Taiwan Defense Strategy: The Next Move by the U.S.

A comment by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Mark Milley at a Congressional hearing on June 17, 2021, took some by surprise.

By Masashi Murano

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A comment by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Mark Milley at a Congressional hearing on June 17, 2021, took some by surprise. While emphasizing it is “a core national interest of China” to unite Taiwan, he said, “I think that there is little intent right now or motivation to do it militarily… and they know that. So I think right now the probability is probably low in the immediate near-term future.”

It sounded more optimistic than the awareness of then commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) Philip Davidson, who said that China could try to invade Taiwan “in the next six years,” or by his successor John Aquilino stating, “This problem [Taiwan invasion] is much closer to us than most think.”

So, how imminent is China’s military invasion of Taiwan? And how is this threat being analyzed in the U.S. security community, and what measures are being taken?

Honolulu and Washington Have Different Takes

It is not so unusual to see a perception gap between Honolulu and Washington. To begin with, the roles of the CJCS and the commander of a geographic combatant command (CCDR) are very different. The CJCS provides military advice to the President and the Secretary of Defense and does not have the right of command over troop operations. Meanwhile, CCDR, including the Commander of the INDOPACOM, has the right of command over the operation of naval vessels, aircraft, troops, and other forces deployed in the region.

The distinctive roles often show as the difference in defense investment priorities. In general, ground commanders, who are responsible for day-to-day unit operations, tend to prioritize troop training using existing equipment and its maintenance, logistics for ammunition and fuel, and securing sufficient force size to ensure immediate response to unexpected situations.

On the other hand, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) focus on keeping the entire U.S. armed forces ready for prolonged changes in the security environment. Thus, they are oriented towards investing in future equipment and related technology R&D and time-consuming procurement programs.

With resource constraints, it is difficult to satisfy the three elements of (1) readiness, (2) investment for the future, and (3) military force scale simultaneously, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks has called this structural problem the “iron triangle of painful trade-offs.”

Yet, a tight defense budget is nothing new. In the past, the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (2018 NDS) was well received overall for giving the highest priority to strategic competition with China and Russia.

However, a report released that November by the National Defense Strategy Commission, a panel of bipartisan national security experts, while appraising the direction of the 2018 NDS, stated that competing with China and Russia and dealing with contingencies in places like the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, would essentially require an 800 billion USD defense budget, and the current situation (727 billion USD as of FY2019) is far from enough.

The report also warned that the U.S. military could be defeated in contingencies in Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Baltic states if the shortfall is not adequately made up.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks, who is leading the formulation of the next NDS for the Biden administration, was among the Defense Strategy Board members who pointed out the risk of budget shortfalls. Ironically though, the Biden administration’s defense budget request for FY2022 announced in May only edged up 1.7% (about 753 billion USD) from the previous year (or more precisely, a slight decrease after adjusting for inflation).

This stands in stark contrast to the non-defense budget that includes investments in health care and climate change, increasing 16% over the previous year. Budget analysis experts share the view that on the premise of the ballooning fiscal deficit in response to the COVID measures, the defense budget is likely to decline in the future.

The Iron Triangle Dilemma

The debate over the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), a de facto deterrent measure against China, also reflects the pessimistic budget outlook. The PDI is a measure included in the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act that provides targeted funding each year for the defense budget to (1) strengthen U.S. deterrence and defense system, (2) provide reassurance to allies and partners, and (3) improve readiness and capability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Investment in FY2021, the first year, was 2.2 billion USD, but the budget request in FY2022 more than doubled at 5.1 billion USD. This was reported favorably in Japan as evidence the Biden administration has become serious in deterrence against China.

In Washington, however, there is confusion over the direction of the PDI, since the details of the Pentagon’s PDI budget request in May differed significantly from what the INDOPACOM requested. For example, the INDOPACOM placed strengthening of integrated air and missile defense as top priority, including the deployment of Aegis Ashore in Guam. Yet, the Pentagon’s request for missile defense-related budget for Guam was only one-third of what the INDOPACOM requested.

Also, with the threat of Chinese missiles in mind, the INDOPACOM had requested over 1 billion USD investment in infrastructure, including alternative training facilities in the region, dispersal locations for air power, and securing and strengthening of prepositioned store bases for ammunition and fuel, which were mostly left out in the Pentagon’s request.

While slashing these investments, the Pentagon is allocating as much as three-quarters of the total budget on acquiring platforms such as the Aegis destroyer and the F-35 fighter jet. These are by no means unnecessary equipment. However, naval vessels and aircraft take five to 10 years until they are ready for unit operations after the acquisition request, and there is little need to include them in a budget framework focused on a specific theater.

Dustin Walker, who helped launch PDI as a Professional Staff Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, claims that the aim of PDI was to break away from the platform-centric procurement and R&D and ensure investments in military-related infrastructure and logistics often put on a back-burner. He says the Pentagon’s request entirely misses the point of PDI, and Congress should significantly rewrite the request.

