Special Commentary: Inconsistent U.S. Defense Priorities Undermine Taiwan Force Modernization

February 25, 2008

Special Commentary:
Inconsistent U.S. Defense Priorities Undermine
Taiwan Force Modernization

(Arlington, Virginia, February 25, 2008)

Special Commentary by Rupert Hammond-Chambers

In the early part of 2007, the Bush Administration tacked a new course on Taiwan’s counter-strike missile program. The new heading was triggered by Ministry of National Defense testimony in the Legislative Yuan (LY) on the fiscal demands for further research, development, and limited deployment of the indigenous HF-2E counter-strike missile – over US$1 billion between 2008 and 2012.

The Bush Administration’s new direction vis-à-vis Taiwan’s counter-strike effort is driven by their increasingly negative view of Taiwan and of its role as a reliable partner in Asia. Rather than consider the tactical and strategic nature of such a capability, the Bush Administration has chosen to focus on the behavior of outgoing Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian as the principal driver for its cross-Strait threat assessment. It has become about politics, not about the balance of power across the Strait. Regrettably, this short term view is impacting programs that should play a critical role in Taiwan’s ability to counter a PRC attack well after President Chen has retired. The denial of a second batch of F-16s to replace aging Vietnam era platforms, and the turnaround on support for Taiwan’s counter-strike missile programs are at the forefront.

How did we get here?
Over the past 10 years, the U.S. executive branch and other government agencies have been aware of the counter-strike programs being developed, and have approved export licenses that have allowed Taiwan to continue to make progress through the research and development phases. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has discussed counter-strike operations with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of State on numerous occasions over the past decade, at which time they agreed to a number of general principles – including only using conventionally-armed weapons against military targets in response to a PRC first strike, and to only do so after proper authorization.

For example, in 2000, MND General Huoh Shou-yeh visited the U.S. In a meeting with Frank Kramer – then Assistant Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs – the two discussed counter-strike operations against the mainland. The ASD/ISA stated that DOD does not oppose Taiwan maintaining a limited ability to hold targets on the mainland at risk. He did ask explicitly that Taiwan, as a friend, notify the U.S. in advance of its intentions should a contingency arise. Strike operations continued to be a topic of discussion during operational dialogues between Taiwan and U.S. war fighters, and a defense telephone link connecting the two policy establishments was installed in October 2002 for this purpose. In addition, Taiwan’s counterstrike strategy was a key topic of discussion during the 2003 visit to the U.S. of Deputy Minister of Defense Lin Chong-pin. U.S. government support had been consistent and ongoing for a number of years.

Taiwan’s continued development of counter-strike weapons does not appear to be a deviation from previous policies. The objective has been to develop counter-strike weapons for tactical (not strategic) application. Taiwan’s current operational concepts do not envisage attacks against civilian targets or against political leadership assets. Neither is it likely that Taiwan would ever possess the resources to deploy the necessary assets in sufficient quantity to make effective attacks against such target sets in a country as vast and populous as China. Rather, Taiwan sees it as part of a broader capability (together with airpower – F-16s) to attempt to strike missile launchers and military ports of embarkation in response to a PRC attack.

The Bush Administration’s decision to personalize the F-16 sale – centering its opposition to the sale around the person of Chen Shui-bian – has broad and troubling ramifications for Taiwan’s defense modernization efforts, as well as for the ability of the U.S. to influence that process in a manner that promotes U.S. interests in the region. There is no doubt that Taiwan needs additional F-16s. The manner in which the denial has been handled and the implications for Taiwan’s leadership over the reliability of America as a supplier will only further encourage Taiwan to seek domestically developed solutions. The poor handling of the F-16 matter will be further exacerbated by the soon-to-be heavy hand wringing over how to proceed with the submarine program. Therefore, the F-16 issue potentially acts as a catalyst for political support for domestic programs, missile programs generally and counter-strike missile programs specifically – programs the Bush Administration now opposes.

