Fighting with the Army You Have: An Alternate Vision of Taiwan Defense Reform and US-Taiwan Security Cooperation (Part 2)

Fighting with the Army You Have: An Alternate Vision of Taiwan Defense Reform and US-Taiwan Security Cooperation (Part 2)

Fighting with the Army You Have: An Alternate Vision of Taiwan Defense Reform and US-Taiwan Security Cooperation (Part 2)

Over the last 20 years, there has been a steady stream of Western military observers advocating for the development of asymmetric Taiwanese military capabilities, while castigating the state of Taiwan defense reform. These articles usually come with the implication that Taiwan is not serious about its defense—and sometimes, such statements are not all that implicit.

In Part 1, I discussed how Taiwanese and Western definitions of deterrence and asymmetry often mean that the two sides are talking past each other. In this part, I will look at the ways in which the legacy of past US-Taiwan security cooperation has complicated prospects for reform. I then propose a few methods by which security cooperation can be optimized to address US and Taiwan political/military needs.

The Historical Legacy of an Americanized Military

The historical legacy of US-Taiwan security cooperation is evident to even a casual observer of the Taiwan military: it is visible in structure, equipment, uniforms, and even unit logos. This is the result of decades of partnership, particularly from the era of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty of 1955-1980 (中美共同防禦條約).

At the height of the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1958, almost 20,000 Americans were stationed on Taiwan, with US advisors and technicians responsible for training, integration, and maintenance of Taiwan air defense, radar and communications, aircraft, and naval ports. This left a heavy imprint on the Taiwan military, with each individual service seeking to emulate the tactics and operational methods of their American counterparts. The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) was particularly prone to this, as ROCAF units such as the Black Cat Squadron were not just trained by the Americans but also closely integrated with the US Air Force (USAF) and the Central Intelligence Agency. The legacy of this era was a large ROCAF that was funded, trained, and armed/equipped along USAF lines, with similar strengths (such as exquisitely-trained pilots) and similar weaknesses (such as a significant logistics tail). Just as the USAF developed something of a so-called “fighter mafia” glorifying air-to-air combat, so too did the ROCAF.Thus, well-intentioned Western advice for the ROCAF to focus on asymmetric defense—such as focusing on ground-based missiles, while shifting away from manned fighter aircraft—not only goes against political imperatives such as the need to confront People’s Republic of China (PRC) gray zone warfare incursions, but also against institutional history, culture, and structure. These are very real institutional and political concerns that are difficult to address simply via exhortations for Taiwan to get “serious” about defense. In the United States, for instance, it took two wars (the Vietnam War and the invasion of Grenada) as well as the very public botching of the 1980 Iranian hostage rescue mission to act as a catalyst to partially overcome inter-service rivalry with the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

The Historical Legacy of Security Cooperation Without Coordination

The second historical legacy of US-Taiwan security cooperation is that of the strategic-level restrained alliance up to 1979; and after 1979, the restrained partnership. Even in the era of the Mutual Defense Treaty, differences between the strategic goals of the US (Taiwan as a defensive bulwark against Communist China) and Taiwan [reclamation of the mainland, as planned for in “Project National Glory” (國光計劃)] meant certain limits on operational coordination. This dropped to zero coordination following the US transfer of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, with limited US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Taiwan throughout the 1980s.

Following the Tiananmen Square massacre (六四天安門事件) and the end of the Cold War, the George H.W. Bush administration restarted FMS on its current basis: roughly 6-8 notifications a year, with notable declines in 2003-2006 and 2012-2014.

As the dates of those exceptions imply, a significant number of factors played a role in FMS to Taiwan: the US relationship with the PRC (2003-2006 was the era of the US/PRC talk of cooperation In the Global War on Terror; 2012-2014 was the era of the attempted US “reset” in relations with the PRC), US administration perceptions of Taiwan’s political leadership, and Taiwanese political approval of special defense budgeting. All of these factors had enormous and largely deleterious effects in how the US conducted security cooperation with Taiwan, and how Taiwan conducted its own defense reform. While the vastly increased PRC threat over the last decade has driven US arms sales to Taiwan to new heights, the level of overall coordination between the two sides has remained relatively low, with relatively few venues outside the strategic-level Monterey Talks (which were in any case originally designed to avoid discussion of arms sales).

