“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” – Donald Rumsfeld, 2004
For many Western military observers, there is a dream of “Fortress Taiwan”: a Taiwan military armed to the teeth with thousands of mobile missiles, sea mines, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); a standing army with the flexibility, training, and leeway to execute decentralized mission command, backed by a millions-strong, well-trained and equipped reserve ready to wage a long and bloody insurgency; and a political system where the cost of national defense is no object, with an electorate that is Spartan in character.
Unfortunately, Taiwan does not have this military structure, political system or society.
Nor are these systems likely to exist anytime soon, absent a sea-change or major shock. Elements of these systems might be attainable, but would require a truly significant escalation in Chinese gray-zone warfare, verging into open warfare—for instance, a Crimea-like seizure of Kinmen (金門), 10 km from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
This does not mean Taiwan is indifferent to its defense. Instead, Taiwan’s national security structure is better suited towards deterring and combating the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) constant gray-zone warfare, rather than preparing for a potential future invasion. In this article, I will highlight the differences in how the United States and Taiwan view deterrence, and outline a number of methods by which the United States can better assist Taiwan military reform in a way that addresses both the PRC gray zone campaign, as well as improving Taiwan’s ability to deter or respond to an all-out invasion.
Saying One Thing, Doing Another?
For years, Western military observers have commented on the decline of Taiwan’s relative defense advantage against the PRC. Back in 2000, David Shambaugh asserted that Taiwan’s qualitative training advantages and vigorous acquisition programs undertaken throughout the 1990s would keep Taiwan secure, but only through 2010. By 2008, William Murray’s seminal article “Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense Strategy” highlighted how PLA improvements in ballistic missile capabilities necessitated a shift from a symmetric defense to a porcupine strategy emphasizing coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCMs), truck-mounted Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), and sea mines. This represented a significant change in the way defense experts had been talking about Taiwan military reform; previously, the main focus had been on simply increasing defense spending and jointness.
Over the next decade, a long drumbeat of military experts began advocating for asymmetric weapons, rather than tanks and fighter aircraft. Taiwan’s response soon became rote as well: genuflecting at the idea of asymmetry, while simultaneously limiting its actual acquisition priorities to what Western observers would consider symmetric platforms. Taiwan’s first-ever Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) in 2009, for instance, mentioned the need for force mobility and asymmetrical warfighting. However, the subsequent 2013 QDR highlighted the need to “acquire next-generation fighters (with stealth, air re-fueling, long-range and BVR engagement capabilities).” Just to ensure US observers knew exactly which next-generation fighter Taiwan was referring to, the 2017 QDR specified that these fighters would “be capable of vertical or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) and having stealth characteristics.” Then, in 2018, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense, tired of US delegations lecturing on the importance of asymmetry, established the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (財團法人國防安全研究院) as a think-tank buffer.
This seeming incongruence has become a sore point in US-Taiwan security cooperation. On the US side, it often leads to charges that Taiwan is only interested in “flashy” or “big ticket” platforms that will not be survivable in a shooting war. From the Taiwan side, this leads to charges that the US leverages its status to advertently price-gouge and inadvertently weaken Taiwan’s defense industrial base, further creating dependency. The basis for this incongruence is that both sides have differing definitions of asymmetry and deterrence.
Deterrence and 威懾 Are Spelled Differently
From the Western/US standpoint, asymmetry for the Taiwan military should be designed around the principles of being low-cost and operationally effective. As Murray writes:
Rather than trying to destroy incoming ballistic missiles with costly PAC-3 SAMs, Taiwan should harden key facilities and build redundancies into critical infrastructure and processes so that it could absorb and survive a long-range precision bombardment. Rather than relying on its navy and air force (neither of which is likely to survive such an attack) to destroy an invasion force, Taiwan should concentrate on development of a professional standing army armed with mobile, short-range, defensive weapons. To withstand a prolonged blockade, Taiwan should stockpile critical supplies and build infrastructure that would allow it to attend to the needs of its citizens unassisted for an extended period […] Such shifts constitute a “porcupine strategy.” They would offer Taiwan a way to resist PRC military coercion for weeks or months without presuming immediate US intervention […] Perhaps most important, such a policy would allow the United States time to deliberate whether intervention was warranted.