In addition, the continued denial of Taiwan’s request for Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and AGM-88 high-speed antiradiation missile (HARM) is also acting as a catalyst in Taiwan’s drive for greater self-reliance. As China’s formidable force modernization continues unchecked, Taiwan’s ability to respond to an attack with manned platforms becomes increasingly problematic without modern fighters and munitions. The Bush Administration is denying Taiwan F-16s and the munitions capable of responding to a PRC attack, while also actively seeking to deny Taiwan a counterstrike missile capability. It is therefore unclear how the Bush Administration expects Taiwan to respond. Surely in battle contingencies where Taiwan is the victim of an unprovoked attack, the U.S. would look to Taiwan to respond effectively by reducing the threat of attack – not just to itself but also to U.S. forces rushing to the region. Bundled together, these decisions – F-16, JDAM, HARM & HF-2E – are striking at a core capability that fundamentally weakens Taiwan. A weak Taiwan encourages PRC adventurism, and the cross-Strait threat is increased – the exact opposite of stated U.S. goals.

How effective is this capability?
Taiwan military leaders would agree that in the long run a relatively small number of long-range, precision-strike weapons (e.g. Land Attack Cruise Missiles/LACM) would have only a limited effect on China’s overall ability to prosecute a war with Taiwan. However, they do believe that following the hypothetical onset of hostilities, having even a limited capability for effectively neutralizing key military targets within the Nanjing Military Region/NMR (the Nanjing Theater of Operations/NTO in times of war) is highly valuable and desirable. Such attacks could disrupt the PLA’s operational tempo, thereby delaying China’s achievement of its military and political objectives. This would buy much needed time, allowing Taiwan to both recover from the initial Chinese first strike, and giving potential allies (i.e. the U.S.) time to evaluate and implement intervention options.

Taiwan’s defense establishment sees conventional-strike capabilities like the HF-2E as a deterrent to Chinese military adventurism, as it increases the uncertainty of success for a PRC offensive by raising the cost of such a venture. The vast majority of military officers also believe that Taiwan’s acquisition of a counter-strike, counter-force capability such as the HF-2E is necessary and justified, especially since Taiwan has no formal military alliances and faces a powerful adversary with a full range of capabilities, including a large and growing force of ballistic and cruise missiles.

There is a strong argument to be made that Taiwan’s self-defense requires an ability to strike military targets on the mainland, including command and control centers, logistics depots, staging areas, key air bases, etc. Because it is a capability required for self-defense, any weapon system supporting this mission is inherently defensive in character.

Taiwan Domestic Support for a Counter-Strike Capability
In contrast to military leaders, Taiwan politicians tend to possess a much less sophisticated and certainly far less subtle view. Some – particularly members of the current Chen Shui-bian government and within the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – view a missile like the HF-2E as a means to deter China by threatening counter-value strikes against Chinese cities. Some – although they remain a small minority, particularly after the DPP’s drubbing on January 12 – even tend to characterize a counter-strike capability as a weapon of retaliation and as a means to somehow intimidate China. Some of the statements by these politicians (including by various lawmakers and by a former Premier and DPP Chairman) may seem irresponsible, or even radical, to the policy community in Washington.

However, they have been no more provocative or inflammatory than some of the remarks made by certain senior Chinese military and political leaders – underscoring further the perceived imbalance in Washington attitudes toward Taiwan and China. Many Taiwan politicians (both from the Pan-Blue and from the Pan-Green camps), therefore feel that the U.S. has a double-standard on the matter. While the U.S. has done little to stem the growth of China’s missile threat, or indeed to try to reign in Beijing’s constant political and military pressure against the island, these Taiwan politicians see the U.S. as unfairly pressuring Taiwan to discourage it from developing its own counter-deterrent capability that would fit into a comprehensive military response if attacked. It’s neither balanced policy nor sound strategy.

On the Pan-Blue side, politicians have generally been less vocal in public about Taiwan developing capabilities for attacking targets on the Chinese mainland. A small group of so-called “Deep Blue” (ultra pro-unification) political figures do oppose programs such as HF-2E on grounds that not only are attacks against Taiwan’s compatriots on the Mainland immoral, but also that the modest number of missiles Taiwan could deploy would not be effective against a country the size of China. Clearly, the implication here is that these politicians conceive of the HF-2E as a counter-value proposition. Nevertheless, most senior Kuomintang (KMT) figures privately acknowledge the need for and cost-effectiveness of a limited counter-strike capability.

On a wider scale, however, the views outlined above are those of small minorities in the body-politic, and it is evident that a counter-strike missile capability has significant bi-partisan support in Taiwan. Despite political differences, and the corresponding tendency to emphasize different primary roles for such a capability, the great majority within Taiwan’s two major political coalitions both recognize the requirement for such a military capability as legitimate and desirable. As such, missile programs such as the HF-2E can be expected to continue to be supported under either a DPP government or a new KMT regime.

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