secretary of Defense should carry out a program of exchanges of senior military officers and senior officials between the United States and Taiwan designed to improve military to military relations between the United States and Taiwan,” but also the Taiwan Relations Act.
By inviting the PLAN to 2018 RIMPAC, the Trump administration has apparently decided that China’s aggressive actions in territorial disputes do not yet rise to the level of warranting the disinviting of the PLAN from the exercise—as some lawmakers and former senior officials have recommended. While the United States should consider cost imposition strategy to get China to change its provocative behavior, shifting that cost onto Taiwan’s shoulders by withholding an invitation cannot be the solution. It is entirely within the United States’ right to invite whomever it pleases to participate in RIMPAC, and the United States should invite Taiwan to RIMPAC on its own merits, such as Taiwan’s potential contribution to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. For instance, after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, Taiwan provided over US$252 million in combined aid.
Participating in the exercises would serve both important military and political purposes for Taiwan. The training that Taiwan’s military would receive from exposure and coordination with militaries from across the world would be invaluable not only for the officers’ experiences, but also for military morale, which would likely be boosted simply by participating in this prestigious exercise. Furthermore, it would send a clear signal to Beijing as well as to US allies and partners that, while United States seeks to work with China where it can, it will stand by its alliances and partnerships. As the NDAA clearly points out, the Secretary of Defense has the authority to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC. The decision to exercise that authority is a matter of political will.
The main point: The Pentagon’s decision to invite the PLAN follows congressionally-mandated guidelines governing military-to-military and naval-to-naval engagements with China. Likewise, the 2017 NDAA broadly sanctions military exchanges with Taiwan—and, as the NDAA points out, the Secretary of Defense has the authority to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC.
Taiwan in the New 2017 DoD China Military Power Report
David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and was previously a political military officer at the US Department of State.
On June 7, the US Department of Defense (DoD) released its new Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017—hereafter referred to as the China Military Power Report (CMPR). This report accomplishes three main goals: first, it explains new developments in China’s evolving military capabilities; second, it examines China’s military developments in relation to its goals with regard to Taiwan, which indirectly affect the United States; and third, it considers the implications of China’s military on other parts of the region, such as maritime territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, and even on areas beyond the region.
Though one would expect significant analysis on China’s military capabilities, it is noteworthy that Taiwan is receiving more attention in this report compared to previous years. For instance, the number of mentions of “Taiwan” has risen between this report and its previous iteration in 2016, rising from 115 mentions to 133 mentions, even while the report’s page count, not including appendices, dropped from 102 to 89. In this context, the report mentions “the United States” only 43 times, “India” 29 times, “the Philippines” 28 times, and “Japan” 17 times. As is expected for a report on China’s military, it mentions “China” 790 times. While the number of mentions only gives the reader a general sense of an issue’s significance, this sense generally supports the notion that this is a report focused on China and Taiwan above other China-related issues.
Traditional Taiwan Defense Issues
The China Military Power Report judges that, “Taiwan remains the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) main ‘strategic direction,’ one of the geographic areas the leadership identifies as endowed with strategic importance” (CMPR, p. 39). The report reflects that, not only is preventing Taiwan independence one of China’s top priorities for its military modernization, but the United States is committed to providing Taiwan with defensive articles and services (CMPR, p. 82).
As in previous years, there is an entire chapter dedicated to “China’s force modernization for a Taiwan contingency.” The new report mentions the euphemism “Taiwan contingency” seven times. A contingency, in this case, means one or a combination of China’s potential courses of action against Taiwan (CMPR, p. 76), such as:
- Maritime blockade
- Limited force or coercive options, to include computer attacks or physical attacks against infrastructure to induce fear
- Precision air and missile strikes
- Amphibious invasion
Next, the report mentions slightly updated numbers for China’s and Taiwan’s military spending in context of their regional neighbors. China is highest at 144 billion US dollars per year (CMPR, p. 67). Russia is surprisingly low at $46 billion—around one third of China’s spending—considering that Russia was a world military superpower just three decades ago (CMPR, p. 67). Japan is third at $47 billion, then India at $37 billion, South Korea at $33 billion, and at the bottom of that short list is Taiwan at $10.5 billion per year (CMPR, p. 67).
