The memorial service for Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Ed Ross was recently held on November 20 at Arlington National Cemetery. Such a final resting place is appropriate for this decorated US Army officer whose 42 years of military and federal service included two tours in the Vietnam War and higher appointments at the Pentagon after the war. Both the Washington DC policy community of Asia hands and the people of Taiwan have lost a friend in Ed Ross this past year. In addition to being a US military officer and public servant, Ed Ross’s life work was to encourage Taiwan to “improve its military capabilities and negotiate from a position of strength to deter Chinese aggression and coercion,” and to urge the United States to actively assist Taiwan in this endeavor.
Ed knew Taiwan from personal experience, having lived in Taichung while attending the American Embassy School for Chinese Language and Area Studies. Chinese language training would prove indispensable as he was later assigned to be the assistant US Army attache at the US Embassy in Beijing starting June 1983. I first met Ed at a private roundtable event held at the Project 2049 Institute around 2012, when I was a political military officer at the US State Department. My lasting impression of Ed was that he cared deeply about the safety and future of the Taiwanese people, and he was proud of the democracy that Taiwan had become.
Urging US support for Taiwan’s overall defense
After his active duty military service in Vietnam, and at the US Embassy in Beijing, he became a director for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon, serving in that policymaking position for eight years, from 1984 to 1992. He then briefly served as the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoners of war/missing in action (POW/MIA) Affairs at the Pentagon, and then as principal director for operations at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). DSCA administers all foreign military sales (FMS) from the United States to its security partners, including Taiwan.
Since most government officials in the executive branch are barred from making public statements while they are in office, his writings after retiring from government service, beginning in 2007 revealed his thinking about how the United States should improve its security cooperation with Taiwan. Ed once stated: “The US must continue to push the envelope on arms sales to Taiwan, providing Taiwan what it truly needs to maintain a sufficient defense capability, not what it believes Beijing will tolerate.”
He was adamant that “Taiwan’s needs should govern US arms sales” and not some other rationale or timeline convenient for US domestic politics or the US-China relationship. On July 18, 2008, at the tail end of the second George W Bush term, Ed wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Asia edition, that US arms sales to Taiwan “deserved President Bush’s immediate attention.” At the time, Taiwan was in need of 60 additional F-16 aircraft, Patriot PAC III missiles and Apache and Blackhawk helicopters. Two years later, the Obama administration approved the sale of those Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, and F-16 upgrades to Taiwan. As this process shows, Ed provided a constant reminder to the Executive branch to continue to strive to meet the requirements of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA): to provide Taiwan the defense articles and services it requires to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.
Taiwan’s submarine program
Ed constantly recommended US assistance for Taiwan’s submarine program, and wished the United States could have done more to help, but recognized the practical limits on US assistance. He believed that submarines “are desperately needed for Taiwan’s defense and deterrence to maintain the relative military balance in the Taiwan Strait.” Submarines are essential to Taiwan’s order of battle, since they are difficult to detect while submerged underwater, and an adversary cannot easily attack what it cannot see. Throughout the past decade, Ed urged the US government to help Taiwan in this regard.
Taiwan initially looked to the United States for assistance on submarines, but has recently started design work on its own. In a 2009 interview with Reuters, Ross noted that for a US company to do the design work for diesel electric submarines, it would have cost $360 million US dollars—as mentioned in the original letter of request from Taiwan to the United States. He noted that the cost of building eight diesel electric submarines was estimated at $10.2 billion dollars and would take 10 to 15 years to complete. Another hurdle is that it would have required a US company to show that it had the ability to build diesel-electric submarines, which is not a guarantee since the US submarine force transitioned to an all-nuclear powered force decades ago; or a US company would have to find a foreign partner that could fulfill this requirement. After years of waiting for US assistance, Taiwan took the initiative to open a new submarine development center at China Shipbuilding Corporation in August 2016 to begin the design phase on its own.
Integrating command and control of Taiwan’s missile systems
Ed applauded the United States for providing Patriot missiles to Taiwan, but recognized that interceptor missiles only solved part of the problem of deterring against missile attack, and that additional steps are required to assist Taiwan with command and control of the missiles and radars. Ed explained that Taiwan’s Patriot missiles are only one element of a missile defense system, and that the Patriot’s radar range is around 170 kilometers and therefore unable to detect the majority of China’s missiles in the boost phase over Chinese territory. Therefore, these Patriot missiles should be tied to an integrated command and control system that provides for early warning missile detection and tracking to improve the chances of intercept at the terminal phase of missile flight. He asserted that Taipei requires continued US assistance with Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) to bolster its military capabilities across the board and to achieve an effective missile defense.
Essentially, Ed believed it was in the US national interest to assist Taiwan’s defensive capabilities. “At a time when the US is still engaged in two wars and finding it difficult not to become engaged in other regional conflicts and crises, it makes eminent sense to do whatever it can to build the ability of friends and allies, our partners in regional security, to defend themselves better,” Ed wrote, referring to US assistance toward Taiwan in a Taipei Times article.
However, Ed was also clear eyed about the importance of the United States and Taiwan in working with China as cooperative partners as much as possible. He cited and agreed with former US State Department Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell’s point: the challenge for both the United States and Taiwan is to find the optimal environment that is conducive to Taiwan’s continuing peaceful engagement with China while providing Taiwan with suitable defensive weapons that afford it the confidence of US support in its interactions with China; and responsibility for success rests with both Washington and Taipei (U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, Defense and Security Report, Second Quarter 2009, p. 15).
As we look back on Ed Ross’ life, his tremendous work stands out along with the significant accolades that accompanied his work.
His civilian awards included:
- Meritorious Senior Executive, conferred by President George W. Bush
- Three Secretary of Defense Medals for Meritorious Civilian Service, conferred by Secretaries Dick Cheney, William Perry, and Robert Gates
- The Order of Resplendent Banner with Yellow Grand Cordon, presented by Republic of China Minister of Defense Lee Tien-yu
- Outstanding Achievement Medal, presented by Philippine Secretary of National Defense, Gilberto C. Teodoro, Jr.
His military awards included:
- Silver Star
- Bronze Star
- Defense Superior Service Medal
- Defense Meritorious Service Medal
- Air Medal with “V” Device with Oak Leaf Cluster
- Army Commendation Medal
- Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star
- Aircraft Crewman’s Badge
- Inducted into the Artillery Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame in May 1997
Ed’s life was a life well lived in service to country and family. He is survived by his wife of 48 years, his son, daughter and son-in-law, and two grandsons. Throughout his career, he performed superbly from the fields and jungles of Vietnam, to the corridors of the Pentagon, and afterwards. He never forgot who his friends were, whether it was those who fought by his side during the war, those in his neighborhood and community, or a partner such as Taiwan across the Pacific. Likewise, he continually exhorted the United States to be loyal to its partners and friends.
The main point: Ed Ross passed away on May 16, 2017, and on that day we lost a great mind within the East Asia policy community as well as a patriot. Ross’s post-military career demonstrated his steadfast support of Taiwan and his burial in Arlington Cemetery is befitting of a veteran, decorated officer, and loving husband, father, and grandfather.