America’s New Security Strategy and Taiwan

I have just returned from Taiwan where I addressed the East Asia Peace Forum, the Prospect Foundation and the National Defense University.

Below is my talk given to the East Asia Peace Forum.  In it I make some recommendations both for Taiwan and U.S. policy makers.  With China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea, including heavy militarization of islands that China does not own and where China’s actions are dangerous plus China’s military expansion including its new stealth fighters and submarines, the U.S. cannot sit on its hands and support Taiwan in the usual weak and lackluster manner.  Times have changed and Washington must change too, and quickly.  Taiwan’s future is bound up in protecting the U.S. position in vital waterways and the sea lines of communications, and in providing a bulwark for Japan which, like Taiwan is facing big trouble unless defense efforts are redoubled or even tripled. Please read my report and keep in mind that Taiwan sits square in the center of what China calls the First Island Chain.  Thus it is a strategic asset for America, but one we have done poorly at helping.

Image result for first island chain


America’s New National Security Strategy and Taiwan

By Stephen Bryen

The United States is implementing a new national security strategy or NSS and President Trump has released a paper explaining the policy.  It has also been amplified by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis where Mattis explains what the Pentagon plans to do. The new strategy has implications for Taiwan and it is strongly recommended that Taiwan align its defense policies and political approach with the NSS.

Stephen Bryen speaking in Taiwan

The new strategy is intended to shift the American focus to competitor nation states and away from an overriding concern with international terrorism and expensive regional conflicts that have been bleeding US defense assets.  Instead of wasting more than $2 trillion on Iraq and almost $2 trillion in Afghanistan, not to mention countless American lives, the idea is to refocus on the main strategic competitors –primarily China and Russia– and improve US forces with those competitors in mind.

There are many compelling reasons for the policy shift.  By now it is clear that engaging in regional conflicts characterized by asymmetrical warfare works to America’s detriment.  Clear examples are Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq the US suffered 4,424 dead and 31,952 wounded, some horrifically. There are also thousands more victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  In Afghanistan around 2,500 have been killed and the war, still ongoing is now approaching its seventeenth year. One estimate has it that the cost of the war all in will come close to $6 trillion taking into account when much of the war fighting equipment, costs of healthcare for veterans and other expenses are added together.

Almost all military equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan has been stressed well beyond the normal service life, creating major headaches and a severe shortage of deployable equipment in a major emergency.  A good example: about one third of the A-10 fleet, a work horse ground attack aircraft, must have their wings replaced. But there is no money for that meaning that the deployable force has been significantly reduced and will stay that way as a result of heavy over-use in Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently Syria.

There are four pillars to the Trump NSS: these are (1) to protect the homeland (meaning the United States); (2) to promote American prosperity; (3) to preserve peace through strength and (4) to advance American influence.

In the NSS we see some new elements in US strategy, especially the notion of promoting American prosperity and protecting the homeland.

One of the big issues for the United States is missile defenses, which are in a sorry state leaving most of the United States unprotected.  There are serious technological challenges in missile defense, nevertheless missile defense until the last couple of years has been severely underfunded.  The rise of states including North Korea and Iran, both with ICBMs has changed the dynamic for the United States. We can add to that the fact that the Russians are deploying new nuclear weapons and long range missiles and China is continuing to build up its nuclear and non-nuclear strike forces. While neither Trump nor Mattis are saying much about this yet, it is increasingly clear that a big effort is needed to properly protect the US homeland from missile strikes. The same holds true for its allies, whether in eastern Europe, Korea, Japan or Taiwan.

In the United States there is a ground based interceptor in Alaska and California, and a partial system in Hawaii.  But an ICBM can strike the east coast, or the capitol or major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago or New York and right now there is no effective defense against them, especially if there is no warning.

Missile defense is a big issue and it has to be tied to effective means of retaliation.  Far more attention must be given to both.