The report rehashes China’s March 2005 Anti-Secession Law, stating that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could use “non-peaceful means” if “secessionist forces … cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China,” if “major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession” occur, or if “possibilities of peaceful reunification” are exhausted (CMPR, p. 75). China has historically warned that it would use force against Taiwan under the circumstances that (CMPR, p. 75):
- Taiwan formally declares independence
- Taiwan makes undefined moves toward independence
- There is internal unrest in Taiwan
- Taiwan acquires nuclear weapons
- Taiwan delays cross-Strait dialogue on unification
- Foreign military forces are stationed on Taiwan
The 2017 China Military Power Report echoes a refrain from previous reports and countless US official statements: The United States “does not support Taiwan independence,” but supports the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues (CMPR, p. 82). However, it reiterates that, consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the United States will continue to provide defense articles and services to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.
As further indication that the focus is on China-Taiwan military dynamics, this year—as in previous years—data visualizations compare China’s and Taiwan’s military forces and no others.
New Developments on Taiwan
New ground in the report begins with the political developments of the past year. The report describes how China’s relations with Taiwan “cooled” after Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan, and China began to aggressively insist that Taiwan accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” (CMPR, p. ii). It mentions other political events of the past year, to include China suspending political consultations between its Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), and the drop in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan over the course of 2016 (CMPR, p. 6). China blocked Taiwan’s efforts to participate in international organizations, such as when Taiwan was denied an invitation to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in October 2016. However, the PRC continues to engage with the Nationalist (KMT) party, despite stalled government-to-government consultations.
The report also lays out the PLA’s current force posture for a Taiwan conflict by detailing the role of each of the services: PLA Army, PLA Navy, PLA Air Force, PLA Rocket Force, and its Strategic Support Force to operate in space and cyberspace (CMPR, p. 81). The report judges that China is continuing to compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence, and to delay or deny third party intervention to help Taiwan (CMPR, p. 6). It made a special update on China’s amphibious capabilities with clear implications for Taiwan since Taiwan is an island (CMPR, p. 83).
The report also mentions Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, and its main point is that China’s military modernization has eroded Taiwan’s ability to deter PLA aggression (CMPR, p. 82). It highlights Taiwan’s goal of downsizing its military to a “small but smart and strong force,” which will be an all-volunteer force by 2019 (CMPR, p. 82).
New Developments with China’s Military
China began sweeping military organizational reforms in 2015 (CMPR, p. i), replacing the decades old military regions (MR) system with new theater commands (TCs), reorganizing the Central Military Commission (CMC), establishing the joint operations command center, and others (CMPR, p. 1-2). The report makes new mention of China asserting claims over the East and South China Seas, especially using its maritime militia to advance its interests, while calculating its actions to fall below the threshold of conflict (CMPR, p. i).
Contrary to what one might expect, the China Military Power Report does not consider the balance of China’s military against US forces, or attempt to wargame conflict scenarios directly between China and the United States. The US military is indirectly involved because the United States will face a choice of whether and how to come to Taiwan’s aid against China if Beijing acts belligerently toward Taiwan. After all, the report is an unclassified document, and not an appropriate medium to consider sensitive operational capabilities of the US and China sides. In addition, it is unlikely that the DoD would want to risk the public affairs optics of preparing for a future conflict, especially when it strives to build military diplomacy bridges with China through its various bilateral military dialogues. Such planning is beyond the scope of this report, and would be more appropriate to address in DoD’s various classified operational plans (OPLANs) and conceptual plans (CONPLANs).
Ultimately, not only does this report definitively lay out the latest on PLA activities vis-a-vis Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region, and beyond, but it is instrumental for the DoD, since it can be used to justify the United States providing arms to Taiwan. Moreover, it serves as rationale for aspects of the DoD budget due to concerns over China’s growing military capabilities, while simultaneously showing the benefits of a cooperative military-to-military diplomatic approach with China.
Main point: The 2017 DoD China Military Power Report captures the latest domestic political developments in Taiwan, China’s new amphibious assault capabilities, the PLA’s new reorganization away from military regions toward theater commands, and Taiwan’s shifting force structure toward an all-volunteer force by 2019. While expressing the United States’ non-support for Taiwan independence, the report highlights that the United States will continue to provide defense articles and services to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.
Taiwan’s 2017 Quadrennial Defense Review in Context
Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation. He formerly served at the Defense Intelligence Agency as the daily intelligence briefer to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, or the US government.
Michael S. Chase is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, and an adjunct professor in the China Studies and Strategic Studies Departments at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Logan Ma is a research assistant at RAND Corporation. He formerly served at the American Institute in Taiwan, the Freeman Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and the World Resources Institute.
Taiwan’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)—mandated for submission within 10 months after the presidential inauguration—offers an assessment of Taiwan’s security environment and the ways in which the Ministry of National Defense (MND) plans to respond over the next four years. Published in March, Taiwan’s latest QDR represents the third installment of this process and the first under President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration.
