Taiwan's current military strategy puts it at risk from a resurgent China.
Taiwan's leaders seem to underrate the risk of military conflict. I was told this post would be of interest to members of the EA forum, so I am reposting it from my substack.
Why won't Taiwan change course?
Taiwan faces the threat of major conflict from the People's Republic of China. China’s economic rise has funded an expansion in its military capabilities, which are now quantitatively and in many cases, qualitatively superior to its opponents. On the face of it, despite a transformation in China's forces, Taiwan has not drastically adapted its military strategy and seemingly expects to fight a war with a limited number of its high-value sea, air, and land units, which cannot be quickly replaced. In a full-blown conflict, these will likely be overwhelmed and destroyed in weeks, if not days. Taiwan has not yet adapted to the circumstances due to a mixture of institutional inertia and questionable political calculation. It remains to be seen if Taiwan's current position can continue to deter a conflict or prevail if it occurs.
Adapting to a transformation in military circumstances is a significant challenge for any military, but Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence (MND) has thus far not been willing or able to do it. While China was still a poor country and its armed forces were far inferior to Taiwan’s, the basic plan to defend the island from invasion was to meet the large invasion force and defeat it. Both during and after the Cold War, the US provided Taiwan with a host of equipment, including jets, destroyers, tanks, artillery, and air defense systems.
Although Taiwan and China did fight various skirmishes throughout the Cold War, these never massively escalated in large part due to US intervention. During some periods of Chinese internal strife, the threat of conflict was far lower, but in periods of relative stability, there was a non-zero risk of invasion. If China decided to invade, Taiwan's US (and later, indigenously built) jets would first establish air superiority over the straits. The Taiwanese navy would then attack the invasion force of Chinese Navy ships and ramshackle troop transports, which would be nearly helpless as Taiwanese jets screamed overhead. Given the often shambolic state of the Chinese military and the fact that the US would be free to join in with its own even more superior forces, it is obvious why the Chinese military never attempted this invasion.
The Chinese Threat
Today, the story is somewhat different. China has developed a modern air, land, and naval force. China officially spends $227.79 billion (1.55 trillion yuan) on its military, but due to purchasing power parity, this is equivalent to $700 billion. The PLAAF has 2,500 aircraft, including about 2,000 fighter jets, and has taken delivery of hundreds of Chengdu J-20 fighters, one of only four examples worldwide of a 5th generation fighter. 5th generation jets offer greater stealth, maneuverability, range, and information processing capabilities compared to 4th generation machines. The Chengdu J-20’s capabilities against the US F-35 are uncertain, but they are more than a match for Taiwan's air force, which numbers around 250 fighters, with its most advanced models being outdated 4th generation F-16s, which date from 1992.
A Chengdu J-20 fighter.
Supporting this formidable air force is a daunting layer of air defenses. Consisting of radars and ground-to-air and ship missiles, the PLA can conduct operations over the Taiwan Strait with a reasonable degree of safety, allowing the PLAAF to focus on supporting an invasion effort. China's air defense was initially built on Soviet platforms but now includes Russian S-300 and S-400 missile systems and indigenously developed HQ-22 system. When properly integrated with supporting systems, the S-400 is deemed a threat to F-35 stealth fighters.
From the 1970s onwards, the PLAN has been expanding its numbers and quality, even managing to build nuclear submarines in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the construction of large numbers of modern vessels began, including aircraft carriers. China is now the world's largest navy by ship size, and although it does not possess as many nuclear carriers as the US, it massively outnumbers the Taiwanese Navy. In July, the Fujian, the latest Chinese aircraft carrier, was launched and is expected to be in service within the next couple of years.
China has also invested in helicopters for anti-submarine and anti-tank operations and transporting special forces. The latter capability is particularly important given the limited number of landing zones on the island of Taiwan and opens up more options for any potential assault on the outlying or main islands. Taiwan has sought to acquire more Stinger missiles to counter this growing capability, but worldwide stockpiles are low due to the war in Ukraine.
Regardless of how impressive the improvements in equipment have been, this does not mean there are no problems within the Chinese military. China has not fought a conflict since the war with Vietnam in 1979, has significant problems with corruption and has struggled to develop a professional Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) cadre. NCOs in Western militaries can take on some of the duties of officers, providing leadership at even lower levels in combat situations, and are entrusted to use their initiative. Furthermore, for the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the primary concern is the political loyalty of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Perhaps the most prominent example of wavering loyalty was during the Tiananmen Square massacre, where senior officers pretended they had not received orders and deliberately went slow. In an invasion, any wavering could have significant consequences for the success of an operation. Recently, Xi removed the head and political commissar of another branch of the Chinese military, the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), reflecting a great deal of uncertainty from political elites in the military's loyalty and/or competence.
