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.

The Diplomat
Date: March 31, 2020
By: Corey Lee Bell

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.    [FULL  STORY]

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