Features | Security | East Asia

Is Taiwan Really Buying the ‘Wrong’ Weapons?

Taiwan’s defense procurement strategy makes a lot more sense when viewed through the lens of the U.S. factor.

By Corey Lee Bell for
Is Taiwan Really Buying the ‘Wrong’ Weapons?
Credit: Ministry of National Defense, ROC (Taiwan)

Few were surprised when Taiwan’s presidential election resulted in the return of the America-friendly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen this January. As expected, Tsai’s tough stand on the issue of Taiwanese sovereignty was a winner, with the Hong Kong extradition protests serving as a timely warning of the dangers of the “one country two systems” model Beijing wants to impose on Taiwan. The strong election result was hence expected to bring continuity to Tsai’s defense policy and ambitious agenda of military procurements. Yet far from resolving lingering uncertainties, post-election developments have only intensified debate about whether Tsai’s defense policy and acquisition agenda is off-key.

Leading up to the election, a number of the Tsai administration’s procurement decisions had already come in for heavy criticism. The opposition candidate Han Kuo-yu, backed by media allies, claimed the DPP was wasting money on white elephants and trophy projects ill-suited to Taiwan’s defensive needs. Particular criticism was directed at the indigenous submarines and Landing Helicopter Deck (LHD) development plans, as well as the decision to purchase 108 M1A2 Abrams Tanks from the United States. Others more pointedly accused Tsai of recklessly stoking cross-strait tensions and adopting a “populist” strategy of promoting “vanity” purchases to bolster support for the government. Some were especially critical of Tsai’s claims that she was the Taiwanese president that has “placed the greatest emphasis on defense,” with the newly formed Left Party subsequently stating it “opposed Tsai Ing-wen’s use of weapons purchases to bolster her election campaign.”

Surprisingly, many analysts outside Taiwan agree with these appraisals. A core reason they do so is due to the notable discordance between the government’s new Overall Defense Concept (ODC) and the procurement agenda being pursued by the government. The former, which is widely lauded by international experts, calls for focusing on asymmetric warfare capabilities. The latter appears to be less focused, and while parts of it are aligned with the tenets of the ODC, others are aimed at bolstering Taiwan’s conventional arsenal.

Such criticisms do make sense. Asymmetric strategies are those devised to shorten the odds against an opponent one has no chance of matching ship for ship, or aircraft for aircraft — which very much matches Taiwan’s strategic predicament. Yet they come at the cost of appearing militarily powerful — which reflects Tsai’s political quandary. The trade-off comes in the form of sacrificing some capabilities in order to bolster others (typically, offensive for defensive), and being theater-specific, which means losing all-terrain capabilities so as to leverage the natural advantages of a predetermined (and typically proximate) geography. Asymmetric strategies require investing in technologies that give more bang for your buck, that are fit for purpose, and that are — in line with the principles of guerilla warfare — relatively light, mobile, and more capable of evading detection. When properly designed, they are the bane of the generals of powerful belligerents, for while they may not threaten to destroy the enemy’s capacity to fight, they target the cost threshold that could make aggressive action politically unviable.

The ODC — the brainchild of Taiwan’s recently retired chief of general staff, Admiral Lee Hsi-ming — is largely faithful to the core tenets of this strategy, which it adapts to the distinctive specificities of Taiwan’s island geography. Its core focus is to make an invasion from China prohibitively timely and costly — the time factor calibrated on the premise that China would want to complete its objectives before it suffers the costly consequences of an international response. It seeks to do this principally through deploying a large number of inexpensive weapons that could evade an early barrage, and that would foremost target approaching naval and air assets. In line with this doctrine, the ODC calls for prioritizing weapons such as surface-to-air missiles over high-cost yet vulnerable fighter jets; nimble missile patrol boats and naval mines over more cumbersome frigates and Amphibious Transport Docks; and MANPATS (man-portable anti-tank/armor systems) over heavy tanks. Yet while these priorities have not been ignored, neither have they been faithfully adhered to. In each of these examples, the Tsai administration has tended to take a bet each way.

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Attributing these inconsistencies to Tsai’s tough stance on national sovereignty is logical, although I would argue it reflects an outdated view on Taiwan’s political culture. Yet where such criticisms are lacking is in their failure to reflect on the significance of a key extraneous factor. At the end of the day, neither a conventional nor asymmetric approach guarantees Taiwan will survive an invasion without the support of a foreign power: the United States. This is doubly so because the same foreign power likely to come to Taiwan’s aid is essentially the sole external supplier of Taiwan’s military hardware. Hence in reality, Taiwan cannot devise its defense policy with unfettered autonomy. And even if it could, its procurements could not be simply made on the basis of what it wants, and must take into account what its sole provider makes available. If Taiwan is buying the wrong weapons it is in good part because the United States is choosing to sell them. It is telling on this point that the criticisms of North American think tanks on Taiwan’s procurements are not only having little impact in Taipei — they are neither gaining currency in the halls of the Pentagon.

