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Taiwan Needs Weapons for Day 1 of a Chinese Invasion

Unlike Ukraine, the island will be very hard to arm during a conflict.

By , a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer.
CM-11 tanks fire their cannons during a live-fire military exercise in Pingtung county, in southern Taiwan, on Sept. 7.
CM-11 tanks fire their cannons during a live-fire military exercise in Pingtung county, in southern Taiwan, on Sept. 7.
CM-11 tanks fire their cannons during a live-fire military exercise in Pingtung county, in southern Taiwan, on Sept. 7. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S.-led response to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine has been impressive in both scale and speed. But it’s not a model for a similar intervention in Taiwan. Several factors, most critically geography, would preclude an after-the-fact flurry of military aid for Taipei in the event of an invasion. But right now, structural factors in both the United States and Taiwan, including strategic priorities, budgets, and acquisition limitations, are preventing Taipei from laying in the critical war-reserve materiel it would need to prevail against a Chinese invasion.

Taiwan would likely have to fight with whatever weapons it had on the first day of a war with China. Unlike Russia’s war in Ukraine, which came as a surprise even to the Russian troops fighting in it, Taiwan is arguably the primary focus of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Many of the weapons and plans developed by China’s PLA over several decades are geared toward precisely this challenge—dominating Taiwan while simultaneously countering a U.S.-led intervention.

One vital lesson of the war in Ukraine is that modern warfare burns through advanced munitions at a rate that far outstrips normal production. By April 2022, the United States had delivered approximately one-third of its own Javelin missile inventory to Ukraine. Under normal production rates, those missiles will not be replaced for three to four years, and production rates are slow to change even when producers are financially incentivized to do so. Russia has also reportedly begun to run low on its own sophisticated missiles, which it will struggle to replace. Taiwan has its own domestically produced cruise missiles as well as several hundred Harpoon missiles in its inventory, but under concentrated assault by the world’s largest navy, those missiles would be quickly expended. Domestic production, which normally creates around 250 missiles per year, would slow or cease entirely under Chinese blockade, and deliveries of foreign equipment would be out of the question.

The U.S.-led response to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine has been impressive in both scale and speed. But it’s not a model for a similar intervention in Taiwan. Several factors, most critically geography, would preclude an after-the-fact flurry of military aid for Taipei in the event of an invasion. But right now, structural factors in both the United States and Taiwan, including strategic priorities, budgets, and acquisition limitations, are preventing Taipei from laying in the critical war-reserve materiel it would need to prevail against a Chinese invasion.

Taiwan would likely have to fight with whatever weapons it had on the first day of a war with China. Unlike Russia’s war in Ukraine, which came as a surprise even to the Russian troops fighting in it, Taiwan is arguably the primary focus of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Many of the weapons and plans developed by China’s PLA over several decades are geared toward precisely this challenge—dominating Taiwan while simultaneously countering a U.S.-led intervention.

One vital lesson of the war in Ukraine is that modern warfare burns through advanced munitions at a rate that far outstrips normal production. By April 2022, the United States had delivered approximately one-third of its own Javelin missile inventory to Ukraine. Under normal production rates, those missiles will not be replaced for three to four years, and production rates are slow to change even when producers are financially incentivized to do so. Russia has also reportedly begun to run low on its own sophisticated missiles, which it will struggle to replace. Taiwan has its own domestically produced cruise missiles as well as several hundred Harpoon missiles in its inventory, but under concentrated assault by the world’s largest navy, those missiles would be quickly expended. Domestic production, which normally creates around 250 missiles per year, would slow or cease entirely under Chinese blockade, and deliveries of foreign equipment would be out of the question.

This is not enough. Naval theorists have put forth rough estimates that at sea alone, modern naval combatants are likely to stop two out of three inbound missiles with onboard self-defense systems. And one missile is not necessarily enough to take a ship out of action, let alone sink it. The PLA Navy boasts a fleet of 660 ships, which means nearly 2,000 anti-ship cruise missiles would be required to even have a fighting chance of hitting each one once.

