On Oct. 19, President Joe Biden, in only his second address from the Oval Office, told Americans: “We’re facing an inflection point in history — one of those moments where the decisions we make today are going to determine the future for decades to come.” It is hard to argue with that assertion, given the wars raging in Europe and in the Middle East. But it still bears remembering that America’s biggest challenge in all domains of national power remains China.

That fact only amplifies the criticality of the decisions needed to strengthen deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region, even more relevant now across the Taiwan Strait since China’s preferred outcome in the recent Taiwanese presidential election did not materialize. All indications point to continued turbulence and tension in the most pivotal region of the world.

Deterrence has been failing all too routinely. Central to deterrence is an adversary’s perception of both the intent and the capability to respond in a compelling way to aggression. In the case of the defense of Taiwan, President Biden has been consistent in his public statements of U.S. support in case of Chinese aggression.

Yet, there has been a certain level of inconsistency in the commitments that the U.S., particularly from certain parts of the departments of State and Defense, has made with regard to providing Taiwan with the defense articles it needs to enhance deterrence vis-à-vis China’s overwhelming forces.

The rhetorical focus on asymmetric means to deter the People’s Liberation Army is one such example. The U.S. has in recent years mandated Taiwan acquire only asymmetric weapons systems. While not completely unfounded, this almost absolutist U.S. emphasis on asymmetry may be counterproductive, as an asymmetric strategy can be enhanced by conventional systems.

The debate on what constitutes an asymmetric capability lingers and has impacted Taiwanese requests for systems, such as F-16 jets, M1A2 tanks, E-2D battle management aircraft, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, MH-60R helicopters, and the domestically produced indigenous defense submarine program, the Yushan amphibious assault ship, and a new class of frigates. Yet, an asymmetric strategy is not defined by the tactical weapons that create the effects necessary for strategic victory. An asymmetric strategy, through the effects its operational plans call for, is reflected in how the weapons in its inventory are deployed and employed.

Ukraine presents several illustrative examples in how it is implementing its strategy with weapons that are not traditionally considered asymmetrical. HIMARS is not an asymmetrical operational or tactical system in design or structure. Weighing in at 18 tons, carrying six Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System rockets, it is supported by an MTVR MK37 vehicle to load and unload a single HIMARS six-strong GMLRS pod. The MK37 has a gross vehicle weight rating of 31 tons.

Despite these non-asymmetric attributes, HIMARS is creating asymmetric effects in the hands of the Ukrainians. “We are seeing real and measurable gains from Ukraine in the use of these systems. For example, the Ukrainians have struck over 400 targets with the HIMARS, and they’ve had devastating effect,” said Gen. Mark Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What does this have to do with Taiwan? The U.S. position has been that it does not support Taiwan’s request for certain systems, as they are deemed not to be asymmetric platforms based on the definitions of select elements within the U.S. government. The Ukrainian HIMARS example underscores the point that strategies and operational concepts can be and, in Taiwan’s case, should be and are asymmetrical.

Moreover, in East Asia we can create an asymmetric symmetry by encouraging allies and partners to operate the same systems. There is commonality in combined operations and integrated strategies enabled by common tactical system employment. When extended to partners and allies, this has a multiplying effect.

There is truth in the dictum that states: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In fact, a senior U.S. Department of Defense official recently detailed the magnifying impact of P-8s — arguably not an asymmetric system — operating across the Indo-Pacific, with partners and allies as diverse as Australia, India, New Zealand and South Korea flying these aircraft along with the U.S. Navy. The same could be said about E-2Ds, F-16s and MQ-9 drones.

The scale and scope of Chinese military operations in the Western Pacific have grown exponentially. A day rarely passes where an allied aircraft or vessel is not harassed by the PLA in international airspace or waters. Even more common are the intrusions of Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zones.

While there are many urgent needs for Taiwan, one of the most critical is for it to acquire and operate a modern air battle-management solution. The daily competition in the air and sea above and around Taiwan is an asymmetric fight, given the quantitative and qualitative correlation of forces overwhelmingly favoring the PLA. Addressing this in the information domain from both operational and policy perspectives could flip the asymmetric script:

  • Taiwan’s first line of defense, its fighter aircraft, needs a modernized replacement – an airborne early warning platform for command and control.
  • A battle-management solution could provide a direct feed to a common operating picture. Any commonality in platforms between the U.S., Japan and Taiwan could enable synergies in early warning and targeting data.
  • A solution set that includes an over-the-horizon capability that could operate east of Taiwan could provide standoff from mainland China’s deployed assets.

Setting the stage for potential interoperability with the U.S. and Japan in case geopolitical events dictate that necessity is critical. A powerful signal would be sent to Beijing if Taiwan operated the same type of platforms as the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. It would not be lost on PLA leadership that the potential existed for the three militaries to share a common operating picture. That in and of itself strengthens deterrence.

The U.S. could allow for the potential sharing of data between similar battle-management platforms without actually sharing data unless and until the government determines it is time to do so by maintaining the ability to control how, when and if platforms could interoperate. Having the option does not commit the U.S., but does allow for flexibility and a potential asymmetric coalition response.

The days of black-and-white definitions of asymmetry have passed. Let’s not continue to be hemmed in by them.

Adm. Scott H. Swift (ret.) served as the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the 7th Fleet. Heino Klinck served as the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia. He is also the founder and principal of the consultancy Klinck Global.

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