Midterm Assessment of the Tsai Administration: 10 Ways to Strengthen Overall Defense

Midterm Assessment of the Tsai Administration: 10 Ways to Strengthen Overall Defense

Midterm Assessment of the Tsai Administration: 10 Ways to Strengthen Overall Defense

Two years after President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration, her administration has made progress to strengthen Taiwan’s deterrence and defense against China’s threats of coercion and conflict. At this juncture, the United States and other countries are watching for sustained efforts. Progress depends on strong presidential and military leadership to increase the defense budget, raise readiness for warfighting, address limits to a volunteer force, and modernize the military with asymmetric capabilities. The key question is: what efforts will urgently, coherently strengthen Taiwan’s overall defense?

Different Views on Deterrence

President Tsai, the Ministry of National Defense (MND), and the National Security Council (NSC) of the Republic of China (ROC), commonly called Taiwan, exercise leadership for defense policy. After MND’s publication of Taiwan’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) in March 2017, MND followed up with the National Defense Report (NDR) in December 2017. As announced by the QDR, the Tsai Administration issued the guidance of “Resolute Defense, Multi-domain Deterrence” (防衛固守、重層嚇阻) to Taiwan’s military strategy. Initial critics asked whether there were rhetorical changes with unclear words and misunderstanding of deterrence.

More fundamentally, one main question is whether Taiwan places the strategic elements backward. US strategic thinking emphasizes deterrence ahead of defense, understanding that in case of failure to deter, then the challenge becomes how to defeat the enemy and win the conflict. The summary of the new US National Defense Strategy of 2018 stated succinctly that “should deterrence fail, the Joint Force is prepared to win.” In Taiwan’s case, a US official of the Defense Department stressed, in a coordinated speech of the Trump Administration in October 2017, that Taiwan needs to strengthen a credible, resilient, and cost-effective deterrent.

The longer-term context helps to explain Taiwan’s military strategic thinking. As described by Taiwan’s latest NDR, the strategic guidance has evolved in the following progression:

1949-1969:  Offensive Posture
1969-1979:  Offense and Defense in One
1979-2002:  Defensive Posture
2002-2009:  Effective Deterrence and Resolute Defense
2009-2017:  Resolute Defense for Effective Deterrence
2017-present:  Resolute Defense, Multi-domain Deterrence

First, as seen in this evolution of strategy, Taiwan’s leaders traditionally have ordered an offensive or defensive posture to the mission of the armed forces. In Taiwan’s fundamental perception since 1979, its military strategy has served the island’s homeland defense rather than seek to attack the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to “recover the mainland.”

Second, Taiwan’s military guidance of “Resolute Defense, Multi-domain Deterrence” summarizes the strategic objective of defense with tactics of deterrence that would entail offensive or defensive operations. The NDR declares that Taiwan’s armed forces have used “all-out defensive power and the natural advantages of the Taiwan Strait to build multi-layered defense in depth for operational sustainability and to achieve ‘strategic endurance.'” Also, the armed forces maximize multi-domain deterrence with joint warfighting capabilities. 

Third, through 2017, there was a subtle change in Taiwan’s deterrent concept in the event of China’s invasion or aggression. The QDR stated the guiding principle as “resist the enemy on the other shore, attack the enemy on the sea, destroy the enemy in the littoral area, and annihilate the enemy on the beachhead.” The NDR stated the principle as “preserve warfighting capability, pursue decisive victory in the littoral area, and annihilate the enemy in the beach area.” A question concerns whether Taiwan’s armed forces shifted to place less emphasis on operations, such as those using various missiles, to erode the PRC’s military capabilities by taking the fight as far away from Taiwan as possible. Also, is Taiwan expanding joint and multi-domain operations to counter the PRC in maritime and other traditional domains as well as space and cyberspace?

In addition to differences with the US approach, Taiwan’s concept of deterrence differs from the PRC’s concept of deterrence. PRC deterrence also entails compellence by threatening coercion or use of force to bring Taiwan against its will into “unification” under the PRC’s rule. In 2017, US Defense Department’s Annual Report to Congress on the PRC’s military warned that it “continues to prepare for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait to deter and, if necessary, compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence, or to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force, while simultaneously deterring, delaying, or denying any third-party intervention on Taiwan’s behalf.” In other words, as Dean Cheng has written, China’s deterrence is “a form of political activity and psychological warfare, whereby an adversary is constrained in his actions, allowing China to achieve its goals.”

Domestic Defense Industries

The Tsai administration stresses what it calls “self-reliance” in the defense strategy. Taiwan has three priorities: military aviation (particularly, the Advanced Jet Trainer), naval shipbuilding (particularly, the Indigenous Defense Submarine), and information security (particularly, cybersecurity). This emphasis on Taiwan’s indigenous industries seeks greater political and economic support for defense. 

