Why U.S. Military Needs Taiwan

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Why U.S. Military Needs Taiwan

AirSea Battle shouldn’t only be about the United States. Working closely with Taiwan could pay dividends and help ensure a stable military balance in the Asia-Pacific.

U.S. Representative Randy Forbes’s (R-Va) article in The Diplomat last month entitled “America’s Pacific Air-Sea Battle Vision” called upon Congress to support the Pentagon’s vision for Air-Sea Battle – a concept designed to improve the joint and combined ability of air and naval forces to project power in the face of anti-access and area denial challenges. More specifically, Rep. Forbes pointed out that the United States should “work to bring our allies into this effort.” Indeed, in order for the United States to effectively project power in an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) environment, networked alliances and ad hoc coalition partnerships would be essential in making U.S. power projection in the Asia-Pacific more resilient and responsive to both the internal and external dynamics of the emerging regional security challenges.

To be sure, the United States faces a number of challenges in meeting its security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region.  Beyond uncertainty, complexity, and rapid change, challenges include growing resource constraints and an increasingly assertive and capable China. At least one driver for rethinking U.S. defense strategy is the growing ability of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to complicate U.S. ability to project joint power and operate in the Asia-Pacific region. These emerging PLA A2/AD capabilities not only could complicate U.S. ability to operate, but also imperil regional powers’ ability to deny the PLA air superiority and command of the seas.  Anti-access threats, designed to prevent an opposing force from entering an operational area, include long-range precision strike systems that could be employed against bases and moving targets at sea, such as aircraft carrier battle groups. Area denial involves shorter-range actions and capabilities designed to complicate an opposing force’s freedom of action in all domains (i.e., land, air, space, sea and cyber). 

The Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle and the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) transcends pure operational and roles of services issues to include cooperation with allies and ad hoc coalition partners in the region, which is critical for ensuring the success of Air Sea Battle and assured operational access.  As former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen said, Air-Sea Battle is “a prime example of how we need to keep breaking down stovepipes between services, between federal agencies and even between nations.”  He further noted that the Services should “integrate our efforts with each other and with our civilian counterparts” and “work seamlessly with old allies and new friends.”  Air Sea Battle and the broader JOAC shore up deterrence and demonstrate to U.S. allies and partners that Washington is committed and able to resist Chinese military coercion. 

Addressing these challenges requires greater collaboration not only within the U.S. defense establishment, but effective leveraging of talents of allies and ad hoc coalition partners in the region.  The U.S. reportedly has begun examining how to diversify defense relations with traditional allies in the region, such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia.  Yet, little consideration appears to have been given to the significant role that Taiwan could play in an evolving U.S. defense strategy, including the JOAC and Air-Sea Battle.  Taiwan’s future and U.S. interests in regional security are intimately related.  Indeed, Taiwan is a core interest of the United States and has a pivotal role to play as an ad hoc coalition partner in Air-Sea Battle, JOAC, and the strategic rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific.  

First, Taiwan should be the central guiding focus of defense planning in the Asia-Pacific region.  In assessing JOAC and Air-Sea Battle-related requirements, the greatest emphasis should be placed on contingency planning for a PLA amphibious invasion of Taiwan with minimal warning.  Based on a premature and faulty assumption that cross-Strait trade and investment will inevitably lead toward Taiwan’s democratic submission to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authoritarian rule, prominent analysts have asserted that the focus of U.S. defense planning should shift toward the South China Sea and defense of the global commons.

While freedom of navigation is important, shifting our focus entirely over to uninhabited specks of land and access to preferred waterways for shipping therein are not as salient as defending a fellow democracy and critical node in the global economic supply chain.  To be sure, Taiwan’s precarious situation shouldn’t be viewed in isolation from the South China Sea. Beyond the relative saliency of Taiwan, U.S. law under the Taiwan Relations Act stipulates that it is in the U.S. interest “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”  The myth that Taiwan is inevitably moving into Beijing’s orbit certainly serves CCP interests.  This ostensibly self-fulfilling prophesy bears watching.  Due to the inherent complications associated with an amphibious invasion, Taiwan is and will remain defendable.

China’s main strategic direction remains unchanged, however.  It is Taiwan that the CCP obsesses over.  Disputes with neighbors around the South China Sea can be modulated at will.  On the other hand, Taiwan and its democracy present an existential threat to the CCP, and the PLA has done nothing to reduce its military posture opposite the island.  In fact, its missile infrastructure has grown as new units have been put into place and more advanced ballistic missiles introduced. If strategic planners must choose between freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and defense of Taiwan as the basis of U.S. force planning, one would hope that President Obama doesn’t abandon Taiwan.

Taiwan as JOAC Partner

What are Taiwan’s potential contributions?  For starters, Taiwan is the principle security partner in the region that is willing and able to develop the kind of force needed for networked, integrated deep interdiction operations in an A2/AD environment. Taiwan’s knowledge of single points of failure in the PLA’s air and missile defense system could someday save many lives. Maintaining Taiwan’s capacity to interdict single points of failure in the PLA’s A2/AD system could relieve the United States of part of its heavy operational burden and reduce risks of escalation. For Taiwan, sufficient self defense requires an ability to interdict and neutralize critical nodes in the PLA Second Artillery and other increasingly integrated operational systems opposite Taiwan.

Taiwan is uniquely positioned to contribute to regional situational awareness of the air, space, sea and cyber domains.  Peacetime air surveillance data can be fused with other sources of information to better understand PLA Air Force tactics and doctrine.  Long range UHF early warning radar data could fill a gap in regional space surveillance. The Taiwanese Navy has a firm grasp of the unique undersea geography and hydrological environment of the Western Pacific Ocean. In the cyber domain, the U.S. Defense Department may tap the expertise on Taiwan, the earliest and most intense target of Chinese computer network operations. Taiwan’s geographic position and willingness to contribute to a regional common operational picture, including maritime domain awareness, air surveillance, and space surveillance and tracking, could be of significant value for both disaster response and military purposes.

