Is Taiwan’s defense industry up for asymmetric warfare?

Adm. Lee Hsi-ming. Credit: DIGITIMES

As China’s National People’s Congress holds its annual Two Sessions meeting, the defense budget for 2024 submitted by China’s Ministry of Finance has revealed a 7.2% growth to reach CNY1.67 trillion (US$232 billion), surpassing its moderate GDP growth target set at around 5%. In the government work report delivered by China’s Premier Li Qiang, the term “peaceful reunification” has been dropped, a change that was soon picked up by international media.

Meanwhile, about 1,700 km away from Beijing, a recent collision between a Chinese fishing boat and a Taiwanese coast guard vessel near the island of Kinmen has sparked cross-strait sparring feared by some to descend into wider confrontation without de-escalation efforts. The timing of these events raises the oft-referenced timeline that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will happen by 2027, a specter first conjured by retired Admiral Philip Davidson, former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command when testifying before the US Senate Armed Services Committee in 2021.

“When Adm. Davidson visited Taiwan in early 2023, I asked if he stood by his assessment. The answer was affirmative,” said retired Adm. Lee Hsi-ming, former Chief of the General Staff of Taiwan’s armed forces between 2017-19, in a recent speech on March 1. Unlike Davidson’s assessment, Lee believed that 2030-31 could be a turning point when Chinese President Xi Jinping enters his fourth term in office. “By then, Xi would be 74 years old and 20 years at the zenith of his unlimited power,” noted Lee. Xi has been on a rational course when it comes to decision-making. However, he might begin to contemplate his place in Chinese history at that age, and that’s when he might leave the course, observed the former Chief of the General Staff. “For Taiwan, that’s when the crisis comes.”

What if China emerged as a winner in the rivalry with the US?

Regarding Taiwan’s security environment, Lee stressed the need to come to several fundamental understandings. Firstly, neighboring countries won’t come to Taiwan’s military aid: though Taiwan plays an outsized role in the global semiconductor value chain, together with Japan and South Korea, Lee believes that if an armed conflict broke out across the Taiwan Strait, the two neighboring countries would be reluctant to intervene with an armed response. Even though Seoul leans toward the US under South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, it is unwilling to antagonize China.

The retired admiral assessed that Soeul would be unwilling to provide military supplies to Taiwan and would object if US Forces in South Korea became involved in a cross-strait military conflict, thus being distracted from the North Korean threat. Interactions with officials from Seoul also show that South Korea would be quite reserved to join US sanctions against China. Similarly, Lee observed that Tokyo and Taipei had different interpretations when the former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, famously stated “A crisis for Taiwan is a crisis for Japan” in December 2021. Though a Taiwan scenario is included in a US-Japan joint military exercise in 2024, Tokyo’s concern is often interpreted in Taipei as direct military assistance.

A second fundamental understanding is that while the US will become involved in a cross-strait armed conflict, it won’t necessarily send its troops. The third fundamental understanding is that Taiwan’s security environment ultimately hinges on the result of US-China competition. Based on these fundamentals, Lee recommends the Taiwanese government to thoroughly consider four questions: first, what should be done if China emerges as the winner in competition with the US? Second, what’s next if China and the US come to a consensus and the latter no longer interferes in cross-strait relations and doesn’t sell weapons to Taiwan? Third, if Taiwan insists on standing alone against China, what’s the price it is willing to pay, and what’s the strategy? Finally, the former Chief of the General Staff considers “a resolute will to defend” and “an effective defensive capability” as the bedrock for Taiwan to win possible foreign military support during wartime.

Taiwan’s arms industry faces its own battle

Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, a long advocate of asymmetric defense – a concept embodied by the early phase of Ukrainian defense against Russian invasion – highlighted several key ingredients of asymmetric warfare. It includes a “munition-centric” approach rather than “platform-centric,” emphasizing low cost, large volume, high survivability, and high lethality. Ultimately, “denial” has to replace “defeat”, and victory on the battlefield has to be redefined: preventing the occupation of Taiwan by enemy forces.

Taiwan’s 2023 National Defense Report indicated that Taiwan’s armed forces have “completed asymmetric capability planning and acquisition.” A key part of this process has been the adoption of innovations from the commercial sector, in line with a trend underway in the US and European defense establishments to leverage the advantages offered by the commercial sector, including cost and the faster pace of technology development and fielding, to compete with China’s civil-military fusion strategy.

At this stage, Taiwan’s military is procuring five types of commercial-grade drones for all three military branches, in addition to one type of counter-UAV system for the Army and Navy. Data from Taiwan’s Defense Ministry shows that NT$5.6 billion will be spent to acquire 3,221 commercial-grade drones, while approximately NT$1 billion will be spent to acquire 26 counter-UAV systems. Though the procurement of the counter-UAV systems is expected to be completed by 2025, prototype development has not been smooth. A report from Taiwan-based Up Media revealed bidders complaining about unclear technical specifications required, in addition to unrealistic price expectations from the military. According to the report, citing suppliers, a counter-drone system with a radar detection range of 6 km usually has a price range from NT$30 million up to hundreds of millions NTDs. At the heart of the problem is perhaps a bigger challenge facing the country’s drone development: the policy pursuit of domestically sourcing all components inevitably leads to a higher cost that undermines the “low-cost” nature of asymmetric warfare.

Taiwan’s goal to develop a self-reliant autonomous industry still leans toward large weapons platforms: the country’s first domestically-developed submarine has just entered the Habor Acceptance Trial. The total cost of the submarine program is estimated at around NT$49.4 billion, with approximately 60% spent on foreign procurement providing submarine components and sub-systems the Taiwanese industry can’t independently develop, such as battle management system, torpedos, and sonars. The defense ministry estimates that another seven submarines are needed in the future to counter China’s growing navy, significantly elevating the cost of raising and maintaining a submarine fleet. The biggest challenge facing Taiwan’s military buildup is the lack of domestic capability to integrate weapon systems acquired from various domestic and foreign sources that don’t share the same standard, a problem compounded by the volatile nature of foreign military sales that is constantly subjected to geopolitical dynamics.

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