Although its primary mission is to maintain China's land-based nuclear and conventional missiles, in a conflict scenario, its role is to initially hit targets to weaken Taiwan’s defenses with conventional missiles, primarily coming from units under the command of Base 61. Research indicates that with a stockpile of at least 1,000 to 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles, China can potentially threaten all aircraft openly stationed at Taiwan's ten air bases, estimating that between 240 and 360 missiles might be needed for such an operation. Aside from hitting Taiwan’s air force on the ground, among many plausible targets the PLARF would be tasked with destroying are the large, stationary radars that Taiwan uses to monitor potential threats, although China has reportedly jammed these in the past. Even if Taiwan can quickly repair runways or move fighter jets into bunkers, it may not be able to replace or protect other supporting infrastructure like radars or fuel infrastructure. Taiwan is not likely to be able to replace naval assets in any reasonable time to disrupt an invasion if they were damaged in a PLARF strike.
Midjourney imagining a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
In response to these developments, Taiwan's plans have not significantly changed despite the urging of defense experts. Taiwan’s military aims to provide “resolute defense and multi-domain deterrence.” Multi-domain deterrence means to contest what is called the “grey zone,” where various actors engage in both military and non-military actions to accomplish strategic objectives while avoiding the onset of overt, conventional warfare. This means warding off PLAAF incursions into its airspace, contesting PLAN submarines shadowing ROC naval assets, and defending against cyber attacks from non-state Chinese actors.
Many military experts argue that instead of its plans to meet the PLA head-on, Taiwan needs to buy as much time as possible to allow the US to fight through the Chinese missile defense zone to bring assistance. To them, this means adopting an asymmetric defense, making any invasion as painful as possible for the invader. Instead of large prestige projects, analysts suggested that Taiwan acquire vast quantities of coastal defense cruise missiles, mobile short-range air defenses, naval mines, and drones that can survive an initial attack from the PLARF and then engage in a protracted, dispersed and multi-faceted attrition campaign.
The current equipment priorities do not reflect these recommendations. Taiwan currently plans to purchase a variety of big-budget platforms. The US will provide some of these, but current equipment is old, and replacements are costly. F-16V (Block 70) fighters, one of the Ministry of National Defense (MND) priorities, are expected to cost $8 billion. Taiwan's defense budget, although increasing, is around $19 billion. The current fighter fleet already consumes 12.6% of the defense budget. Taiwanese defense planners are also seeking to purchase more weapons that would allow them to strike at the Chinese homeland. In 2020, the US agreed to sell 11 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to Taiwan, with a further 18 being added to the order in 2022, bringing the total to 29. HIMARS does have some utility, as Ukrainian forces have proven by using it to target Russian logistics and command centers, but Taiwan will not have the spare capacity to conduct strikes on symbolic political targets, which the PLARF will.
$2 billion is being spent on M1A2 Abrams Main Battle tanks, which the MND expects to use to repel an invasion once PLA units land, despite the apparent implication that the PLA would not launch an invasion without air superiority. These units would be highly vulnerable and are of questionable use in a scenario where the enemy dominates the air. Ukraine has disabled thousands of Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles using drones, showing armored vehicles vulnerability even in a situation where neither side has air superiority. Although Taiwan is upgrading its Patriot air defense systems to challenge Chinese airpower, it only has two of the estimated ten battalions it would take to cover the island effectively. This deficiency could be resolved in the medium term by buying Patriot systems from NATO countries, which are due to replace them with more advanced systems towards the end of the decade, but this is a few years away.
A Russian T-72 tank that was destroyed by a Ukrainian drone.
Like many other military procurement plans, these proposals are also subject to significant delays. The F-16V fighters were first ordered in 2019, but the first jets are currently subject to delays, reportedly due to software upgrade problems. Although HIMARS is presently being delivered ahead of schedule, it won’t be in Taiwanese hands until 2026. Due to the war in Ukraine, delivery schedules for crucial weapons and munitions, such as Stinger missiles, have been pushed back, in many cases, for years.
However, the most egregious procurement decision is Taiwan’s indigenously produced diesel-electric submarines, which are expected to cost over $10 billion. Although submarines have been used by weaker naval powers to contest control of the sea (the most famous being the U-boat threat posed by Germany in the two world wars), the Taiwan Straits and surrounding waters are relatively shallow. This makes Chinese attempts to find and destroy them easier than in a deeper ocean. Furthermore, only a third of naval assets are typically available to be at sea due to training and repair needs. Two or three submarines cannot stop the PLA from invading the island. With a limited budget, these acquisitions are questionable at best.
Problems exist not just at the strategic level. The MND has struggled to adapt basic training to reflect the changes in Taiwan's military situation. Soldiers must learn the goose step rather than spending more of the precious four months of basic training on more urgent military skills. From 2024, conscripts will be required to serve a year instead of four months, but it is unclear whether conscripts will be doing more helpful training. Although the 2023 National Defence Report aims to increase the number of live firing drills that recruits perform in basic training, this could be from a remarkably low level. Analyst Tanner Greer reports that some recruits firing fewer than 300 rounds during their entire training. Although reservists returning for two-week refresher courses are due to increase the number of rounds they fire in training, this is to a barely sufficient 138. As a result, many otherwise patriotic Taiwanese are demoralized by the poor quality of training they receive, which tempers the MND's claims that millions of reservists are available in an emergency as many are simply not trained to be of any real utility. Problems exist in more than just non-commissioned ranks. Remarkably, despite Taiwan’s military sending dozens of officers to West Point for advanced training, none have made it to the flag officer level, reflecting an insular culture hostile to those with valuable outsider experience.