Our analysis of this document, specifically when compared with the 2013 and 2009 QDRs, reveals that the current iteration maintains a remarkable amount of thematic consistency in areas such as defense strategy, reform of the military service system, and defense budget constraints with earlier versions despite the transition of power to the opposition party in 2016. There is also considerable evolution in the focus on developing Taiwan’s domestic defense industry under President Tsai. Perhaps one of the most significant changes is that the new QDR appears to reflect heightened uncertainty over the future course of US policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Additionally, the new QDR is more forward leaning than previous editions on the need for Taiwan to procure specific weapon systems to provide for its defense.
First, regarding consistencies across QDRs, the MND’s defense strategy at its core remains the same. Although the MND pitches a new catchphrase dubbed “resolute defense, multi-domain deterrence” (防衛固守、重層嚇阻), this should not be interpreted as being at odds with the previous adage that Taiwan seek to develop and maintain “resolute defense, credible deterrence.” Indeed, both strategies seek to deter or, if necessary, repel a Chinese attack against the island by developing key capabilities and enhancing the Taiwan military’s ability to conduct joint operations. “Multi-domain deterrence,” however, reflects the MND’s assessment of the potential battlefield implications of the Chinese military’s reorganization in 2016. Beijing’s heavy emphasis on cross-domain situational awareness and proficiency—most acutely displayed by its establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force which combines cyber, electronic jamming, and space warfare—has likely convinced the MND of the need to complicate multiple forms of warfare simultaneously. Thus, the 2017 QDR emphasizes that Taiwan’s armed forces should be able “to present multiple dilemmas to the enemy and deter aggression.”
There are many other commonly addressed topics across QDRs. For instance, Taiwan’s desire to transform its armed forces into an all-volunteer force, first introduced in 2009, is also noted in 2017, but with little fanfare, probably because of the problems the MND has experienced in making the transition to an all-volunteer system. Taiwan’s limited defense budget, which creates a variety of challenges in defense planning, is another familiar theme. What is interesting here is that, while the 2009 QDR leads off by advocating raising Taiwan’s defense budget to at least three percent of GDP, subsequent QDRs resist reiterating this call and instead only highlight the fact that Taiwan’s defense budget is constrained. All QDRs offer updates on China’s ongoing military modernization and the implications for Taiwan’s own planning.
Another important consistency, albeit with notable evolution that reflects stronger emphasis under President Tsai, is the call to develop an indigenous defense industry to produce advanced armaments for Taiwan’s defense. Starting in 2009, the QDR advocated for the creation of a “self-reliant defense establishment,” with no further details. By 2013, the MND had fleshed out the domestic defense industry concept further, stating that Taiwan would turn to domestic experts for military projects exceeding $1.6 million (2013 currency conversion), and it would seek domestic industry offsets of at least 40 percent for foreign procurement. Taiwan’s latest QDR highlights aerospace, shipbuilding, and information security as priority areas for investment. Indeed, the Tsai administration’s renewed push to build conventional diesel-electric submarines indigenously is evidence of the seriousness with which her government is approaching the domestic defense industry. It should be noted that the emphasis on the defense industry is part of President Tsai’s “five-plus-two” innovative industries initiative, which underscores that it is not just about bolstering Taiwan’s defense capabilities, but also an important component of her broader approach to economic policy.
One of the major areas of departure from past QDRs is in describing US policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, the 2017 QDR states that US policy “remains to be seen while the rise of China has a tremendous impact on the surrounding regions.” By contrast, the 2013 QDR lauded Washington’s strategic rebalance because it enabled the United States to continue “to play a leading role in the Asia-Pacific.” In what might be interpreted as a hedge, the QDR later states that the United States had “sustained its forward military presence in the region” while strengthening “its key capabilities for future operations.” Despite these comments on the US military presence and future capabilities, it is noteworthy that the latest QDR appears to reflect some uncertainty about the overall direction of US Asia policy under the Trump administration. This should come as no surprise given uncertainty in the region about the economic and diplomatic components of the Trump administration’s approach to Asia, particularly US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and concerns related to Trump’s recent statement that he would check with China first before considering another phone call with President Tsai.
Separately, in a first for a QDR, the 2017 version points to a specific military capability that Taiwan assesses is needed for defense. The MND notes that Taiwan’s armed forces are “planning to acquire new fighters capable of vertical or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) and having stealth characteristics”—almost certainly a reference to acquiring the US F-35. None of the previous QDRs ever mentioned specific systems of interest, only armaments that had already been agreed to with the US. For example, the 2009 QDR references a deal with Washington to acquire attack helicopters, Patriot III missiles, upgraded E-2T aircraft, submarine-launched harpoon missiles, and medium-range anti-armor missiles. This comes as some observers highlight concerns that the Trump administration might be delaying Taiwan arms sales as it seeks China’s cooperation on North Korea.