As for the Pentagon, with a high chance of a reduced budget, it must have thought that it could not secure the size of capability required for the future or R&D investments unless it squeezed these platforms into PDI under the pretext that they are “essential for deterring China.” This is also a case of the “iron triangle” dilemma, and without a budget increase, this problem is likely to persist for some time.

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Four Scenarios for a Taiwan Contingency

The budget prioritizing criteria for each organization and stakeholder is related to the probability of the crisis scenario and how they evaluate the time frame of its occurrence. Based on China’s internal records, there are four scenarios for a Taiwan Contingency currently discussed among the U.S. security community.

The first is a surprise attack using air and missile forces. This scenario aims to attack Taiwan’s naval and air bases, missile units, and center of command with missiles at the war’s opening phase to destroy Taiwan’s air defense and offensive capabilities at a stroke and establish maritime and air superiority in the Taiwan Strait.

As of 2000, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had only a few missiles and airpower to attack Taiwan, making it difficult to disarm the island with the initial strike. But today’s PLA possesses over 1,500 short- and medium-range missiles within the range of Taiwan and over 1,000 fourth- and fifth-generation airpower. Depending on how these are operated, it is believed China could destroy most of Taiwan’s air defense systems and temporarily neutralize its airpower to secure a foothold for gaining air superiority.

However, for this scenario to be viable, the PLA forces must operate intensively in a short time without being detected by the early warning capabilities of Taiwan and the U.S. If the PLA shifts many of its missile forces to prepare for military action, the unit’s move to Fujian Province by highways or railroads would be visible by satellite. Also, with more frequent launch-related inspections and communications, the U.S. and Taiwanese SIGINT (signals intelligence) systems are likely to intercept the activities.

Similarly, there are approximately 20 air bases in southeast China with Taiwan within the combat range. Many of the fighters and bombers that would be deployed in a surprise attack could converge at these bases from inland locations for intensive training, including night training and electronic jamming. As part of the efforts to strengthen the air operations infrastructure, the construction of shelters, backup control towers, explosive bunkers, and fuel depots could also provide clues to a surprise attack.

It has been considered difficult for the PLA to conduct large-scale mobilization preparations without being detected. Conversely, if it can somehow create a situation in which the movements are not detected or difficult to distinguish, the likelihood of a successful surprise attack will increase relatively.

Specifically, it is possible that various abilities for space, cyber, and electromagnetic wave could be used to lower the early warning capabilities of Taiwan and the U.S. for a certain period of time. The PLA can also create a gray zone situation by moving air missile forces to a frontline base in advance under the guise of a large-scale maneuver and making it the norm, so that it would be difficult to distinguish between preparations for the exercise and preparations for a surprise attack.

The second scenario is forcing the Taiwanese government to review its China relations and move toward political negotiations by isolating it physically and informationally through electronic and cyber attacks, besides a blockade. The case of strategic bombing after gaining air superiority from a surprise attack can also be included as a derivative of this coercion scenario.

Taiwan has a structural vulnerability, with 60% of its food and 98% of its energy resources relying on import. It also has a limited coastline, making it easy to predict which of the seven ports a large container ship is heading to.

In this blockade scenario, as in the surprise scenario, commercial ports and the offshore oil terminals, together with the resistance capabilities of Taiwan, will be destroyed by missiles. Then, a triple blockade network would be built by placing mines around commercial ports, surrounded by patrol boats and submarines, and naval vessels and aircraft on the outmost perimeter of the blockade. Foreign vessels approaching Taiwan will continue to be subject to transport permits and on-site inspections under the “protection” of the PLA.

If these conditions persist, Taiwan’s economy will be severely damaged under the mercy of China, and it will be a question of how far the Taiwanese people can withstand the situation.

In this stage, to shake China’s maritime and air superiority and break through the blockade, it will be necessary to destroy the integrated air defense system along the Chinese coast that prevents other aircraft from entering the Taiwan Strait. However, only precision-guided attacks by medium-range missiles or stealth aircraft can be used for this, but they may not have enough striking power.

This is because, when U.S. military intervention is expected, the PLA is likely to conduct preemptive strikes on U.S. bases in Japan and Guam, aircraft carriers, and other air operations infrastructure. If the integrated coastal air defense system cannot be destroyed, it will be extremely difficult to regain maritime and air superiority in the region, and the blockade is expected to be prolonged, as there is no prospect of conducting minesweeping.

The third scenario is a landing invasion using amphibious and other forces. This scenario could take place if a blockade is imposed by an air or missile attack and the Taiwanese government still does not change its behavior.

However, most experts agree that the likelihood that China conducts a landing operation and grasps the Taiwanese government is quite low. The success of a landing operation depends on the ability to send an overwhelming capability against the defenders to the landing site in a short time, but the PLA clearly lacks maritime transport capabilities. According to one estimate, as of 2017, the maximum PLA could send is 26,000 troops using about 90 landing craft on the first day, followed by a troop increase of about 18,000 per day.

