The reported U.S. plan to go ahead with three sales of advanced weapons to Taiwan is not likely to prepare Taiwan to deal with China as well as additional homegrown arms and stronger training of soldiers would, military experts say.
GlobalFirePower.com, which ranks countries’ military capabilities, this year ranked Taiwan 26th of the 138 countries and regions that the database reviews. China ranks third. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has flown 49 military aircraft across a Taiwan Strait median line so far this year, the highest number in any year since 1990.
“I do think we should take every move and every action seriously, because there could be one moment, one day, that Beijing decided to do something that’s really harmful,” said Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
Taiwan needs more missiles among its hardware, analysts believe. The National Defense Ministry should expand its military reserve as well and stoke enthusiasm among Taiwanese who might volunteer to be soldiers rather than leaving after a compulsory four months of training, some experts added.
Missiles, mines and SAMs
Taiwan needs more of its own weapons to increase self-reliance in a world where most countries – thanks to pressure by China – won’t sell arms to the Taipei government, analysts say. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has made homegrown defense a top economic priority since taking office in 2016 and spending toward that end rose from $870 million in 2018 to $2.6 billion last year.
Missiles are likely to lead that effort, said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“Right now, from what I know, their missile program is certainly the crown jewel of their current defense effort,” Koh said.
The island’s defense contractors have also pushed out sea mines, fighter jets, anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles. Last year, ground was broken on a shipyard to make submarines.
Washington has sped up military sales to Taiwan, to wit a deal for 66 late-model F-16 fighter jets announced just two months before the latest proposal. However, analysts are unsure how long those sales would continue were Washington to revive relations with Beijing.
Homegrown weapons are key to fending off China through asymmetric warfare -- use of unconventional tactics to hold back an enemy with more overall firepower -- experts have said.
“At the end of the day, you kind of have to wonder whether Taiwan is going to be able to get those [F-16] military aircraft off ground, because China’s first objective will be to use its growing cruise and ballistic missile arsenal to blow up runways in Taiwan,” said Derek Grossman, defense-specialized senior analyst with the Rand Corp. research institution.
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party said in 2015 its defense industry policy would eventually generate revenue of at least $8.17 billion and create 8,000 new jobs. About 200 companies were involved in making weapons as of last year, a natural extension of Taiwan’s decades-old legacy as a manufacturing powerhouse.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and insists that the two sides eventually unite, an issue left over from the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. Taiwan is self-ruled and its president rejects China’s call for dialogue on the premise that both sides belong to one country.
A surge in U.S. support this year for Taiwan, including arms sales, has incensed China. The U.S. government says it is bound by a 1979 law to consider helping Taiwan militarily if the island is attacked.
Personnel: Women and reservists?
Taiwan should strengthen its peacetime reservists and motivate more people to join the armed forces voluntarily, analysts say.
Men are required to train for four months, down from a year or more before 2013. The training period shrank during a thaw in ties with China and a shift toward military technology. Armed forces personnel totaled 275,000 in 2012 and dropped to 200,000 by 2014 on the way to its current level, an estimated 175,000.
Four months pass too fast to train competent soldiers, said Huang Chung-ting, assistant research fellow with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei. Draft-age men in Taiwan call prolonged military service an impediment to their careers.
“Newly recruited people need to study how weapons work and become familiar with the technology, so four months aren’t enough for that,” Huang said.
Taiwan’s military should better prepare its reservists by developing “specialist units and specialist jobs” and provide additional equipment and training them, the Rand Corp. said in a study.
Today’s military needs more pilots as well as more reservists, Koh said.
Taiwan’s defense ministry would not give recruitment data for the past few years but said in a statement Sept. 30 that women now make up an increasingly large percentage of soldiers with the latest share at 13.6%, close to the levels of other developed parts of the world. Women are not required to serve in the military.