Taiwan has been rethinking its defense without much having visibly changed. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) threat is different than it was 20 years ago, or even a decade ago, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now far more powerful and capable of an assault across the Taiwan Strait. A revised defense strategy including updated operational concepts, new and different weaponry, and a revamped, revitalized force structure are in order. Conceptually it is not difficult; in practice, it is. Changing old habits is hard—and not just for Taiwan.
Japan had to transform its defense strategy owing to changed threats over a decade ago. The Japanese have been partially successful—even if work remains to be done—and their experience offers some lessons for Taiwan. Japan’s defense was for decades geared towards defending its northernmost island, Hokkaido, from Russian invasion. This was to be a conventional defense, not so different than how the Americans would fight the Russians in Western Europe. Tanks and artillery played a major role—and the Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) was configured accordingly. The Japan Air and Maritime Self Defense Forces would play their part while also backing up US forces that had a major role.
Not surprisingly, the GSDF was slow, ponderous, and relatively immobile—and there was little cooperation with the Japanese Air Force and Navy. About 15 years ago, however, according to this author’s personal knowledge, thoughtful JSDF officers—ironically, many of them in the GSDF—recognized the Russians were not coming but the Chinese were. They quietly pushed to shift the nation’s defense focus from Hokkaido to Japan’s southwest islands—the Nansei Shoto (or Ryukyus), and to transform the GSDF into a more mobile force—along the lines of the US Marine Corps—and capable of operating in a maritime environment.
This effort faced considerable resistance—not least from the so-called ‘Hokkaido Mafia’—from the GSDF armor officers who ruled the roost and historically claimed a lion’s share of the GSDF budget to meet the Russian onslaught. Even the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) and Japan Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF)—other than some ‘reformers’ in both services (especially the Navy)—were not excited about shifting southwards. They were used to a certain approach to business that didn’t involve joint or amphibious operations—or a Chinese adversary. And they already had too many missions and not enough money or manpower.
There was also civilian opposition. Refocusing and revamping the JSDF to defend the Nansei Shoto was deemed warlike and provocative, and was going to cost votes. The Chinese would complain about a revival of Japanese militarism. The author even heard American military and civilian leaders say it was dangerous—citing fears the Japanese might get out of control. Yet the shift happened, starting around 2010—as JSDF reformers saw the opportunity (and the requirement) and “ran with it.” There was even enough civilian and political support—along with tacit public support—for this so-called “dynamic defense” strategy. Indeed, it turned out there was probably more opposition within the JSDF than anywhere else.
Japan is quietly doing what is necessary to defend against China. Once unthinkable, Japan now has a small amphibious force, is fortifying the Nansei Shoto, has plans for an “aircraft carrier” that can handle F-35s, and is demonstrating better inter-service cooperation. While work is still needed on joint operating capabilities and integrating with US forces, among other things, Japan’s defense is far better postured from a decade earlier.
Yet, Tokyo remains unwilling to spend what is necessary on defense—even though it has the money. And when it does get out the checkbook, too often it buys big ticket “shiny objects”—without thinking how they fit into a coherent defense scheme. And despite getting a lot right, the Japanese government still overlooks the people in the JSDF. Not surprisingly, it cannot get enough recruits. Instead of spending the money needed to make service a respected profession that attracts young people, Tokyo wrings its hands and thinks up new slogans or “anime” ad campaigns, with predictable results. While JSDF has “reservists,” they are misused—to the extent they are not used at all.
The Japanese experience might sound familiar to Taiwan’s defense planners and civilian officials.
The Chinese military threat to Taiwan is alarmingly worse than it was a decade ago. However, Taiwan’s fundamental approach to defense is not so different than what the Americans taught 40 years ago—with mechanized infantry, massed artillery, aerial combat, destroyers sallying forth to take on the Chinese fleet, and the like. Most militaries’ idea of epoch change is to keep doing what they have been doing—but with more and newer weapons.
Yet, suppose the threat has changed and the opponent has figured out how to attack your vulnerabilities? A drastic re-think of defense concepts and doctrines—as well as the right sorts of hardware, weapons, and systems, and the proper make-up and employment of the armed force itself—are in order.
In Taiwan’s case, it is better to make its forces hard to find and hard to target, while taking advantage of the island’s steep terrain and urbanization—that is favorable for defense. In other words, a more mobile force and one skilled at urban combat is a key part of the equation.
While the Chinese PLA has improved on all fronts, advances in weaponry also give Taiwan’s military some advantages that it did not have before. In particular, long-range precision weapons such as missiles that can sink ships on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, portable air defense weapons that make life unpleasant for enemy aircraft, smart sea mines, and cyber and electronic warfare capabilities offer notable advantages for a defender.
With some effort, Taiwan can make itself into a “porcupine”—or like the Swiss with a touch of Hezbollah—that used an imaginative defense to defeat far more powerful Israeli forces in Lebanon in 2006. This sort of concept development is surprisingly instinctive: Do not think of how you would prefer to fight, but think of what an attacker would least like to face—and make sure he faces it.
And there are other aspects Taiwan has in common with the Japanese experience:
Just like Japan, successive Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Nationalist Party (KMT) administrations have neglected defense spending and the troops themselves. Taiwan’s military has been unable to attract enough recruits. Fixing the problem is not complicated: just do and spend what is necessary to make service an attractive and valued profession. And while the military is at it, make better use of reserve forces. Getting the “people” part right is more important than F-35s or submarines.
There is also a psychological benefit to defense transformation. In Japan’s case, the United States has come to view Japan as a more useful ally. Japanese confidence has improved, while Beijing no longer sees Japan as a pushover. Revamp Taiwan’s military and its defense scheme—and devote necessary resources—and you will likely find Washington proportionately more committed to backstopping Taiwan’s freedom. And Beijing may have second thoughts as well.
Yet, Taiwan’s government—regardless of which party is in power—needs to rapidly decide on a proper strategy. Ideally, it’s one that aims to make Taiwan “too tough a nut to crack”—rather than settling on an updated version of 1979’s strategy. And then, reorganize, equip, and train—and pay for it—while explaining constantly to the public what it is doing and why.
The main point: Continued dithering is dangerous—especially when the PRC knows what it intends to do to Taiwan and is on the way towards having a military that can do it. Japan had the luxury of time—Taiwan may not.