Recommendations for an Improved US-Taiwan Security Relationship

The factors considered in this and my prior piece indicate several ways forward to optimize US-Taiwan security cooperation.

1.         Establish and prioritize closer strategic coordination, operational defense planning, and defense acquisition ties between the US and Taiwan.

In US Defense Security Cooperation Agency FMS announcements, there is a standard line: “The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.” This is ironically true for FMS to Taiwan, which can be slow and irregular to the point that it cannot keep up with the scale of PRC military modernization. US FMS tends to treat Taiwan as a “standard” defense partner with substandard restrictions. This means that Taiwan FMS cases must go through additional convoluted processes, at regular procedural handling speeds despite INDOPACOM identifying the defense of Taiwan as vital to US national security. This is worsened by the fact that even after the Department of Defense process, Taiwan arms sales are often not evaluated in a regular, consistent manner by the rest of the US government.

Moreover, security cooperation is typically executed on a somewhat ad hoc basis. US technical experts and FMS practitioners are often disconnected from Taiwan political-military expertise, an arrangement that often provides openings for defense contractors to provide both the US government as well as Taiwan with contradictory advice. This begets constant delays in acquisitions and even basic maintenance, to the detriment of both conventional and asymmetric capabilities.

Thus, establishing a program of regular, institutionalized defense planning and acquisition discussions would allow the US and Taiwan to outline a common operating picture, coordinate and prioritize platform acquisition, and better understand how these capabilities fit into each other’s defense planning.

2.         Assist Taiwan with building both a viable stand-in as well as a standoff force.

US pressure for asymmetry is driven by concerns that Taiwan platforms are not survivable given the expected PLA Joint Firepower Strike campaign. However, American concerns do not translate well in Taiwan due to the combination of domestic political and morale issues, the PRC gray zone offensive, and institutional resistance to a drastic military overhaul. One way to square the circle is for Taiwan to urgently acquire additional F-16Vs as a “stand-in force” to replace the Taiwan Air Force’s aging Mirage-2000s and Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs), both of which have extremely high operating costs and are plagued with maintenance issues. This would allow Taiwan to more sustainably, selectively, and credibly respond to PLAAF incursions.

Additionally, the United States could offer the ROCAF’s ultimate dream—the F-35—contingent on the fulfillment of a number of provisions, such as ensuring that the F-35s are stationed in the United States for training, similar to how a number of Taiwan F-16s are stationed at Luke AFB with the 21st Fighter Squadron. These F-35s could then operate as Taiwan’s “standoff force,” which would be invaluable given the expected significant rate of aircraft attrition in any high-end fight. Given the magnitude of this carrot, other provisos to the sale could then include ensuring adequate munitions stocks and investing in additional missiles, ground-based defense, electronic warfare capabilities, etc. This would be similar to how the US sale of the M1A2T tanks to Taiwan was packaged with a separate, smaller sale of Stinger man-portable missiles, which allowed Taiwan to gain asymmetric capabilities while addressing military institutional concerns.

3.         Extend Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Taiwan to complement existing FMS.

Israel and its military are often held up as a model for Taiwan; however, Israel is also the recipient of an annual infusion of USD $3.3 billion in FMF, which makes up roughly 15-20 percent of the Israeli defense budget. Offering Taiwan FMF assistance in conjunction with existing FMS would likely be the quickest way for Taiwan to gain asymmetric capabilities, and would provide the US with greater influence over the military reform process. Moreover, this would be a powerful way of refuting arguments that US security cooperation is designed to enrich the US at the expense of Taiwan. 


Taiwan asymmetric military reform has been discussed exhaustively for years. However, differences in definitions of asymmetry and deterrence, institutional resistance from a military that has long seen the US military as the gold standard to replicate, and a lack of coordination in planning, have kept both reform and security cooperation from working at a maximum level of effectiveness. On a more strategic level, the dual nature of the PRC gray zone and invasion challenge precludes an either/or vision of Taiwan military reform. This vision is itself an artifact of the years when Taiwan was seen, at best, as just another security partner of the United States; and at worst, as an irritant in US-PRC relations. The nature of the threat has changed, and so must the US and Taiwan response.

The main point: For US assistance to Taiwan defense reform to be effective, the United States and Taiwan must be able to coordinate their efforts in a way that realistically and respectfully addresses the defense needs of both sides.