At a time of growing assertiveness in Beijing’s foreign policy and growing risk of cross-strait military conflict, getting Taiwan’s defense strategy right is more essential than ever. In the face of an existential threat and uncertain U.S. military support, Taiwan must enhance its self-defense capabilities by implementing and institutionalizing the Overall Defense Concept (ODC).
The ODC is Taiwan’s current strategy for dealing with a potential Chinese invasion in a resource-constrained environment. In short, the ODC is a holistically integrated strategy for guiding Taiwan’s military force development and joint operations, emphasizing Taiwan’s existing natural advantages, civilian infrastructure and asymmetrical warfare capabilities. It is designed to deter and, if necessary, defeat an invasion by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The Overall Defense Concept
The Overall Defense Concept is premised on two assumptions: (1) Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s “China dream” of unifying Taiwan; and (2) the increasing resource imbalance across the Taiwan Strait. Despite Taiwan having never been under the rule of the CCP, unification remains embedded in the concept of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” To accomplish the great rejuvenation, Xi has explicitly stated that he will not renounce the annexation of Taiwan by force. At the same time that Taiwan’s government unveiled its largest ever defense budget, Beijing has spent more than 20 times that on bolstering the PLA. According to estimates by the U.S. Department of Defense, PLA expenditure last year topped $250 billion, dwarfing Taiwan’s latest defense budget of $11 billion. This has resulted in the PLA’s qualitative and quantitative advantage over the Republic of China (ROC) armed forces. CCP military-civil fusion policies have leveraged private industry to proliferate China’s military-technological edge, and PLA active forces now outnumber Taiwan’s by a factor of 12. This resource and capability gap will continue to widen as Xi has declared that the PLA will be completely modernized by 2035 and become a world-class military by 2049.
To ensure its existence, Taiwan’s military must deter war with the PLA and, if deterrence fails, win the war. PLA war planners envision the PRC would achieve the annexation of Taiwan through conquest and occupation of the island. Hence, the ODC redefines winning the war as foiling the PLA’s mission of successfully invading and exerting political control over Taiwan. Taiwan must abandon notions of a traditional war of attrition with the PLA. Facing a stronger adversary, embracing an effective asymmetric defense posture and incorporating tactical asymmetric capabilities could compensate for Taiwan’s disadvantage on paper and prevent the PLA from getting boots on the ground. In the face of a growing cross-strait resource imbalance and domestic budgetary constraints, Taiwan must allocate and manage its resources as efficiently and effectively as possible.
The Overall Defense Concept provides Taiwan with a newly integrated approach to shaping the military’s force buildup and concept of operations. Force buildup outlines the elements and capabilities that maximize the ODC’s advantages whereas the concept of operations delineates how the strategy will be executed during an invasion.
The ODC’s three tenets for force buildup are force preservation, conventional capabilities and asymmetric capabilities. Taiwan will not strike first in a full-scale war with China. This is consistent with the longstanding shift from an offensive to a defensive military posture against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after the ROC government on Taiwan abandoned its mission to “retake the mainland.” Therefore, Taiwan’s military must retain the ability to defend itself and strike back after the PLA conducts its missile, air-strike and cyber campaigns. Principles of force preservation include mobility, camouflage, concealment, deception, electronic jamming, operational redundancy, rapid repair and blast mitigation. Robust force preservation will sustain Taiwan’s capabilities beyond the first phase of a full-scale PLA attack.
Conventional weapon systems are effective during peacetime for countering gray-zone aggression, which are defined as deliberate and incremental uses of conventional and unconventional military provocations below the threshold of armed conflict. They must be effective in patrolling territorial skies and waters while maintaining high-precision strike capabilities. The high visibility of conventional systems positively impacts Taiwanese morale and improves public confidence in the military, while at the same time complicating the CCP’s political warfare operations and decision-making in Beijing. A minimal amount of such systems should be maintained for key missions, as advanced platforms that exceed Taiwan’s indigenous manufacturing capabilities can result in expensive overseas procurements with recurring costs for years of continued operation and maintenance. The essence of Taiwan’s conventional capabilities is a low quantity of high-quality platforms. Recent acquisitions of 66 F-16V fighter jets and 108 M1A2 Abrams tanks will satisfy this requirement for Taiwan’s Air Force and Army. Long-term investments in Taiwan’s Indigenous Diesel Submarine program will soon fulfill the Navy’s requirement as well.
Asymmetric weapon systems, on the other hand, are less visible during peacetime but essential during war. They provide non-conventional warfighting capabilities that are aimed at exploiting natural advantages and the enemy’s vulnerabilities while delivering maximum tactical impact with minimal effort. Taiwan’s asymmetric systems must be small, mobile, lethal and numerous for strategic dispersion. They must be cost-effective and easy to develop and maintain, yet also resilient and sustainable. They must complicate enemy operations by being difficult to target and counter. The essence of Taiwan’s asymmetric capabilities is a large number of small things.