The emphasis on prosperity has a particular meaning and represents a massive shift in policy in two ways: firstly, it reverses the idea that the US should put economy first and national security second.  Rather it sees American prosperity linked to America’s economic well being, which means bringing manufacturing and jobs back to America. There are a number of related policies connected with the American prosperity theme: for example taxation of overseas corporate assets or pressing American high tech industries to bring jobs back to the United States.  The biggest issue for the President is the job losses to China.

Prosperity means sufficient revenue is available to provide for American defense.  And prosperity also means the US can find ways and means to help allies and friends.  A deep recession or workers protesting in the streets undermines national security and has consequences too for global peace.

There also is a technology issue.  American technology has been flying out of the United States without any effective export controls.  The administration has yet to seize on this issue, but they will have to because they know full well that what isn’t legally exported is being stolen by foreign cyber spies and agents operating on US territory.

Secretary Mattis says that cyber is a big priority to support the NSS.  But so long has the US government and military are loading up on Chinese electronics and Russian security software, we are in considerable danger.  The administration has not yet opened its mind to the danger and what to do about it. I have proposed a kind of Manhattan project to get us out from under electronics from China and spyware from both Russia and China.

Does this mean anything to Taiwan?  Certainly it does, because Taiwan has built up a considerable industrial presence on the Chinese mainland.  In so doing, the industrial activity raises a question about Taiwan’s security. Taiwan needs to think about investments in the United States and not in China; it is of some urgency because the Trump administration outlook and its security strategy are focused on American prosperity.  America’s partners need to take this into serious account. It is not business as was usually done in the past.

Mattis is making it clear that the big challenges to the United States are posed by Russia and China.

The Russians have proven not only to support an aggressive foreign policy in places such as Georgia, the Ukraine and Syria but they have seriously stepped up military pressure in territory facing eastern Europe. On the high seas Russia is engaging in frequent naval exercises in sensitive areas including the Baltic, the English Channel, the Mediterranean and even along the US coastline, and in the air with frequent close encounters with the US and allied air forces.  

Furthermore the Russian air and naval operation in Syria (the Russians used ships and submarines to launch cruise missiles and aircraft and to show they could protect Syria’s coastline) demonstrated that Russia’s military has made significant strides in the use of modern equipment and more advanced command and control systems. The fact that Russia turned around the war in Syria and was able to restore Bashar al-Assad’s regime before it collapsed and stabilize and renew the Syria army, was quite an accomplishment.  

The main problem Russia faces is that it has only limited funds to carry out the modernization and sustainment of its military forces.  Thus it so far cannot afford to buy more than a few handfuls of its 5th generation fighters (the Su-57) or many of its new Armada tanks.  While the shortage of funds does not eliminate a Russian threat, it largely means that Russia will –for the time being– play spoiler and try and reduce American power rather than challenge the United States directly.

China, however is on a different path.  It already has produced its first stealth aircraft the Chengdu J-20 and is working on another known as the Shenyang J-31.  While neither of these is fully operational and both will need better power plants and improved electronics, China is working stealth systems on an aggressive basis.  China also is acquiring the formidable Russian S-400 air defense system, which poses problems for Taiwan since the coverage of the S-400 could operate as an area denial weapon.

These developments suggest that for the United States to live up to its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, it will have to find some way to provide stealth aircraft to Taiwan, aircraft and standoff missiles capable of dealing with China’s news fighters and missile defense systems.

Neither the NSS nor Secretary Mattis’ elaboration explain American policy on weapons and technology sharing of security systems, and almost nothing new is said about Taiwan.

The Mattis report does make clear that from an American perspective “China is a strategic competitors, using predatory economics to intimidate neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea.”  

What may be needed are some creative solutions to revise Taiwan’s airpower to a standard suitable to provide protection and enhance deterrence.

It may be a political bridge too far to expect that the US will sell the F-35 stealth fighter to Taiwan. There are a number of reasons for this, including a great deal of nervousness in the US about security of the technology, but there are some interim solutions that could be attractive.