When considering Taiwan’s 2017 QDR, there are notable consistencies with previous QDRs, but also a noticeable evolution in thought on key programs and initiatives. Additionally, the 2017 version appears to signal some uncertainty about the direction of US Asia policy under the Trump administration, which is understandable in light of the fact that it has yet to announce a strategy to replace the US “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia. The MND’s decision to reference the need to acquire the F-35 suggests growing alarm in Taipei over the improving accuracy of the Chinese military’s targeting of Taiwan’s runways and the threat this poses to the island’s air-to-air capabilities. Hence, US policymakers might interpret the 2017 QDR as a reflection of an increasingly anxious Taiwan that would greatly benefit, not only from reassurances, but also from a serious US reconsideration of its defense needs.
The main point: Taiwan’s 2017 QDR—the first under President Tsai—emphasizes a number of issues that figured prominently in previous QDRs, including defense strategy, reform of the military service system, and challenges related to defense budget constraints. The latest QDR also calls for acquisition of new fighters and highlights the importance President Tsai attaches to improving Taiwan’s domestic defense industry, with particular emphasis on aviation, shipbuilding and information security. Additionally, the QDR appears to reflect some uncertainty about US Asia policy under the new administration, underscoring the importance of US reassurances and consideration of Taiwan’s defense needs, including arms sales.
Taiwan’s Grail Quest for F-35s
Kitsch Liao is a Taipei-based analyst for the Cyber Security firm Team T5, specializing in cyber security, air power and the Taiwanese military.
Taiwan’s ongoing quest for the F-35B Lightning II has recently been revisited during policy discussions in Taipei and Washington. Most notably, in April, Japan Time’s report led the discussion by speculating that the Trump administration’s upcoming arms sales to Taiwan includes F-35Bs. This was followed by Taiwan’s announcement to propose that acquisition as early as July, and echoed by an expert opinion during a recent panel. The importance of acquiring F-35Bs was further highlighted by the recent conclusion of the annual Han Kuang-33 exercise designed to test and verify the strategy outlined in the 2017 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).
The computer-simulated portion of the Hang Kuang 33, which employed the Joint Theater Level Simulation (JTLS) system, has revealed significant challenges for Taiwan’s ability to maintain air parity across the Taiwan Strait. The result of the air portion of the exercise indicated that while the blue team (Taiwan) was successful in denying air superiority to the red team (China), it was unsuccessful in providing critical ISR support. This led to other branches, such as the Taiwan (ROC) Navy, failing to counter the PLA carrier groups deployed at 1,500 kilometers to the east of Taiwan.
During the discussion and evaluation portion of the exercise every morning, both teams and the visiting US delegation headed by General (ret.) Edward A. Rice Jr. agreed that the inclusion of F-35Bs would tip the balance in Taiwan’s favor, and enable the air force to fulfill its secondary mission of supporting other branches instead of being tied down in the skies over northern Taiwan.
Over the course of Taiwan’s longstanding quest to acquire the F-35B, two key characteristics remain consistent: stealth (low observable tech) and short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL). It is worth tracing and examining the evolution of these two requirements.
In the early 2000s, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) already recognized the role stealth would play in the future contest for control of the air, and tasked the NCSIST with the development of a stealth upgrade for the F-CK-1 indigenous fighter code-named Lushan Project (廬山計畫).
The NCSIST team went as far as conducting a visit to US companies in December 2002 surveying potential useful techniques in adopting Radar Absorbent Materials (RAM), which culminated in the testing of a RAM-coated AT-3 trainer. While the project was later abandoned, stealth remained a key goal and became a requirement, as early as 2002, for Taiwan’s third generation fighter. Stealth, as a requirement for Taiwan’s next-generation fighter, was also documented in the first ever released Quadrennial Defense Review in 2009. Stealth persistently appeared in the Legislative Yuan record during sessions with succeeding Air Force chiefs of staff, and other defense officials through 2013. The next QDR reaffirmed the same requirement.