In accordance with the ODC, it is time for Taiwan to rebalance its procurements and turn its acquisition focus toward asymmetric weapons systems. Asymmetric platforms will elevate Taiwan’s warfighting capabilities, which will have a direct impact on deterrence against an invasion by the PLA. This shift does not mean that conventional systems do not have strategic value and Taiwan should instead opt for down-market equipment. Rather, a balanced assortment of armaments that include cost-effective and sustainable asymmetric capabilities will complement existing traditional platforms; the acquisition focus will emphasize achieving operational outcomes.
The procurement of advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will significantly augment Taiwan’s target acquisition, early-warning and tactical reconnaissance capabilities, as will mobile radar platforms. Large inventories of low-cost, short-range precision-guided munitions and mobile coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCMs), including harpoon coastal defense systems (HCDS), can provide shore-based firepower support. Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) and mobile anti-armor weapons, such as high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), can strengthen guerrilla warfighting capabilities. Stealth fast-attack crafts and miniature missile assault boats can be dispersed among fishing boats across the island’s over 200 fishing ports. Sea mines and fast minelaying ships can complicate enemy landing operations. Such asymmetric systems may not generate as much excitement when compared to the PLA’s amphibious assault vehicles and advanced aircraft, but they will enhance Taiwan’s ability to respond effectively when its defenses are under attack.
Concept of Operations
The ODC’s mission is to deter the PLA and, if necessary, defeat a full-scale PLA invasion. The three pillars of its concept of operations are force protection, decisive battle in the littoral zone and destruction of the enemy at the landing beach. Force protection enables Taiwan’s armed forces to survive and recover from the opening phase of a massive PLA strike campaign, so that units can strike back as soon as the enemy is within range. The ODC seeks to bolster the military’s ability to withstand pre-invasion bombardment using tactics similar to those of force preservation. Elements of force protection include mobility, camouflage, concealment, deception, dispersion, rapid repair and blast mitigation.
During wartime, ground forces can be camouflaged and deployed to tactical positions that are concealed in urban, jungle and mountain terrains among false targets and decoys. Similarly, the Navy can disperse smaller missile-attack craft to fishing ports across the island and employ the Coast Guard as well as merchant and fishing boats for local missions. Inshore fleets would be protected by shore-based air defense and anti-submarine warfare systems. For the Air Force, protection of aircraft and airfields is critical. Multi-layered missile defenses will provide cover for key assets. Runways could be equipped for rapid repair and also maintain alternative runway options, such as ski-jump ramps for swift take-off under duress.
The littoral zone is the area and stage of conflict where Taiwan’s advantages are optimized, and where its military has the potential to be most lethal. This is where warships and fighter jets can attack the enemy with support from CDCMs, UAVs and anti-aircraft defense coverage. Taiwan’s military can conduct joint fire strikes against the PLA from air, sea and shore assets, with the full coverage of multi-layer air defense systems. Coordinating and executing successful landing operations are tremendously difficult, especially when transporting thousands of troops and heavy machinery across the Taiwan Strait. With its capabilities limited during transit, the PLA will be most vulnerable when nearing landing beaches. A layered defense of sea mines and pre-deployed obstacles along with swarming fast-attack craft and missile assault boats will hinder the enemy’s advance. As the enemy approaches landing beaches, land-based precision-guided munitions and ground forces will provide additional firepower.
During an invasion, Taiwan has home court advantage, since the PLA must bring everything it needs across the strait. PLA forces deployed to Taiwan will be limited by predetermined assets, whereas Taiwan can go beyond its $11 billion defense budget by leveraging civilian resources. In other words, strategic utilization of geographical advantages and civilian resources will augment contingency operations by providing redundancy for Taiwan’s military and complicating PLA invasion logistics. Taiwan’s multiple telecommunication systems can serve as back-up communication networks. Civilians can use drones and other commercial electronics to provide logistics support and localized reconnaissance. Aquaculture farming equipment can be deployed as beach obstacles. Taiwan can build offshore wind farms around beaches that are most vulnerable to PLA landing operations. Strategically optimizing infrastructure investments can enhance Taiwan’s economy and security during both peacetime and war.
Taiwan’s reserve force will provide the last line of defense if the PLA succeeds in getting boots on the ground. The people of Taiwan must be trained for localized operations with decentralized command, as the nature of warfare will be urban and guerrilla. Structural reforms to the reserve system’s doctrine, personnel management mechanism and training methods are needed for effective homeland protection. The reserves would function as a territorial defense force, principled upon mobility, decentralization and survivability. During peacetime, the territorial defense force would be responsible for localized disaster relief, and during war, protection of critical infrastructure and defense of secondary enemy landing sites.