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Equip Taiwan’s F-16’s with some of the equipment in the F-35 that will give Taiwan some of the force multiplier effect of networked airpower and advanced sensors inherent in the F-35 computer and communications systems (taking into account that the ongoing modernization of the F-16’s is a very useful step, but that more needs to be done to meet the F-35 standard);
  2. Train Taiwanese pilots on the F-35 in the United States so that, should there be an emergency there will be a cadre of Taiwanese top gun pilots available to man these advanced systems and
  3. Support a fleet of F-35’s in the United States dedicated to Taiwan through some kind of lease or rental system.

I am a firm believer that if China initiates a conflict or plays dangerous and ambiguous war games like they did in 1996, all bets are off and transfers of F-35s and other equipment to Taiwan needs to happen very quickly.  In a sense, the suggestion I am making here about the F-35 training and deployment acts as a deterrent to China. Make threats and the US can rapidly preposition advanced equipment to Taiwan, and Taiwan’s forces will be trained and ready to use the hardware.

It is important to keep in mind that the United States is in the early stages of rebuilding US military forces.  There is a huge overhang of worn out equipment with much of it heading for the junkyard. There also is not a lot of spare change to develop and manufacture new systems. The F-35 is an exception, but a lot of bets have been made on the performance of that aircraft in combat that need to be proven out.  But the need for new combat weapons and improvements in the US Navy still remain largely a fantasy because a comprehensive plan has yet to emerge. The Navy itself is run down, as the recent disasters of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain illustrate, the level of both readiness and training are dreadful.  The focus on the silly, expensive and worthless Littoral Combat Ship is another example on how the Navy lost its strategic focus and is building ships that hardly can shoot, that break down at sea and in the latest debacle get frozen in place in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

All of this has to be fixed and it will take time.  For Taiwan it means that the availability of systems from the United States may be limited for a while.  In this sense indigenous R&D and indigenous products are important, especially if they can be used to contribute to the common defense.  

My recommendation is that Taiwan step up its focus on the idea of interoperability and sharing.  While Taiwan always will be the junior partner when compared to the United States, still the world’s superpower, that does not change the fact the even small gestures of cooperation and sharing are well regarded by both military and political leaders in the United States.  Israel’s cooperation with US companies on important projects, and sharing intelligence is something that has earned it many American friends, both in the administration, the military and on Capitol Hill. Taiwan needs to upgrade its efforts here.

To give one example: support search and rescue operations in and around the South China Sea and set up a coordination system with the United States.  When Taiwan opened its airspace in 2015 to two US Marine F-18s that made an emergency landing in Tainan –notwithstanding China’s subsequent complaint– this was largely improvised.  It would be better to arrange real contingency plans not only for small emergencies but, let us say also for big emergencies.

The new US international policy epitomized by the NSS is based on what the Trump administration calls “principled realism.”  Principled realism owes its intellectual history to the evolution of realpolitik and to Hans J. Morgenthau, the University of Chicago and City University professor who wrote the seminal book Politics Among Nations. Morgenthau headed the school of political realism which dominated political thinking in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  

Morgenthau explained that the statesman must always ask, “How does this policy affect the power and interests of the nation?”  While moral issues are not neglected (as some have asserted), the political realist had to put national interest first.

In assessing the US relationship to Taiwan under the NSS it is important to keep in mind the following axiom: the closer Taiwan is aligned with the policy objectives of the Trump administration, as explained by the NSS, the better the chance for a productive approach to mutual security.  

The security framework in Asia is in transition.  Right now Washington has much work to do before it can restore its former role in the region and curtail China’s rise that threatens the interests of the United States, its allies and friends.  How that will be accomplished is still a work in progress in the United States. Some pieces are clear; others are murky. Moreover no one can predict whether China will sustain its currently fairly cautious political leadership or whether there will be a shift to a more aggressive and dangerous posture.  

Lacking certainty about the direction China is taking, the reappearance of Russia into the mix at least insofar as Japan and Korea are concerned, rises the danger ahead.  

These developments will be challenging for the United States and Taiwan.

My own sense is that Taiwan will have to step up its defense investments, refocus on the United States and on cooperation industrially including investments, and find creative approaches to enhance cooperation aimed at strengthening the US-Taiwan relationship.

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