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Taiwan needs more than what the US is selling

Taiwan's $8 billion F-16Vs are not enough to match the roughly 600 4th-generation fighters the Chinese Air Force has at its disposal.

The United States is one step closer to finalizing the sale of 66 F-16V fighter aircraft (and other components) to the Republic of China on Taiwan. The only possible resistance at this point would come from the House and Senate, whose approval is required after State Department notification. But both have already voiced their support.

In other words, it is a done deal: Taiwan is finally getting its upgraded F-16s. The right question to then ask is how these aircraft will be used, and whether they’re useful for Taiwan’s defense as laid out in the Taiwan Relations Act underpinning their sale.

The 66 F-16Vs Taiwan will receive will not be enough to fully replace its entire aging fleet of fighters, which include some indigenously made and French-origin aircraft, but are enough to have already drawn the expected ire from Beijing.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson called the arms deal an “interference in China’s internal affairs” and urged the U.S. to “stop arms sales to and military contact with Taiwan,” tacking on that otherwise the U.S. would “have to bear all the consequences.”

This language is nearly identical to the response given when the U.S. prepared another arms package for Taiwan in July. That sale involved a little over $2 billion in material, including M1A2 Abrams tanks and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

The pace of these sales may have the Taiwan-watching community uneasy, especially given the precarious state of U.S.-China relations, but by this point Beijing is unhappy with virtually any arms transfers, at any moment and of any size, prompting the question of when exactly there is a bad or good time to sell weapons to Taiwan.

Those worrying about provoking China should understand the Chinese side has already published a new white paper, entitled ‘China’s National Defense in the New Era,’ that is absolutely laden with bellicose rhetoric as it pertains to Taiwan, placing ‘separatism’ at the top of the priority list for the People’s Liberation Army. The ultimate goal of China’s ruling party is to achieve unification by 2049, and doing so by force seems to be more and more accepted within China’s leadership and military.

So, it is difficult to see how or why withholding defense cooperation from Taiwan would solve the cross-strait tension currently stewing. In this context, the two arms packages that the Trump administration has put together side-by-side are not going to make things any worse.

Supporting Taiwan’s military strategy

The bigger problem lies in the fact that these arms packages aren’t giving Taiwan what it actually needs to defend itself. Namely, an arsenal suited for an asymmetric strategy.

To start, Taiwan will almost definitely benefit from more Stingers to fend off an ever-growing PLA Air Force, but the inclusion of M1A2 Abrams tanks alongside them is odd. Taiwan is a predominately mountainous island that, in the worst case scenario, would be unable to recover if enemy forces actually landed on its shores. Thus, the main goal would be to keep enemy aircraft and ships at bay. The M1A2 cannot shoot down PLA bombers, and its ability to significantly stop the PLA Navy’s new amphibious vessels is dubious at best.

Where the M1A2s would be positioned to affect an amphibious invasion scenario is far away from the front lines, where they’d only have a role in retaking areas after enemy forces are already ashore. In which case, an M1A2 and its crew are sitting out during most of a wartime scenario’s crucial beginning phase.

In contrast to M1A2s, Taiwan’s F-16Vs will at the very least have a meaningful peacetime role. Interdiction capabilities are increasingly necessary as China gets bolder and bolder with its overflights in the Taiwan Strait and continues needling Taiwan’s airspace. But 66 F-16Vs are not enough to match the roughly 600 4th-generation fighters that the PLA Air Force has at its disposal.

In a wartime scenario, Taiwan’s fleet of aircraft would be outnumbered and outgunned, especially since China’s qualitative edge over other world-class militaries is set to grow in the near future with such additions as the PL-15 air-to-air missile and the J-20. Yet Taiwan is still investing in these aircraft as if it’s a feasible goal to win an air war over its skies.

There is some argument to be made that F-16Vs will increase Taiwan’s interoperability with the U.S. in case of a conflict – the ‘quarterback’ F-35 joint strike fighters that the U.S. would bring to bear would coordinate with them. However, there is little logic in turning Taiwan’s military into a much smaller version of that of the U.S., especially when China has specifically built its own armed forces and anti-access strategy to defeat precisely that.

The goal for Taiwan, if it fails to deter China from attacking, ought to be to hold out as long as possible for a partner country to come to its rescue, or to hold out long enough that the PLA withdraws out of fatigue. That can’t be done if it relies on aircraft that are likely to be wiped out or rendered inoperable very quickly due to runway cratering.

Taiwan needs to invest in anti-air capabilities from the ground – missiles that could stave off PLA bombing runs and the PLA Air Force Airborne Corps. The most effective weaponry would be light, easily moved, and partnered with hardened shelters to ensure they can’t be destroyed by something like a salvo from the PLA Rocket Force, which wields a massive arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles specifically for the opening of a Taiwan invasion scenario. Fighter aircraft doesn’t meet this test.

