Richard D. Fisher, Jr., is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and a member of the Advisory Board of the Global Taiwan Institute.
While Taiwan’s 2018 defense concerns will be dominated by new Chinese threats and the constant challenge of finding the resources to support military modernization, it also begins with a change in leadership. On February 26, President Tsai Ing-wen’s first Minister of National Defense, retired former Taiwan Air Force (TAF) General Feng Shih-kuan (馮世寬), was succeeded by former National Security Council (NSC) Secretary General and retired Taiwan Army General Yen Teh-fa (嚴德發). As a former Chairman of Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC), General Feng had gained Tsai’s confidence in part by contributing to pre-election Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) defense policies now targeting indigenous defense industry development. While at the NSC it is likely that General Yeh’s handling of defense and domestic emergency challenges impressed President Tsai and the NSC’s former secretary-general, now Foreign Minister Dr. Joseph Wu (吳釗燮).
As he departs, General Feng can take some of the credits for a 1.9 percent increase in Taiwan’s 2018 defense budget to NT327.8 billion (USD $10.7 billion), reaching 2 percent of Taiwan’s Gross Domestic Product. In late October 2017, President Tsai pledged an annual 2 percent increase in defense spending. An increase in defense spending and a change in leadership at the Ministry of National Defense (MND), however, does not diminish Chinese growing military threats, the urgency of Taiwan’s military modernization and the need for greater American and regional strategic support amid Taipei’s new concentration on building indigenous capabilities.
Greater Operational and Military Technical Constriction from China
Added momentum toward conflict over Taiwan is one possible result from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) recent decision to terminate the two-term limit (five years per term) for the president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). By 2023 when he may start his third term, Xi Jinping will have had 16 years of Politburo and then Central Military Commission Chairman level experience leading the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). By the early 2020s Xi’s PLA will be realizing the reforms he started in late 2015 to better enable PLA Joint Operations, have a more widespread 4th generation level of equipment, and a top PLA leadership loyal to him. Thus, the CPP and PLA could be more united and prepared for military action against Taiwan at a time when Xi may require a foreign war to justify the domestic repression needed to ensure his rule.
While the danger of Chinese attack or invasion becomes more serious by the mid-2020s, in 2018 the PLA will likely continue the operational and technical “constriction” of Taiwan, which began in 2017. This year may see the introduction of a new version of the Xian H-6K bomber capable of aerial refueling, meaning that in a single mission H-6K bombers could fly multiple circles around Taiwan. This year the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) air dominance capabilities will advance as it develops cooperative tactics between its 5th Generation fighters (e.g, the Chengdu J-20 fighters) and 4+ generation fighters (e.g., the Shenyang J-16), a project underway in the US and soon to begin in Japan. A second PLA Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier is expected to start trials in 2018, and when a third carrier is complete in the early 2020s, PLAN airpower can be deployed East of Taiwan for blockade missions and to attack US and other forces seeking to defend Taiwan. A shocking late January revelation of a prototype PLA railgun on a test ship in Wuhan, beating the US to this stage of development, indicates that Taiwan must also prepare to confront new 6th Generation PLA warfare capabilities, like energy weapons and space weapons.
What Fighter Will Replace the Mirage 2000?
Finding a successor to the TAF’s 55 French Dassault Mirage-2000-5 4th Generation fighters purchased in 1992 is one modernization priority for 2018. A tragic loss of a Mirage on November 7, 2017 highlighted the fighter’s longstanding logistic challenges, such as low availability rates due to high priced spare parts, perhaps twice that of the TAF’s Lockheed-Martin F-16s according one report. Reports indicate that Taiwan may be interested in updating its Mirage fighters, while other reports note France has in the past been reluctant to help. While an effective platform for the 1990s, Taiwan’s Mirage-2000s are increasingly outclassed by PLAAF 4+ and 5th Generation fighters with weapons like the estimated 200km range PL-15 air to air missile (AAM), outclassing the 50km range Matra MICA AAMs of the Mirage.
As a possible successor to the Mirage, Taiwan has made clear its desire for a modest number of 5th Generation Lockheed Martin F-35B short take-off or vertical landing (STOVL) fighters, but has also reportedly been rebuffed by US officials. Subsequently, reports indicate Taiwan has also discussed a purchase of advanced versions of the Boeing F-15E or F/A-18E/F, both 4+ Generation fighters with advanced radar and electronics, but lacking all-aspect stealth. However, it is not clear they will have the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) of the F-35 that can detect ballistic missiles out to 800 miles and help cue missile interceptors. Also, they will not have the tactical flexibility of being able to land on US Navy or Japanese Navy aircraft carriers. The F-35B may also be an early US fighter to be armed with combat-capable laser weapons, potentially providing Taiwan with a path to 6th Generation warfare capabilities.