Taiwan, on the other hand, currently possesses 150,000 troops and 1.5 million military reserves, and is considered capable of deploying 50,000 per day. In addition, only 10% of Taiwan’s coastline is suitable for landings. Since the sites can be predicted, the landing forces will be exposed to anti-ship missile attacks. During the Normandy landings, 10% of the U.S. landing force was killed on the beaches. The loss rate of the PLA landing force is believed to be much higher than that.

The fourth is a limited invasion scenario in which not the Taiwan Main Island, but the remote islands in the Pacific and other areas such as the Pratas Islands and Spratly Islands are seized in a brief span of time to establish a fait accompli. In particular, the Pratas Islands are considered relatively easy to attain because there are no civilians, and they are almost defenseless.

For Beijing, seizing the remote islands has fewer benefits compared to Taiwan Main Island, yet it can be a means of demonstrating the resolve to unify Taiwan without risking military failure.

Also, even when China and Russia made unjustified changes to the status quo in the South China Sea and Crimea, the U.S. military did not try to clear them off militarily, anticipating escalation. The attitude may have given a negative effect on China’s risk calculations, and this may have the highest risk of occurring among the four scenarios in the short term.

Deterrence Failure Risk and Defense Capability

Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass caused a stir in the U.S.-Taiwan policy debate when he claimed in a co-authored article in September 2020 that the United States should end its ambiguous policy toward China and Taiwan and clarify its defensive commitments to Taiwan. Like in the scenario with a limited invasion of remote islands, where the “intent” of the U.S. to intervene is assumed to be low in advance, clarifying its intent to defend Taiwan would be a strong deterrent signal to China.

However, if the U.S. were to use force, which could eventually escalate to an invasion of the Taiwan Main Island, it cannot afford to fail given Taiwan’s importance to China. If so, with so much at stake, Beijing cannot risk acting in the uncertain hope that the U.S. would not intervene.

Thus, Beijing will only decide to use full-scale force when they are confident of repelling the U.S. military by sheer strength, even if it intervenes. Here, China will act not on the “intent” of the U.S. to intervene, but by the low evaluation of U.S. “capability.” In a full-scale use of force scenario, even if the ambiguous policy is revised, deterrence will not work unless accompanied by a strengthening of the capability for denying China from achieving its goal.

This shows that when considering the deterrence policy against China concerning Taiwan, the comments “China does not seriously want war with the U.S.” have little meaning. If China has no desire to do so, there is no need for the rush to strengthen our defenses. But if we fail to strengthen our defenses, the capability gap with China will widen and the risk of a deterrence failure will increase. After all, there is no other way to prevent the loss of deterrence than to strengthen our capabilities immediately.

Let us now return to the meaning of the time frame that Commander Davidson mentioned—the threat to Taiwan will become apparent within the next six years (by 2027). Many regional experts have suggested the time frame may have been calculated backward from China’s political calendar, such as the centennial of the PLA’s founding (2027) and the legacy building in the third phase (2022-2028) of the Xi Jinping administration. Of course, I do not deny this view.

Yet, from the point of relative force assessment, China’s capability to strike in the battle zone to prevent U.S. military intervention will continue to develop in the latter half of 2020s, while the major U.S. military forces procured at the end of the Cold War will all retire, causing a serious lack of power for striking Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) and blockades, at the same timing. It is also when the four Ohio-class cruise missile submarines, each capable of firing 154 Tomahawks at once, are scheduled to retire.

The impact of losing the two non-vulnerable cruise missile platforms capable of staying within the A2/AD zone without combats is not small. Such a lack of strike capability must be compensated by alternative means. In this light, it is inevitable both the Pentagon and the INDOPACOM place the deployment of ground-launched medium-range missiles as a top priority in the PDI.

Japan, U.S., and Taiwan Need to Discuss Defense Concept

“When the issue of collective self-defense is settled, we have to deal with the Taiwan issue, because the Taiwan issue is Japan’s problem.”

On July 1, 2014, Hisahiko Okazaki, former ambassador to Thailand and my boss, muttered as he watched Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s press conference announcing the Cabinet’s decision to allow the exercise of the right of collective self-defense.

With the Japanese Military Legislation enacted the following year in 2015, legal issues related to a Taiwan Contingency were largely sorted out. The Japan-U.S. Joint Leaders’ Statement on April 16, 2021, included the phrase, “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”

Yet, there are mounting challenges on operations and capabilities. To prepare for the upcoming Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee (2+2) later in 2021, the two countries should engage in discussions to redefine the roles, missions, and capabilities of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and U.S. forces based on specific crisis scenarios and establish a scheme to assess quantitatively and share gaps in mutual capabilities in this context.

As an extension of these efforts, the three countries should also evaluate and share the progress of Taiwan’s defense concept through Track 1.5 discussions, a joint public-private exchange of views between the U.S., Japan, and Taiwan.

Masashi Murano
Born in 1987. Completed the master’s program at Takushoku University Graduate School. Careers include a researcher at the Okazaki Institute. Specializes in Japan-U.S. security and defense policy. Co-author of “New Missile Arms Race and Japan’s Defense” (in Japanese, from Namiki Shobo) and others.

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