Recently, Taiwan’s NCSIST unveiled the Chen Hsiang anti-radiation missile, which is an example of the kind of capability Taiwan needs more of. An ARM on a mobile launcher would be capable of impeding the PLA’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance by targeting ground-based radars. If paired with sufficient ground-based anti-air batteries, it would make the suppression of Taiwan’s air defenses much, much harder for the PLA Air Force. Taiwan is rapidly moving in this direction, especially with the development of a Sea Oryx defense system that will be both ground- and sea-based.

Speaking of the sea, there are two capabilities Taiwan will make vastly more use of that the U.S. isn’t providing: minelayers, and submarines.

Taiwan already invests heavily in minelayers due to the unique geography of the Taiwan Strait, most notably with its next generation of catamaran ships. Mines would potentially stop an amphibious invasion dead in its tracks. Unfortunately, the expansion of Chinese military bases in the South China Sea and the construction of new aircraft carriers for the PLA Navy has made it so that Taiwan would be pressed from all sides in a wartime scenario, not just in the Strait, and potentially blockaded to the point of paralysis.

If the U.S. truly wanted to give Taiwan sufficient material to defend itself from this dreaded invasion scenario, then it would aid in the indigenization of Taiwan’s submarine fleet, which is badly-aged but a key component of any asymmetric strategy.

Just two Dutch-built Zwaardvis-class submarines are at the ROC Navy’s disposal. Importing replacements would be virtually impossible given Beijing’s intimidation of would-be suppliers. Therefore, Taiwan has pushed forward with making its own submarines. The possibility of success in building its own submarine industry isn’t at all remote – South Korea sent its KSS-III attack submarine off for sea trials this year. However, the possibility of fielding new, indigenous submarines in a timely manner is far more unlikely given the technology in play.

It would still be in Taiwan’s best interest to push forward with indigenization, and in the U.S. interest to root for its success. Mining the Taiwan Strait is one way to stave off a fleet of PLA Navy ships, but submarines are exponentially more evasive and useful, and virtually any country would find it preferable if an extremely busy international waterway wasn’t laden with mines.

Contrary to how submarine programs are currently run in the U.S., a large number of small, cheap attack submarines that eschew expensive ground-attack capabilities are very well-suited to Taiwan’s defensive environment and well-within Taiwan’s means to make. But the U.S. should seriously consider exploring ways to help Taiwan receive the necessary parts or expertise from abroad to maintain its current small fleet of submarines and gain technical assistance for its new indigenization efforts. This would align perfectly with what the Taiwan Assurance Act lays out for the future of U.S.-Taiwan defense cooperation.

The Taiwan Assurance Act and the future of US-Taiwan relations

The Act specifies that the United States “should conduct regular sales and transfers of defense articles to Taiwan in order to enhance its self-defense capabilities, particularly its efforts to develop and integrate asymmetric capabilities,” including undersea vehicles. Submarines, and potentially unmanned underwater vehicles, would compose the backbone of any asymmetric naval strategy. Similarly, there’s an argument that the U.S. Department of Defense would benefit from working with Taiwan on a next generation of sea mines.

Creative cooperation between tech firms in the U.S. and Taiwan could yield dividends on underwater capability, at a time when China is just starting to seriously invest in anti-submarine warfare.

Let’s be clear: Taiwan is glad to take any fighter jets and tanks it can get. The island has pursued M1A2 tanks in particular since 2001. There are a few salient reasons for procuring these platforms, including protecting Taiwan’s airspace in peacetime or just for the propaganda value. Asymmetric weapons are decidedly unglamorous, and when you are an all-volunteer force like the Republic of China Army, it’s much easier to recruit people using the pageantry of fighter jets and tank columns rather than stationary coastal batteries.

The veneer of these expensive platforms should not overshadow what Taiwan would gain from fully pursuing an asymmetric strategy with U.S. help. In addition to the ability to better deter China’s leadership from considering ‘unification by force’ and the capability to exhaust the PLA before it lands on Taiwanese shores, a high-tech asymmetric strategy could be a model for other small states in the region facing down a bellicose China.

Taiwan and Vietnam in particular ought to look into the same technology and strategies, and in some ways are already doing so as both see the urgent need to modernize their submarine fleets. An asymmetric strategy is also just cheaper, and would free up resources for other domestic priorities of Taiwan’s government.

The transition will not be easy, and will almost definitely sideline the role of Taiwan’s newly-acquired F-16Vs and M1A2s. But the cross-strait balance as a whole has shifted. Taiwan can no longer count on the U.S. arriving quickly to deter or roll-back an invasion scenario. Nor can it count on the U.S. showing up at all. Taiwan and the U.S. both ought to change course in light of this.


Drake LongDrake Long  is a second-year graduate student in Georgetown University’s Conflict Resolution program.

Follow him on Twitter: @DRM_Long.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.


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