A third, but more distant option, is a new indigenous Taiwanese fighter that may begin development in the mid-2020s, to succeed the lightweight AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo. Taiwanese officials note they can develop the electronic systems and even the turbofans for such a fighter but would rather save the time and expense by purchasing a US turbofan. If Taipei prefers another less expensive lightweight fighter, perhaps a co-development based on the next-generation US “T-X” trainer could save more money.
Advancing the Submarine Program
After decades of failing to acquire new submarines, to include a failed effort by the George W. Bush Administration to sell Taiwan eight new submarines, a decision to proceed with an indigenous submarine program coalesced in early 2009 under the previous Ma Ying-jeou Administration. But, consistent with her policy to strengthen Taiwan’s indigenous defense sector, it was President Tsai who saw the start of its construction program with the April 2017 signing of a cooperation memorandum between Taiwan’s China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC) and the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology. An estimated cost of $3.29 billion per submarine will add pressure to increase defense budgets. Taiwan also requires a foreign partner to provide some critical technology not available in Taiwan. Reportedly, the Obama Administration in its final days did not decide whether the Raytheon Corporation could be CSBC’s partner, and the Trump Administration has yet to advance this issue.
Whither Washington: Offensive, Asymmetric or Both?
While there is little indication that a resolution is forthcoming, 2018 should be a year in which Washington relaxes longstanding differences with Taipei over the latter’s requirement for so-called “offensive” military capabilities. Largely justified by US policies of the 1970s, which prioritized established relations with the PRC over selling “offensive” weapons to Taipei, the US has intervened to halt Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program and some long-range missile programs, perhaps most recently helping to terminate a Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) program in 2009. This has been part of a larger US balancing of containing Taiwan’s military capabilities, to give Beijing incentive to accept “papered over” objections to US unofficial support for Taiwan, all enforced by the assurance of US military intervention so that “the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”
However, this US formula for stability is cracking under the strain of China’s gathering military capabilities, including real preparations for invading Taiwan and the acquisition of capabilities to prevent American military intervention, which erodes Taiwan’s confidence in US security assurances. One result, as explained by Fu S. Mei, is bipartisan support in Taipei for new medium range missiles for “counterforce” missions that degrade PLA capabilities to attack Taiwan. Taiwan’s 1,000 km range Hsiung Feng-IIE land attack cruise missile may now be in serial production, while Taipei may also be developing a new 300 km short-range ballistic missile. Offensive and defensive missiles are to be controlled by a new Air Defense and Missile Command under the TAF, whose former commander, General Shen Yi-ming (沈一鳴), was just promoted to Deputy Defense Minister.
Since 2013, US officials have commented on engaging Taiwanese counterparts regarding their obtaining new “asymmetric” military capabilities, but these have not been revealed. Washington can take bolder action. The intentions of the Trump Administration to revive a tactical nuclear weapon armed sea-launched cruise missile as part of its recent Nuclear Posture Review will go far to reverse an erosion in confidence in the US extended nuclear deterrent among US allies and friends. But Washington could also provide quiet support for Taiwan’s non-nuclear counterforce missiles and provide technology to enable short-range missiles. Washington could also strengthen Taiwan’s confidence in a more “defensive” strategy by helping it to develop energy weapons, like railguns and lasers, to counter China’s massive missile advantage.
Whither Washington: Looking for a Place in the ‘Quad’
As part of its theme of promoting “Indo-Pacific” cooperation to help counter China, the Trump Administration has revived the lapsed 2007 Japan-initiated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or ‘Quad,’ involving Japan, India, Australia, and the United States. While it is too early to tell if the Quad will acquire alliance-like features, its revival reflects real concerns regarding Chinese aggression that could lead to deeper security and economic cooperation. Being the most threatened target of Chinese aggression, Taiwan stands to benefit from any grouping seeking to counter China’s power ambitions.
Yet, the Quad also stands to benefit from potential Taiwan contributions, both active and passive. A free and democratic Taiwan, merely by surviving, helps to ‘blockade’ China’s global military projection. Actively, Taiwan could help to warn Japan, which is now arming its Ryuku Islands close to Taiwan, of PLA forces approaching from the South. Taiwan’s long-range surveillance radar at Leshan (樂山) that covers most of China, could make an important contribution if the Quad sought to pool intelligence resource to create a constant real time “common picture” of PLA activities. Benefits to the Quad of a Taiwanese security cooperation contribution will outweigh the impact of China’s anger at such cooperation.
The main point: Defense concerns for Taiwan in 2018 include usual consideration of gathering threats from China and requirements to increase defense spending, but also begin with a change in leadership, with retired Army General Yen Teh-fa as the new Minister of National Defense. In 2018, China could increase operational and technical constriction of Taiwan as its H-6K bombers gain aerial refueling capabilities and China advances its development of energy weapons. These could eventually counter Taiwan’s recent decision to develop non-nuclear long-range “offensive” missiles, which in turn challenges Washington to consider other “asymmetric” means to increase Taiwan’s defenses, like energy weapons.