The quest for STOVL was similar to the stealth requirement, however with a much more apparent sense of urgency. As early as 2002, rumors of Taiwan’s interest in the STOVL-capable AV-8B emerged, with officials even raising the issue during the annual arms sales talks. While the Air Force officially denied such pursuit, the prospect of acquiring AV-8B was soon confirmed in a 2003 legislative session, when the Aerospace Industrial Development Company (AIDC) was instructed to prepare to refurbish the airframe. STOVL continued to make appearances in the intervening years alongside stealth, with rumors of Taiwanese interest emerging both during the retirement of Britain’s Harrier fleet and in 2016 when the US expressed tentative interest in providing the platform. However, by then Taiwan had already lost interest in AV-8B as a potential platform, while the STOVL requirement persists.
Stealth and STOVL continue to appear together as requirements for Taiwan’s next generation fighter in official documents and legislative records. The Ministry of National Defense unequivocally stated in April 2017 that “any platform that possesses both Stealth and STOVAL capabilities is the one we want.”
Stealth and STOVL
The acquisition and employment of any weapons system is a complicated task, requiring a detailed assessment of the current force structure, deployment, and tactics that influence the mission. This assessment will then inform the various desired capabilities and key performance indicators associated with the platform. In the context of a Taiwan contingency, the suitability of the F-35B would involve numerous qualitative and quantitative analyses based on the evolving paradigms of various fields. Analyses will cover factors as narrow as the rise of high-alpha maneuvers in agility studies, to the overall shift of China’s strategic intent following the PLA reorganization into five theater commands. Regardless of the F-35B’s suitability, it is clear from the legislative records that the Taiwan Air Force’s determination to acquire a platform possessing both STOVL and stealth capabilities has been consistent for more than a decade. However, currently, only the F-35B satisfies both requirements.
The pursuit of these two intrinsic capabilities raises the question of their utility within Taiwan’s war plan. The utility of low observable tech in combat and its role in compressing the kill chain was further validated by the high kill ratio demonstrated through dissimilar air combat Training (DACT) and joint exercises like the Red Flag. However, the necessity of the STOVL requirement is less clear and it comes with a significant performance trade-off. From information made public so far, we know that the F-35B sacrificed much to accommodate STOVL, including a higher wing-loading, a lower thrust-to-weight ratio, a significant reduction in transonic acceleration performance, and compromised endurance. These are all considered key performance parameters (KPPs) that inhibit Taiwan’s ability to achieve air dominance, a top level requirement.
Earlier studies conducted by the federally-funded research center RAND indicate that China has the potential ability to simultaneously incapacitate all existing Taiwanese runways and taxiways through multiple volleys of PLA rocket force (PLARF) ballistic missiles armed with maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) warheads. Nevertheless, the window of opportunity between incapacitating runways and their repair would be a short one, perhaps too short for a fledging air power such as the PLAAF. Fairly limited suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) capability makes the PLAAF situation more complicated. With relatively low investment, the window could be made shorter by boosting the existing rapid runway repair capacity and readiness rate, along with additional volleys for the existing SAM batteries.
Determining whether the trade-offs the F-35B experience as a result of incorporating STOVL capability are mission critical or not would depend on data still outside of the public domain. However, if Taiwan’s armed forces focuses on acquiring STOVL capabilities without first exhausting the lower-end solutions to mitigate potential runway denial, it could compromise the first order requirement of a weapon system which is meant to redress the qualitative balance across the Strait.
The last chance for Taiwan to become a part of the original Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program was in 2003. If it was an original participant in the program, Taiwan could have secured the possibility of shaping a platform more suited to its needs, as a security cooperation partner alongside Singapore and Israel. However, both political and financial circumstances prevented such an eventuality.
With Germany’s recent interest in the F-35, it is increasingly likely that, even if Taiwan were to secure a sale, the delivery horizon may well stretch beyond 2025. Such concerns over delivery schedules should be tempered by possibilities for negotiation with partners facing lower threat levels. Alternatively, a temporary loan of USM airframes following the precedent set by the AH-64 Apache case could be considered.
The real challenge facing the Taiwanese defense planners is not the meticulous calculation of equipment KPPs or quantitative models for the hardware balance.Instead, it is maintaining vigilance as to the quality and quantity of air force personnel, as demonstrated by operational readiness rate, cockpit ratio, flight hours, and the strategic and tactical initiative of Taiwan’s military leadership. People will ultimately determine the effectiveness of conventional deterrence.
The main point: Taiwan’s quest to acquire F-35B Lighting IIs has gained renewed vigor with the Trump administration. However, the decades-long focus on a STOVL-capable third generation fighter may have neglected lower-end solutions to potential runway denial. Considering the timetable and available options, F-35Bs combined with an improved readiness rate remain the most likely candidates for a redress of cross-Strait air imbalance.