To make matters worse, much of the equipment the Taiwanese army possesses is inoperable, and many units are drastically under-strength. Some front-line units have as little as 60% of the manpower they are supposed to have. In 2020, Foreign Policy reported a serving Taiwanese soldier saying that only 30% of Taiwan’s tanks are in a state comparable to US minimum requirements. Given the MND expects the battle for Taiwan to be won by these front-line ground units, it is an understatement to say this is a little concerning.
Optimistic assessments of Taiwan’s armed forces assert that its professional armed forces are well-placed to defeat the PLA, but a more honest assessment would be that there are significant challenges that provoke questions about the chosen strategy to defend Taiwan in the event of a war.
Why won’t they adopt asymmetric defense?
To outsiders, the lack of urgency seems strange. However, institutional intransigence, political limitations, and likely good intelligence on Chinese invasion plans all play into why Taiwan doesn’t change its course. The outcome of these choices is a tendency to prioritize highly visible weapons systems over those potentially more effective in an invasion scenario.
At first, the primary blocker to changing military plans would seem to be the military. This is largely accurate. Despite a former chief of the General Staff, Adm. Lee Hsi-Min, introducing a plan that reflected the changes China’s military had made in 2017, the document was subsequently binned, and references to it within the military were reportedly discouraged. The latest National Defence Report does use terms such as Asymmetric Approach, but current purchasing priorities show this is mainly cover and does not represent a change in approach.
Although the military should bear a significant amount of blame for refusing to evolve, it is commanded by politicians who have struggled to force it to chart another course. Complicating this task has been the efforts of the Tsai government to get to grips with another key pillar of the state, the intelligence agencies. Taiwan has the National Security Bureau, which is equivalent to the CIA or MI6, and the Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB), which sits under the MND and is assigned to gather human intelligence (HUMINT) regarding the PLA. Despite being responsible for gathering HUMINT, since the early 2000s, it has banned itself from sending agents to mainland China. The NSB is generally well regarded. The MIB, on the other hand, has had a series of scandals and was under threat of closure. In 2021, 4 former officials of the MIB, one of whom was a general, were found to have been agents of the PRC and were recruiting agents for them in Taiwan. This betrayal, along with a myriad of other issues, has meant that the government has had to spend resources reforming it rather than utilizing its information to more accurately understand how the balance of power has changed.
A further factor in the reluctance to change Taiwan's strategy is that it would require significant political costs. Foremost, the cost of a change to asymmetric defense would be asking more voters to defend themselves and accept the possibility of death or injury. It would be admitting that Taiwan was in a far weaker position than previously suggested, and the military cannot protect the island as it would have done in the past. Although support for defending Taiwan has risen in polling over the last few years, and other advanced democracies such as Poland have successfully raised volunteer defense forces, Taiwanese politicians do not appear to be willing to make this change. To a certain extent, this is because military advice would be against it. It would also change the relationship with the mainland unpredictably and may make the CCP think the island is gearing up for independence, accelerating a rush to confrontation. Secondly, Taiwan's costly platforms it purchases from the US are thought to signal to voters and China that Taiwan is a valued ally. NATO partners such as Turkey are prevented from buying top-of-the-range American military equipment, but when Taiwan makes big-ticket purchases, it is saying that it is a first-rank ally despite the dubious military value of some of them.
A further reason Taiwan maintains its current lack of urgency must include the role of intelligence in decision-making. Although the MIB has its problems, there is close cooperation with the United States, which operates a listening post on the island to help its intelligence-gathering efforts. Even if there weren’t this cooperation, modern satellites, and communications technology would make a genuine build-up of an invasion force easy to spot. Coordinating an active invasion plan would require senior Chinese politicians and military leaders to meet more often, which it can be assumed would be noticed by relevant foreign intelligence agencies which have had an improved track record of uncovering critical information about
Taken in turn, these are understandable reasons why Taiwan does not feel the same urgency to abandon its current plans and adopt a more realistic but challenging defense strategy. Even though the reasons are understandable, this does not mean they are justified. As Australia recently proved by canceling a submarine contract with France in order to develop nuclear submarines instead, even developed procurement plans can be changed if the relevant authorities recognize that situations have changed. Taiwan could cancel its orders of expensive fighter jets and tanks and instead buy far more coastal defense cruise missiles, mobile short-range air defenses, naval mines, and drones, as well as ensure adequate stocks of munitions to enable its professional and reserve forces to train properly. Taiwan has a number of significant advantages in any proposed conflict with China, but its current procurement priorities, lack of suitable training, and unwillingness to pay the political cost of changing direction risk undermining its geographical and home advantage. Ultimately, China has been building its forces to successfully assault the island of Taiwan, while Taiwan has not been able to sufficiently reassess how it will successfully counter these changes. If this continues to be the case as the 100th anniversary of the CCP approaches, Chinese leadership may think an invasion of Taiwan is a gamble worth taking.
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I'd be interested in what EA forum members think of the analysis above.