However, Taiwan still requires foreign assistance and technology. Indigenous programs also raise concerns about additional costs, inconsistency with asymmetric advantages, and leakage of technology.

Reforms for Warfighting

According to the NDR, the MND established two new commands under the military strategy of “Resolute Defense, Multi-domain Deterrence.” MND set up the Information, Communications, and Electronic Force Command (ICEFCOM) in July 2017. As a joint command, ICEFCOM integrates the information, communications, and electronic capabilities of the three services. This “cyber command” supports Taiwan’s overall cybersecurity. In addition, in September 2017, the Air Force set up the Air Defense and Missile Command for joint, integrated air defense.

In facing China’s large military threat, the NDR declares that Taiwan will exploit asymmetric advantages to ensure implementation of the military strategy. Taiwan recognizes that it must apply asymmetric and innovative tactics. Moreover, the NDR commits development and acquisition of weapons systems to focus on mobility, stealth, speed, low cost, abundance, minimum damage, and effectiveness.

The NDR recognizes that planning for such a force “must break free from the traditional concept of building equal military power […].” This military buildup focuses on precision strike munitions; information, communications, and electronic warfare; anti-armor missiles; air defense missiles; small and fast warships; mine warfare; and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Taiwan stresses survivability in facing China’s missile threats. Taiwan’s military is improving logistics, morale, and mobilization of reserves. Taiwan is raising readiness through more realistic joint exercises and training. In particular, Taiwan is applying some US military doctrines to develop and revise more than 1,000 doctrines. However, training of reserves is limited to 5-7 days of training only once every two years. 

Taiwan addresses problems in shifting to a volunteer force, including by offering greater incentives for recruitment and retention as well as improved housing. However, the NDR acknowledges continued demographic and other challenges in shifting to a volunteer force. The NDR reports that Taiwan’s military personnel has shrunk in size through at least four periods of reduction from about 490,000 (1993-1996), to 380,000 (1997-2001), to 270,000 (2004-2010), and down to 210,000 (2011-2014). The NDR lacks current information on shaping the force structure, making needed adjustments, and assessing whether military manpower is adequate.

Progress in Overall Defense

Half-way through Tsai’s term, Taiwan is making progress to strengthen deterrence and defense against China’s increasing threats. Taiwan has neither the time nor the money to waste. Taiwan could sustain progress in overall defense in 10 key ways.

  1. Taiwan could commit to a lasting concept for overall defense that reconciles inconsistent goals of policy by placing greater weight on joint, innovative, and asymmetric needs than each service’s parochial preferences in procurement.
  2. Taiwan might devote urgent attention to deterrence with recognition that the challenge of China’s deterrence entails compellence to force “unification” under its “one China” principle.
  3. To counter PRC political warfare, Taiwan needs improved strategic communication, but the NDR mentions it as just a subset of military morale. In a speech in 2016, Admiral Harry Harris, then Commander of the US Pacific Command stressed his formula for deterrence: Capability x Resolve x Signaling = Deterrence. Harris stressed that “all three elements, capability, resolve, and signaling, must be present for deterrence to exist. And because we’re doing multiplication, not addition, if any of these elements are missing, you’ve got zero deterrence.”
  4. Taiwan needs to increase financial resources for defense, a goal the NDR did not state, while investing in affordable capabilities. The NDR reported that Taiwan’s defense budget actually dropped from NT$320.1 billion in 2016 to NT$319.3 billion (US$10.2 billion) in 2017. This budget amounted to only 1.8 percent of GDP.
  5. Taiwan might evaluate the effectiveness of the Information, Communications, and Electronic Force Command, and Air Defense and Missile Command.
  6. Taiwan could stress missile defense against China and North Korea. The NDR omitted the long-range radar (Surveillance Radar Program) as a key weapons system.
  7. Taiwan needs to ensure continuity of government in peacetime and wartime. A requirement is to clarify the order of succession if the President, who commands the military, is incapacitated.
  8. Taiwan needs to recognize limitations of a volunteer force, including whether an “all volunteer force” is impossible. The reality is a hybrid professional and conscripted force structure. Taiwan could transform the reserve force, such as raising its combat readiness and increasing its realistic training.
  9. In continuing consultation with the US military, Taiwan could further revise doctrines and assess needed weapons systems, including whether traditional tanks and fighters are suitable for Taiwan’s terrain and infrastructure or for sustainable, effective, and affordable capabilities.
  10. Taiwan could pay attention to US Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) as well as Foreign Military Sales (FMS). The NDR discussed US cooperation in the form of FMS and military-to-military exchanges but did not mention DCS for defense. Taiwan needs security clearances, technology controls, and separation of commercial and defense units in companies.

The main point:  With the current opportunity offered by US support of the Trump Administration and Congress (e.g., in National Defense Authorization Acts), Taiwan could coherently conceptualize its deterrence and defense. Taiwan will sustain progress for its strong overall defense with a new concept.