The principles that Murray outlined detail deterrence by raising operational costs for the most-dangerous scenario of an outright invasion of Taiwan island. For the most part, these principles are the ones that US defense experts propose to Taiwan today.
From a Taiwan standpoint, these proposed reforms are problematic for multiple reasons. First, from a cultural-linguistic Chinese perspective, an operationally defensive military does not exert deterrent power. Deterrence is often translated into Chinese as “威懾” (weishe), but the definitions are different: “威懾” has connotations of both dissuasion and compellence, bordering on outright coercion. Thus, an operationally defensive military aimed at efficiently inflicting casualties on the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (aka the People’s Liberation Army) may not be optimized to coerce the leadership of the CCP, as high PLA casualties may not necessarily threaten the legitimacy of the Party.
Second, an asymmetric military would cede significant portions of the gray-zone space. Gray zone operations—the integration of political, psychological, economic, legal, and military pressure short of armed conflict—are the CCP’s preferred method of achieving unification, as they are far less costly than open warfare and can include elements of plausible deniability to control risk. For instance, the Party often uses air incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and across the Taiwan Strait median line to simultaneously demonstrate airspace control, exhaust Taiwanese defense resources (the cost of intercepts in 2020 was USD $1.09 billion, or roughly 9 percent of Taiwan’s military budget), and to create a public perception that the PLA is an unstoppable force.
A militarily asymmetric response, such as using radars/ground-based missile tracking or UAV patrols/intercepts of hostile incursions, could help address issues of attrition. However, as these responses are not public in nature, they do not provide an effective rejoinder to the CCP integrated military/propaganda campaign touting the omnipotence of the PLA and the weakness of the Taiwan military. Moreover, without the physical response of interception, there is a significant chance that far from deterring the PLAAF, these tactics could encourage the PLAAF to utilize salami-slicing tactics to move its incursions closer to Taiwan, thereby testing Taiwan’s willingness to escalate to a kinetic response.
Finally, there are the disruptive issues associated with a transition to an operationally asymmetric military that need to be considered. Currently, the Taiwan military is dealing with significant issues of morale. Given that asymmetric recommendations generally posit a shift to an air force that consists of ground-based air defense, a navy primarily composed of small fast-attack craft, an army that is built around elastic denial (i.e. ability to conduct a fighting withdrawal), and a reserve system that focuses on territorial defense/insurgency, implementing them would likely result in additional, and severe, morale and recruitment issues. Furthermore, these reforms could also cause other thorny problems associated with training/re-training, promotion, retention, and logistics. This type of disruption would (and does) face significant opposition from within military leadership, thus weakening military cohesion and actually reducing deterrent effects in the short to medium term.
Balancing Defense Capability
In the end, the binary debate over asymmetric or conventional military capability for Taiwan is problematic. Given the cross-Strait disparity in budget and force, as well as increasing PRC aggression in the gray zone, the only workable response is not one or the other, but rather “all of the above.” Currently, US security assistance to Taiwan tends to be a mishmash of defense equipment that pleases no one—and is often delayed to boot. Taking one example, Taiwan’s calculations indicate that a minimum of 1200 anti-ship cruise missiles are needed to sink at least half of the current-day PLA invasion fleet. Taiwan accordingly began a rapid-acquisition project for coastal defense cruise missiles, Project Swiftness (迅捷專案). However, the latest US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) announcement of a USD $2.37 billion package of 400 Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles is not only insufficient, but will likely involve delayed deliveries due to operational/technical issues on the US side and budgetary issues on the Taiwan side.
Given that buying missiles is probably the easiest method by which Taiwan can acquire operationally asymmetric capabilities, and that this program is a Taiwan Presidential-level priority, these delays highlight just how difficult it will be to establish more extensive, complex, and politically-costly methods of asymmetry at the speed necessary to maintain relevance. This requires a re-think of what is considered asymmetric or conventional.
In my next installment, I will discuss new methods by which the US can assist Taiwan with defense reform that will address the increasing PRC threat in both the gray zone, as well as in the scenario of an all-out invasion.
The main point: The US and Taiwan defense establishments have different definitions of asymmetry and deterrence. The US tends to focus on operational deterrence, while Taiwan tends to focus on strategic deterrence.