For nearly three decades—until the severing of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Republic of China (ROC) in 1979—American forces were based in Taiwan. Beginning with the establishment of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in 1951, Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel contributed to the defense of Taiwan and strengthened the US forward defense perimeter. The departure of US forces from Taiwan created a gap in the US military presence in the Western Pacific, but a manageable one for a time: for even with Taiwan Defense Command and the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) things of the past, Taiwan remained independent from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and possessed a military that outclassed its rival across the Taiwan Strait. Even on its own, Taiwan was able to deter Chinese aggression and deny the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) open access to the Western Pacific.
While Taiwan remains independent of the PRC, the PLA has advanced by leaps and bounds during the past two decades. As the use of force to subdue Taiwan becomes more feasible, a Chinese decision to do so also becomes more likely. Today’s commanders of the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) must look back with envy at their Cold War predecessors and their access to facilities on the island. If in the coming years the political obstacles to force deployments were to evaporate, what forces might INDOPACOM commanders seek to position in Taiwan?
The US Navy has an ongoing, rotational littoral combat ship (LCS) presence in Singapore. Other American warships conducting routine operations or responding to crises in the South China Sea, however, must come from further afield: namely, Japan, Guam, Hawaii, or the US West Coast. Given the likelihood of sustained tensions in the South China Sea and given China’s growing military presence there, it behooves the United States to enhance its own presence as well. More American ships spending more time in the contested waters would act as a deterrent to all parties, facilitate efforts to build partnership capacity via bilateral exercises, create more opportunities for bilateral and multilateral patrols, and ensure US forces can respond rapidly to incidents there.
Located at the northeastern terminus of the South China Sea, Taiwan would be an ideal site for a permanent or rotational American naval presence. LCS are well-tailored for presence missions and have a relatively light footprint. Based in Taiwan, they would also be well-positioned to regularly patrol the waters around the island, complicating the PLA’s ability to carry out provocative acts. The LCS’s surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and mine countermeasures module options would all have utility in the event of a cross-Strait crisis. The new guided missile frigates under development would be a viable follow-on once they are put to sea, and would be better able to contribute materially to the defense of Taiwan than the LCS.
Marine Littoral Regiments
The US Marine Corps is about to begin experimenting with a new unit construct optimized for operations in the Pacific theater: the Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR). An MLR will consist of 1,800 to 2,000 Marines and sailors, divided into three elements:
“The Littoral Combat Team (LCT) is task-organized around an infantry battalion along with a long-range anti-ship missile battery…[spokesman Maj. Josh Benson] said. “The Littoral Anti-Air Battalion is designed to train and employ air defense, air surveillance and early warning, air control, and forward rearming and refueling capabilities. The Littoral Logistics Battalion provides tactical logistics support to the MLR by resupplying expeditionary advance base sites, managing cache sites, and connecting to higher-level logistics providers,” along with also providing for medical and maintenance capabilities.
One or more MLRs based in Taiwan, besides having frequent opportunities to train with Taiwan’s own marines, would pose a potent threat to Chinese naval operations in waters north and south of the island and would allow US forces to more easily “seal up” the first island chain (running from Japan south through Taiwan and to the Philippines) if needed. MLRs, with their anti-ship missiles and amphibious training, would also be a force multiplier for Taiwan in the event of a blockade or cross-Strait invasion. Beyond the Strait, MLRs in Taiwan would also be in close proximity to the South China Sea and its littoral states.
Medium- and Intermediate-Range Missiles
Mobile anti-ship missiles might not be the only missiles the INDOPACOM commander would like to deploy to Taiwan. In August 2019, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which had banned ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, and quickly began testing new missiles.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has made clear that the Pentagon wants to place intermediate-range missiles in Asia once they become operational (a good overview of these missiles’ utility in the region can be found here). If it were feasible, Taiwan would likely be on his list of potential host nations. In the event of a conflict, mobile ground-launched medium or intermediate-range missiles placed in Taiwan would allow for strikes deep into Chinese territory. The presence of such capabilities in Taiwan, moreover, would help to deter Beijing from pursuing forceful annexation. Beijing would know that if it launched an attack on Taiwan, Chinese territory would get hit hard—the war would extend far beyond the Taiwan Strait, and damage would not be limited to coastal Fujian province.
Special Operations Forces
There are good reasons for INDOPACOM to seek the deployment of special operations forces (SOF) to Taiwan. With two decades of combat experience under their belts, SOF units could provide regular, valuable training to their Taiwan counterparts. This could perhaps include training on how to wage irregular warfare, should it come to that. Recent American operations, however, have not provided US forces with the knowledge and experiences necessary to effectively grapple with the particular challenges that they might face in a conflict between the United States and China. Indeed, American SOF units probably have much to learn from Taiwan’s own special forces—how to conduct civil affairs in a Taiwan context; how to identify and counter Chinese political warfare; how Chinese special forces operate; and the unique challenges to be expected should operations in China be required. Deployment in Taiwan, of course, would also provide American special operators with an opportunity to enhance their language skills—and not just in Mandarin, but also in other dialects that could be of use in the event of a crisis.
Deployed to Taiwan, SOF would be poised to respond rapidly should a crisis erupt. Working hand-in-hand with their local counterparts, American SOF could contribute to counter-infiltration missions and would be positioned to conduct operations across the Strait should the need arise. As with naval and Marine Corps deployments, US SOF in Taiwan would also be in prime position to respond rapidly to crises in Southeast Asia should their assistance be requested.
With upwards of 1,500 cruise and ballistic missiles within range of Taiwan, the PLA poses a substantial missile threat to Taiwan. Depending on the scenario, the PLA could potentially use those missiles to pound military bases, soften up coastal defenses, take out critical infrastructure, or eliminate high value targets. Accordingly, missile defense has been a major concern of Taiwan’s defense planners. The ROC military now has 10 Patriot missile batteries—all purchased from the United States—and plans to field 12 indigenous Tiangong III anti-ballistic missile interceptor batteries (which will replace 1960s-era MIM-23 Hawks).
Taiwan will never field enough interceptors to negate the PLA missile threat, but combined with passive defenses and electronic warfare operations, missile defenses may be able to protect select important targets. The INDOPACOM commander might want to complement Taiwan’s own capabilities by deploying forces to provide a more layered missile defense—here, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery or an Aegis Ashore installation might be valuable. Such assets would likewise serve to provide a shield for other US forces based on the island, which would likely employ their own medium-range and point defenses. In other words, the United States could help to make Taiwan a much harder target for the PLA Rocket Force.
In the absence of a mutual defense treaty between the United States and Taiwan, it remains difficult to imagine much less implement significant, public US force deployments to Taiwan in the coming years. Yet as the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, the world can change in a hurry. Indeed, COVID-19 might prove to be an inflection point in Washington’s approach to Taiwan, accelerating its extant pursuit of a far more normal defense relationship with Taipei.
Thinking through what a theoretical US force laydown in Taiwan would look like is a useful exercise. It prepares the United States to move quickly should deployments become possible. Perhaps more importantly for the near-term, the thought exercise highlights potential shortcomings of current US force posture in Asia, which should prod defense leaders to mitigate them.
The main point: A hypothetical US military presence in Taiwan in the coming years could prominently feature naval forces, Marines, medium- and intermediate-range missiles, special operations forces, and missile defense.