With the world’s attention fixed on the national security and humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine caused by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion, a similar disaster is brewing in the Pacific. Taking a page from Putin’s playbook, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, is methodically assembling combat power to coerce or conquer the free people of Taiwan. Preventing that from happening will require Washington to learn the right lessons from the disaster in Ukraine. Among them is the need for Washington to spend less time worrying about provoking authoritarian bullies and more time working to defend threatened democracies before the invasion starts.
This is especially critical as U.S. forces are much more likely to be directly involved in a response to coercion against Taiwan. For 25 years, Beijing has pursued a determined strategy featuring military modernization, technological advancements, economic infiltration, cyberattacks and persistent disinformation campaigns. These efforts have focused on building a world-class military, erasing American military supremacy in the seas and skies around Taiwan, and preparing for a potential attack designed to establish CCP dominion over Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the United States has been distracted elsewhere, unable to focus its strategic and fiscal efforts on the rising power in China. This has been compounded by consistent congressional failures to provide the Pentagon with the timely, sufficient and predictable funding necessary to modernize U.S. forces and maintain sufficient readiness and capacity. Indeed, the Department of Defense has received on-time funding only once in the last 13 fiscal years.
Exacerbating these dynamics, Washington has been slow in addressing serious concerns and specific requests for resources identified by Indo-Pacific Command in successive reports to Congress. Just last year, the command again warned that the military balance of power in the region continues to become “more unfavorable” for America and its allies.
So, what’s to be done?
Working with its allies and partners, Washington must rapidly restore and enhance American-led deterrence of Chinese military aggression inside the first island chain. That means ensuring Taiwan can delay and disrupt any Chinese effort to impose a fait accompli before U.S. forces can respond. It will also require U.S. forces to expeditiously arrive in position near the Taiwan Strait so they can then rapidly attrite Chinese naval and air capability.
That’s easier said than done, but here are nine recommendations that are essential:
1. Expand the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile capability. Beijing already has the largest navy in the world and is sprinting to build more vessels. In an attack on Taiwan, China would focus this massive force on the island. Accordingly, the United States would need the ability to destroy a large number of Chinese naval vessels quickly and efficiently. An increased inventory of LRASMs and launch platforms would be vital to that effort.
Currently, the Navy can launch LRASMs from F-18 fighters (assuming there is an aircraft carrier in range), and the Air Force can launch them from B-1s (an aircraft with poor readiness that the Air Force has repeatedly tried to retire). The Navy needs to expedite configuring its 100-plus P-8 long-range surveillance aircraft to fire the LRASM, and the Air Force needs to rapidly configure a large number of its B-52s to fire large loads of LRASMs. Additionally, both services need to buy LRASMs in significant numbers — 50-75 per year, per service. (Inexplicably, the Air Force reduced its requested buy to zero in 2022.) When P-8s armed with LRASM weapons can take off from dozens of airfields throughout Asia, or when B-52s can launch dozens of missiles from one aircraft, Chinese defense planners will begin to question anew whether Beijing could conduct a successful assault against Taiwan.
2. Prioritize attack submarines. If the Chinese pursue a blockade strategy against Taiwan, or if Chinese naval vessels are successful in mitigating the impact of LRASMs, then the best way to threaten the People’s Liberation Army Navy is U.S. submarines. Fortunately, the United States has maintained a significant asymmetric advantage over China in the undersea domain. However, the challenge has been maintaining sufficient submarine capacity in the Pacific. To maintain overall submarine capacity, the Navy should continue to extend the service life of existing Los Angeles-class attack submarines as much as possible and invest in shipbuilding capacity to raise the construction rate of Virginia-class attack submarines from two per year to three per year. To enhance submarine proximity to the Western Pacific, the Navy should maximize its forward basing of submarines in Guam by placing as many as six submarines there instead of the current four. The Navy should also consider basing submarines in Australia.
3. Improve Guam’s air and missile defense. Guam sits on the second island chain and serves as home to roughly 170,000 American citizens. In any contingency with China, Guam will play an important role as a logistics hub and jumping-off point for combat forces headed toward the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. The island will host numerous fighter aircraft, bombers and support aircraft, and will play an important role in supporting the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, too. The Chinese have made it clear that they plan to put the island at risk using ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles. Securing this territory will require funding a Guam defense system, to include a highly capable air surveillance radar (or two), numerous air defense missile launchers, offensive land-attack missile systems, and associated command-and-control systems. If the United States initiates this effort now, it can be functional in three years. There is no time to waste.