It is for this reason that considering what the U.S. administration has in mind for Taiwan’s military is also essential for understanding Taiwan’s recent procurement decisions and forecasting future developments. This endeavor may be fraught with peril during the administration of Donald Trump, whose foreign and defense policies have been criticized for being opportunistic and off-the-cuff, and whose very willingness to defend Taiwan has been questioned by some in Taiwan (such as the enigmatic Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je) and its neighbors (South Korea and Japan). Yet the administration’s position toward Taiwan and other East Asian partners more generally has been steadfast. The core tenet is that the United States wants to coerce wealthy partners in the region to behave not as protectorates, but as allies.

With the meteoric rise of China in the western Pacific of increasing concern to Washington, the Trump administration’s demands on its allies have been especially pointed in Northeast Asia. For instance South Korea, whose 2.6 percent GDP spending on defense should make them the ideal example of a reliable U.S. ally, recently released a five year “Medium-term defense Plan” in which they pledged to invest 290 trillion won (roughly $240 billion). They were still pressed by the U.S. to up their game and contribute more to the expenses of American forces based there. Japan, whose defense spending rose for an eighth consecutive year and is expected to total almost $51 billion in real terms, has similarly been pushed to invest in new capabilities and increase its contribution to America’s military presence in its country. Taiwan, which has also come under unrelenting pressured from the United States, is clearly following this trend. It has committed to spending roughly 2.3 percent of its GDP, or more than NT$410 billion (approx. US$13.1 billion), on defense in 2020, representing a 5.2 percent increase on the 2019 figure (on the back of that years’ increase of nearly US$590 million). Its recently announced 10-year budget has pledged incremental increases, with the “official budget” alone (the total minus the ever growing “special funds” included in the figure above, which in 2020 approached US$2 billion) expected to reach NT$400 billion by 2027.

But the shift from “protectorate” to “ally” is not so much about how much nations spend, but rather what they spend their money on. Put bluntly, it inevitably means reformulating defense/military acquisition policies in ways that negotiate individual state’s defense needs with new alliance obligations. What this means practically is that there is a need to rebalance the asymmetric strategy that may best befit a protectorate with the conventional capabilities an “ally” may be expected to mobilize.

As fanciful as this may seem to some, there are signs that such a trend is already emerging among America’s allies across the Asia-Pacific — signs which analysts have hitherto been inclined to read as attempts at “power projection” or interregional competition. Perhaps the most patent symbol of this trend has been a scramble to acquire the classic post-World War II symbol of power projection, aircraft carriers — or at the least, light aircraft carriers, in the form of Landing Helicopter Decks (LHD) and Landing Platform Docks (LPD). South Korea, for instance, recently announced that Hyundai Heavy Industries had been awarded a contract to build a 30,000-plus tonne Landing Platform Experimental (LPX) capable of carrying 16 F35B vertical launch/STOVL (Short Launch Vertical Take Off) fighters. The addition of this capability to its two 19,000 tonne Landing Platform Helicopters (LPHs, the Dokdo and the Marado) points to the development of a more comprehensive blue-water rather than purely defensive naval capability. While it is questionable that this matches that nation’s more pressing defensive priorities (such as missile defense), it is telling that the specifications of the LPX neatly matches the very capability gaps the late Senator John McCain identified in his Restoring American Power whitepaper.

This capability gap is being filled elsewhere among America’s allies in the region. Japan in late 2018 similarly announced plans to refit the 27,000 tonne JS Izumo, and more recently its sister ship the JS Kaga, to make them capable of launching F-35B Joint Strike Fighters. This is in spite of domestic opposition and Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution strictly limiting the capabilities of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) to self defense. Singapore is also considering producing a variant of its Endurance class LHD that could take F-35B fighters, and Australia is undergoing studies on refitting its 27,000 tonne Canberra LHD to extend this same capacity. While it is too early to say, Taiwan is taking baby steps in this direction. Along with acquiring a 16,000 tonne LPD, 15 frigates, and four destroyers, Taiwan is making plans to build a 22,000 tonne LHD that resembles the Spanish Navy’s Juan Carlos I — which can carry up to 12 AV8B Harrier II ground attack aircraft or F-35Bs. There is already muted speculation that the Taiwanese variant may be accompanied by an order for the latter.

Yet there is arguably no better example of how new alliance obligations are compromising traditional defense priorities among America’s allies than in the case of Australia. Arguably the United States’ most faithful ally of the post-World War II period, Australia was recently praised by the U.S. chargé d’affaires, James Carouso, for “stepping up to the plate” to help the Pacific region remain “free and open.” And there has been bitter contention among analysts in Australia that such alliance obligations are driving Australia’s procurement decisions. One example that resonates with the recent controversy in Taiwan was Canberra’s decision in 2004 to purchase 59 remodelled M1A1 Abrams tanks. As is the case with Taiwan, many experts claimed these were eminently unsuited to the islands in the Oceania region that come under the scope of Australia’s unique regional defense policy. On the back of suspicions that the tanks were in poor condition, and in view of the massive logistical problems associated with transporting such heavy equipment (a problem hardly resolved by the subsequent purchase of seven M88A2 Hercules Armored Recovery Vehicles), speculation has long been rife that the primary purpose of the acquisition was to advance U.S.-Australian integration, and pave the way for the smooth deployment of Australian tank crews to use American equipment in overseas theaters.

Australia’s procurement of 72 F-35A fighters raised similar accusations. The fifth generation fighter may have excellent counterelectronic warfare capabilities that make up for its aeronautical deficiencies. But experts have long claimed its limited range, speed, and payload make it fundamentally ill-fitted for Australia’s unique strategic requirements: the need to protect a vast northern coastline and remotely located regional allies. Following fury at Australia’s former defense minister Dr. Brendon Nelson’s controversial decision to acquire a fleet of F/A-18F Super Hornets — which were ostensibly needed to play a stop-gap role until the long-delayed expected deployment of the F-35s — Australia went on to acquire a fleet of EA-18G Growlers, all but admitting the F-35s cannot fill the capability gaps left behind by the earlier retirement of Australia’s long range/heavy payload F-111Gs. Speculation remains rife that advancing integration with U.S. forces was the plan all along. The same thing is being said about the potential refitting of the Canberra, with growing speculation that it is part of a strategic calculus of maintaining the region’s “balance of power.”

Differences between Australia’s situation and that of Taiwan are all too obvious — unlike Australia, Taiwan is unlikely to contribute to American campaigns in other theaters. But as Taiwan is bolstering its offensive capabilities, America has similarly begun emphasizing Taiwan’s role as a key “partner” in maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

This rhetoric helps explain a dramatic shift in Trump’s approach to arms sales to Taiwan — an area which is particularly sensitive for China. The sale of Abrams tanks as well as 66 F-16s to Taiwan abruptly ended a roughly two decade-long period of delays on the sale of these weapons — delays in part prompted by China’s vehement opposition. The latter — expected to cost the equivalent of 70 percent of Taiwan’s 2019 military budget — stands alongside a plan to upgrade its other 141 units to Viper standard (i.e., that of the latest U.S. variant). Planned domestic programs appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Expected to cost 10 percent of Taiwan’s defense budget, the planned indigenous submarine program — which Tsai’s opponent Han Kuo-Yu likened to “building an aircraft carrier” or “setting foot on the moon” — has been touted as having an asymmetric role, but is increasingly looking like a power projection platform. According to the recent book A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture, produced by George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, plans to build other ships including an LHD are “more aspirational than practical” — an appraisal that holds true if one holds a more conventional view on Taiwan’s defense priorities. While Taiwan is purchasing missiles that are primarily defensive, it is developing weapons with offensive capabilities — including the Yun Feng Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM), with a projected range of 2,000 kilometers and a payload of 225kg, and an extended range variant of its subsonic Hsiung Feng IIE, whose expected range of 1,250 kilometers takes it well beyond the Taiwan Strait.

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Taiwan, or course, has its own set of reasons to pursue some of these priorities outside of any broader sense of alliance obligations. In relation to combat aircraft, Taiwan faces the immediate threat that the normalization of uncontested incursions over Taiwan’s airspace will strengthen China’s claims to suzerainty over Taiwan’s territory. On the issue of blue navy capabilities, China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea could gain it control over the sea routes that are pivotal to regional trade and the island’s economic survival.

But these acquisitions make the most sense when we consider the roles and obligations the shift from “protectorate” to “ally” entails. As opposed to a protectorate — who can plan to hold out until help arrives — an “ally” must think about its ongoing obligations to fight alongside its partner after its assumed “rescue.” But a bigger issue is that rather than merely being a burden, Taiwan may feel that its most immediate need is to help make the United States’ position in the region stronger. Taiwan has a choice — it can hope that Trump really will “make America great again” or it can try to stop America’s relative decline leading to China ascending to regional hegemony. Doing so means proactively filling American capability gaps, including the offensive capabilities America needs to deter belligerent acts from hostile powers.

This last point cannot be overemphasized. While China achieving hegemony in the western Pacific will be a nightmare-come-true for Japan and South Korea, for Taiwan it is effectively game over. If the American Navy is pushed out of the west Pacific and isolated from its allies there, the pertinent question in relation to reunification across the strait will no longer be when and on whose terms. It will be how and at what cost.

Corey Lee Bell is an associate researcher based in Taiwan and an editor of the Taiwan Insight magazine, the magazine of the University of Nottingham”s Taiwan Studies Programme. He has written numerous articles on politics, international relations and regional security in Northeast Asia.