A modernized military combined with an effectively reformed reserve force is critical to the defense Taiwan. Although the ODC’s primary mission is to deny the PLA’s amphibious landing, the people of Taiwan must be prepared for any contingency scenario. When the battle comes to Taiwan, the island must capitalize on all available military and civilian assets to muster a whole-of-society effort in order to defeat the enemy.
A New Era of U.S.-Taiwan Security Cooperation
The Overall Defense Concept could be a mechanism for enhancing U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation. A fully implemented and institutionalized ODC is in the interests of both countries and has garnered high-level support in Taiwan and the United States. In April 2019, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen expressed her full support for the ODC, and in August 2020, declared, “I am committed to accelerating the development of asymmetric capabilities under the Overall Defense Concept… this will be our number one priority.” The U.S. Department of Defense’s position is that “the effective, whole-of-government implementation of Taiwan’s ODC is critical in ensuring that Taiwan can deter, delay or deny actions by an aggressor.” Then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Schriver described it as “a more appropriate plan for the military threat that Taiwan faces and if implemented, would give [Taiwan] the best chance for survivability.” Senators Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton introduced legislation advocating U.S. support for Taiwan’s “development of a more lethal and resilient defensive posture in accordance with the new Overall Defense Concept.”
Bilateral security cooperation could be strengthened through establishing a U.S.-Taiwan Joint Working Group. Augmenting existing bilateral security dialogues, this new mechanism would bring together American and Taiwanese senior officials to focus specifically on the Overall Defense Concept. The first mission of the Joint Working Group would be to ensure the top-down implementation and institutionalization of the ODC. Through conducting contingency simulations and exercises, U.S. officials could offer their operational experience and expertise to guide Taiwan’s force restructuring and doctrinal reforms, with an emphasis on military doctrine, force planning and logistical support, as well as operational tactics. The Joint Working Group would be composed of policy and working-level officials from each country. Policy-level exchanges would include active duty flag officers as well as senior defense officials to provide expertise and guidance on restructuring Taiwan’s force and weapon systems acquisition process, as well as operational support for developing Taiwan’s joint doctrine, joint operational planning and joint training. Frequent exchanges by working-level officials would focus on innovative solutions to implement policy-level decisions and account for current conditions on the ground.
With the United States’ support, Taiwan’s military will evolve into an agile, resilient and modernized force. The process of systems acquisition will effectively allocate resources toward asymmetric and conventional platforms that are most suitable for Taiwan, according to the ODC. Joint doctrine will be simple, easily digestible, and war plan-oriented with an emphasis on asymmetric warfare. The joint operational plan will be elastic and adaptable to accommodate different contingency scenarios. Joint training will integrate asymmetric concepts and systems into joint war fighting capabilities and render the military effective under both centralized and decentralized command.
A U.S.-Taiwan Joint Working Group could be mutually beneficial as it would not only bolster Taiwan’s defense and provide the U.S. military with insight for its own contingency planning and future warfighting, but also improve latent interoperability. Furthermore, the strengthened defense of Taiwan could play an important role in advancing the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.
Now is the time to embrace an asymmetric approach to Taiwan’s defense. A fully implemented and institutionalized Overall Defense Concept would provide strategic guidance across all defense agencies and military services for a unified and deliberate effort in military investments and force development to strengthen Taiwan’s national defense. If the battle comes to Taiwan, the ODC would ensure the capitalization of all available military and civilian assets to muster a whole-of-society effort to defeat the enemy. Now is also the time for a new era of U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation. The Taiwan Strait could possibly be the theater of Sino-American military conflict, and the U.S. and Taiwan have an opportunity to address the CCP threat together. Through implementing the ODC, the U.S.-Taiwan Joint Working Group would enhance deterrent effects of the bilateral relationship and embolden Taiwan’s security.
In a cross-strait contingency, Taiwan would appreciate any assistance from Washington. However, Taiwan’s military will not assume that the U.S. will sacrifice American lives to defend the island. But with American support, Taiwan can fight better. It is the onus of the Taiwanese people to decide their fate and fight for their existence.
*An earlier version of this piece did not name the co-sponsors of the U.S. Senate bill.
Admiral Lee Hsi-min (retired) is a Senior Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. He was the Chief of the General Staff of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Armed Forces from 2017 to 2019, during which he developed and introduced the Overall Defense Concept (ODC).
Eric Lee is a Research Associate at the Project 2049 Institute.