In Ukraine, donor states continue to pour in increasingly large and sophisticated equipment via air and overland delivery to the country’s western reaches, which remain beyond Russia’s ability to effectively target them. With this support, Ukraine’s military has actually incorporated new equipment and capabilities while defending against Russia’s invasion. But Taiwan lacks Ukraine’s strategic depth and is only about 90 miles across at its widest point, and the entirety of the island and its maritime approaches are well covered by Beijing’s missile force, which remains the world’s largest. While Beijing’s abilities to conduct accurate long-range missile strikes against targets beyond the so-called first island chain may be somewhat inflated, its ability to inflict massive damage only 200 miles from its own coastline is surely considerable. Taiwan will have no safe haven, unlike Ukraine, for resupply and storage, and any airfield or port of any significance is sure to come under attack given Taiwan’s limited territory and proximity to mainland China.

Critics of Taipei’s defense strategy have observed that, traditionally, Taiwan’s defense forces have prioritized construction and acquisition of high-tech platforms to demonstrate capability, rather than sufficient munitions to make those platforms credible. Compounding the problem, Taiwan is far too reliant on large, expensive platforms like tanks and advanced fighter planes, which are designed to respond symmetrically to a threat, rather than asymmetric forces that might be more survivable and able to exploit the inherent strength of the defense in amphibious operations. Given the size advantage of Taiwan’s primary adversary, this is not a workable solution. Self-propelled artillery and mobile cruise missile launchers are the types of equipment Taiwan should prioritize but has yet to incorporate into its defense forces.

Taiwan has been a customer of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program for over 40 years, meaning that the Taiwanese government identifies systems of interest, obtains approval to purchase them, and then pays for them with national funds. However, for a government that ostensibly feels threatened by the prospect of a Chinese invasion, Taiwanese defense budgets have been insufficient and improperly allocated for years, resulting in poor readiness and in acquisitions that do not support the hoped-for reorganization into an asymmetric, survivable force under the Overall Defense Concept.

While Taiwan is entirely responsible for its acquisition choices and the prioritization of high-end systems over asymmetric capabilities, constraints in the U.S. system are getting in the way of Taiwan’s efforts to correct course. The Sept. 2 announcement of the U.S. State Department’s approval to sell Taiwan 60 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and 100 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, along with associated equipment, joins a backlog extending back beyond a 2020 approval to sell Taipei 400 missiles, 100 mobile launch vehicles, radar trucks, and other equipment.

But the intended delivery date for the weapons approved in 2020 is already sliding further into the future, moving from 2024 to 2025, with the last of the order arriving by 2028. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has worried publicly that Washington’s frantic airlift of Stinger missiles to Ukraine would disadvantage Taipei, and Ukraine has (perhaps understandably) received Harpoon missiles while Taiwan waits. As tension builds in the Taiwan Strait, announcements of missile sales are a somewhat limp signal of support when those missiles and the more critical mobile launchers cannot be fully delivered in the period that Adm. Phil Davidson, former head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, claimed that Beijing might make its play for Taiwan.

This problem is not unique to Taiwan, nor is Taipei necessarily suffering more acutely than other customers of U.S. security cooperation programs, but a wicked confluence of problems ranging from red tape and industrial base capacity to the COVID-19 pandemic has created a $14 billion logjam of arms transfers intended for Taiwan since 2019. The Taiwan Policy Act, which has yet to be passed into law, seeks to transition Taiwan into a Foreign Military Financing recipient for the first time since the Chiang Kai-shek era.

This would mean that Taiwan would receive $4.5 billion in military aid, rather than be left to select and purchase equipment for itself, as well as become eligible for other types of equipment transfers that might move faster than a traditional sale. If enacted, the bill would also expedite shipments for Taipei, likely at the expense of other customers. While the United States is unlikely to transfer too much key equipment (such as Harpoon missiles) from its own stocks, given their vital role in a possible maritime contingency vis-à-vis China, these positive developments may be a start to ensuring Taiwan is prepared if the balloon ever does go up.

Pledges of game-changing asymmetric weapons will matter little if Beijing elects to send an invasion force across the Taiwan Strait before U.S. defense corporations can fill their backlogged orders. Taiwan’s friends must not be seduced by the idea that because an after-the-fact effort worked in Ukraine, it can work in Taiwan too. Geography is working against Taipei, not for it, and years of strategic misalignment and inattention have left Taiwan’s defense forces ill-suited for the challenge they are facing. To survive, Taiwan needs its weapons prepared ahead of time—and ready on Day 1.

Blake Herzinger is a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Twitter: @BDHerzinger

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