More care must be taken to build in firewalls to ensure potential adversaries are unable to penetrate U.S. networks through those of its allies and partners. Furthermore, releasing space-based systems to Taiwan, including broadband communications and remote sensing satellites, could contribute to broader regional situational awareness architecture not only for military purposes but also for civil disaster preparedness and response. Taiwan’s participation in regional maritime domain awareness architecture may also be worthy of consideration.

And then there’s defense industrial cooperation. The Defense Department could also consider expanding cooperative R&D with Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST), and/or private industry. Taiwan is a world leader in technology innovation, particularly in applied information and communications technology, which should be leveraged for mutual benefit.  Isolation of CSIST, which houses a significant reserve of defense research and engineering talent, can be counterproductive.

The Executive Branch should also honor commitments made under the Bush administration to assist Taiwan in its acquisition of diesel electric submarines. Taiwan’s requirement for diesel electric submarines has been validated for island defense, and could play a critical role in interdicting amphibious ships transiting from mainland China in waters northwest and southwest of Taiwan, counter-blockade operations, and surveillance. Submarines are a credible, survivable deterrent.

In addition,the Defense Department and its Taiwanese counterparts should consider the formation of an innovative capabilities working group that could also incorporate representatives from think tanks and both countries’ defense industries. Possible focus areas might include cruise missile defense, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), multi-domain awareness, and Taiwan’s central role in the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia.

The fact is that no free and open society understands China as well as Taiwan. Unfortunately, few U.S. military officers conduct in-country training in Taiwan, and there are no known students attending Taiwan’s National Defense University (NDU) or other intermediate/senior service schools. More educational exchanges between the two defense establishments are warranted, particularly for junior and non-commissioned officers. Even as the Pentagon has actively pursued deeper and broader military-to-military relations with the PLA, the number of U.S.-Taiwanese conferences held on the PLA has dwindled. 

Political Paradox in the Taiwan Strait

A paradox currently characterizes cross-Strait relations.  On the one hand, economic interdependence between the two sides reduces the likelihood of conflict.  Yet because Taiwan’s democratic system of government – an alternative to mainland China’s authoritarian model – presents an existential challenge to the CCP, China continues to rely on military coercion to compel concessions on sovereignty. The objective reality of the matter is that Taiwan, under its existing Taiwanese constitutional framework, exists as an independent sovereign state.  Until the CCP renounces the use of force to resolve political differences in the Taiwan Strait, as well as substantially reduces its military posture against Taiwan, America should deepen and broaden defense relations with Taiwan. Acknowledging Taiwan’s pivotal role in the U.S. rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific region would be a proper starting point.

Taiwan, for its part – with foreign assistance as needed – could implement cost effective solutions to meet the world’s most stressing military challenge, and could be viewed as a transformational test bed for others to emulate. Taiwan’s defense could play a role in fostering innovation and developing new operational concepts. Taiwan faces the most stressing military challenge in the world – if selected operational problems could be solved for Taiwan (e.g., integrated air/missile defense and ASW), they could be resolved everywhere.

At the same time, Taiwan and the U.S. may find mutually beneficial ways to integrate their efforts including in defense-related R&D and low cost, high quality electronic components that could reduce costs for U.S. weapon systems. Taiwan is one of the largest U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customers in the world, and industrial and technological cooperation has been limited to date. Arms sales contribute to the Air-Sea Battle through the promotion of combined interoperability and cost savings to U.S. Air Force and Navy via larger production runs and economies of scale.  Also, at least in theory, the more Taiwan does the less that will be required of U.S. armed forces. However, the relative weight granted to arms sales through FMS channels implies a patron-client relationship.  Rebalancing U.S.-Taiwan defense relations into a true partnership would likely be more sustainable.

As Taiwan attempts to become more self-reliant in its defense, and as the U.S. considers Air-Sea Battle concepts, development of cutting-edge technology is critical, as is a sound economy from which resources can be drawn for force modernization, manpower, and readiness. One underlying goal of Air-Sea Battle is doing more with less in an era of budgetary constraints.  Along these lines, an initiative also could include options for enhancing U.S.-Taiwan defense industrial cooperative in a way that could provide cost effective and advanced defense articles as well as benefiting Taiwan’s industrial base and U.S. requirements.  Among other concepts, a preliminary assessment could focus on how to better leverage Taiwan’s innovativeness in cost effective information and communications technology (ICT) design, research and development, and production. Also warranted could be potential cooperative weapon systems development programs, such as small diesel electric submarines and cost effective short take off and landing aircraft.

Among the states in the Asia-Pacific region, Taiwan has the greatest interest in the success of Air-Sea Battle. U.S. defense policy is designed to counter China’s strategy of raising the cost of U.S. power-projection operations in the Western Pacific to prohibitive levels, thereby deterring any American effort to meet its defense obligations to allies and friends in the region, including Taiwan. As one key report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis assessment notes, Air-Sea Battle must account for geostrategic factors, such as U.S. treaty and legal obligations to defend formal allies and friends in the region.  Even more importantly, the report stresses: “AirSea Battle is not a U.S.-only concept. Allies such as Japan and Australia, and possibly others, must play important enabling roles in sustaining a stable military balance.” Among all potential coalition partners, none is potentially as important as Taiwan.

Mark Stokes is the Executive Director of the Project 2049 Institute. Russell Hsiao is a senior research fellow at the institute.