4. Acquire the E-7 Wedgetail. For more than 30 years, the United States has enjoyed air supremacy wherever it chose to fight. That will be difficult to manage against China inside the first island chain, but investments in maintaining U.S. air battle management capability with the E-7 Wedgetail aircraft can assist greatly. The Air Force had originally hoped to bypass this investment and transition directly from its aging E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft to an integrated space- and ground-based air battle management system. Current technology does not yet support such a step. Accordingly, the Air Force now needs to procure without delay the E-7 aircraft, which will enable and enhance the capabilities of U.S. fifth-generation fighters.
5. Provide Taiwan with security assistance funding. Given the disparity in their economies, it should come as no surprise that Taiwan spends much less on defense than China. According to the Department of Defense, China’s official defense budget was roughly 15 times larger than that of Taiwan in 2019. Taiwan just increased its defense spending to about 2.4% of its gross domestic product, which is actually high relative to most other democracies. But considering the threats Taiwan faces, a defense budget of 3% of GDP is more appropriate. The United States should incentivize and enhance Taiwan’s defense spending by providing $2 billion to $3 billion a year in security assistance funding to Taiwan on a sliding scale, with the size of the grant increasing as Taiwan increases its defense budget. This funding would be used to purchase U.S. weapons that Washington and Taipei believe are most necessary to deter or defeat a Chinese attack.
6. Prioritize arms deliveries to Taiwan. The United States has granted Taiwan access to nearly $19 billion in arms sales over the past six years. This often puts Taiwan in a line of potential foreign purchasers for a U.S. system. The United States should prioritize Taiwan’s placement in the procurement lines, especially when it comes to systems that place Chinese invasion forces at risk, such as Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles and air-launched standoff land-attack missiles. Congress should establish an annual statutory requirement for reports from the administration focused on additional steps to speed up the delivery of arms to Taiwan and other threatened democracies. Actual arms deliveries — not announcements about future deliveries — best deter aggression.
7. Begin a U.S.-Taiwan joint exercise program. American and Taiwanese military forces are not interoperable and thus ill-prepared to fight together — a weakness well understood in Beijing. If China launched an attack today, American and Taiwanese joint operations would not operate effectively together. A low-cost means to enhance the effectiveness of both militaries would be to execute a persistent joint exercise program that develops the ability of U.S. and Taiwanese forces to operate at a coordinated or even integrated level. Building interoperability among naval and air forces can be done with a limited or no U.S. footprint in Taiwan. This program should include joint U.S.-Taiwan contingency tabletop exercises and war games. This will allow planners to maximize the effectiveness of U.S. support to Taiwanese forces, understand single-point weaknesses in American and Taiwanese plans, and inform U.S. logistics challenges in operations fought close to the adversary’s home bases.
8. Build U.S.-Taiwan combined cyber capabilities. U.S. Cyber Command has acknowledged that it conducts “hunt forward” cyber operations with allies and partners in Europe to counter Russian malicious activity. Similar, Cyber Command’s hunt-forward operations should be conducted with Taiwan’s cyber operators to help the island identify critical infrastructure vulnerabilities and existing Chinese malware, and to improve the resilience of Taiwanese cyber defense capabilities.
9. Welcome allies and partners to the effort. A final investment effort should include integrating willing allies and partners into these efforts. The United States should press Japan and Australia to commit to allowing U.S. military forces access during a crisis and to providing their own forces to counter Chinese aggression. The United States should expand this effort where possible to include Singapore, the Philippines and other possible partners who understand that Chinese expansion will not stop with Taiwan.
These nine investments will help deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan. If deterrence fails — as it did in Ukraine — U.S. and Taiwanese military forces would be better prepared to defeat an attack by China. The United States acted too slowly in arming and assisting Ukraine. We should not make the same mistake with Taiwan.
Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as policy director of the Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. His last Navy assignment was as director of operations for U.S. Pacific Command. Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at FDD. He served as a national security adviser to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, as well as an active duty U.S. Army officer, Black Hawk pilot and assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy.