Fielded combat capabilities — not arms sales announcements from Washington — are what help America’s beleaguered democratic partners such as Taiwan deter and defeat aggression. Despite this fact, the United States has proven painfully slow in delivering desperately needed weapons to threatened democracies, leaving them unnecessarily vulnerable and inviting costly aggression by authoritarian states.
The United States and Europe have their hands full with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion in Ukraine, belatedly undertaking an unprecedented and difficult transfer of arms to fill the critical gaps in Ukraine’s capability and capacity. To avoid additional catastrophes in the Indo-Pacific region and Middle East, Congress should systematically focus on expediting the delivery of weapons to key partners before adversaries attack them — and while the arms could have the desired deterrent effect.
The most likely cause of war between the United States and China will be aggression by Beijing against Taiwan. Despite this, Washington has been remarkably lethargic in delivering to Taipei the means it needs to deter and defeat an attack by the Chinese Communist Party designed to extinguish freedom on the island.
Permitting this meandering and unfocused process to persist would ignore one of the most important lessons of the war in Ukraine: The United States should spend less time worrying about provoking authoritarian bullies and more time urgently helping threatened democracies before an invasion or attack begins.
Consider the sales of missiles and jets to Taiwan. The Defense Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced in October 2020 the decision to approve sales to Taiwan of 100 Harpoon coastal defense systems, including more than 400 missiles. That was a laudable decision, as the Harpoons would help make Taiwan a porcupine, an unappealing target for consumption by the People’s Republic of China. The DSCA announcement said the systems would help “counter or deter maritime aggressions, coastal blockades, and amphibious assaults” — a top priority for both Washington and Taipei.
But here’s the problem: Taiwan is not getting those Harpoons anytime soon. The original plan for a 2024 delivery was reportedly postponed to 2025. And Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng later said the systems delivery would not be complete until 2028.
That’s eight years from announcement to final delivery — a particularly troubling plan given that U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has repeatedly warned that China could attack Taiwan long before that.
Unfortunately, this long lead time in delivering a desperately needed weapon system to Taiwan is not an anomaly. DSCA announced the approval of the sale of 66 F-16C/D Block 70 aircraft to Taiwan in August 2019. Final delivery of those aircraft is currently projected for the end of 2026. The people of Taiwan could be under Beijing’s authoritarian yoke by then.
According to recent reports, there is a more than $14 billion backlog in the delivery of weapons to Taiwan that have been approved for purchase since 2019. Defense News noted that in addition to the Harpoon missiles and F-16s, the delayed weapon deliveries include “Stinger missiles, heavyweight torpedoes, high-mobility artillery rocket systems, Paladin howitzers,” reconnaissance pods, communication systems, air-launched SLAM-ER missiles and components for Patriot missile defense systems.
Those are many of the exact capabilities Taipei needs to deter Chinese aggression and, if that fails, to defeat Chinese forces.
While the causes for delays vary between programs, one can observe some of this same sluggish pace of arms deliveries in American security assistance to Israel. To deter and defeat a potential sprint by Iran to a nuclear weapons capability, Israel needs to modernize its aging aerial refueling fleet. Accordingly, Israel has sought to purchase the KC-46, and DSCA announced the administration’s approval of the request in March 2020. But Israel will not receive its first KC-46 from the United States until 2025 or later.
Admittedly, the KC-46 program has been plagued by problems, and the entire U.S. defense-industrial base has been hit hard by the pandemic. Exacerbating matters, Jerusalem took too long to request the KC-46 and lost valuable time. But the United States should not need five or more years to deliver a few refueling aircraft, from a line already in production, to its closest ally in the Middle East, who is confronting an existential threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
So what’s to be done?
Congress should systematically scrutinize administration efforts to expedite and enable arms deliveries to threatened democracies for weapons transfers that have already been approved.
A small number of congressional staffers episodically examine such issues, but these overworked individuals come and go, or get pulled onto other priorities. This dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that there is no annual reporting requirement to Congress that focuses on specific steps to expedite post-approval arms deliveries to threatened democracies.
There should be.
Such a statute would require the secretaries of defense and state to annually transmit a report to Congress on arms sales for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. The report could list all approved foreign military sales above a certain dollar threshold that Washington has not yet delivered, detailing their estimated date of delivery, how that date has shifted since the previous year, the causes for any delays, and steps the administration is taking or could take to address challenges and expedite deliveries.
Reporting those facts annually would incentivize the Defense Department’s DSCA and the State Department’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau to work with Congress and industry to assertively, proactively and habitually look for opportunities to expedite arms sales. Some of those actions are being taken now, but many are not, and not one is aligned. An annual reporting requirement of this nature would help change that, making clear that Congress expects leaders in the administration to make expeditious arms deliveries to beleaguered democracies a priority.
The report would also provide valuable information to Congress, enabling more effective oversight and helping members and staff identify areas that require additional congressional attention and resources. This report would also help identify problems that emerge regarding the partner nation’s acquisition process that may hamper timely delivery.
Among other things, the administration would report the current queue for important weapons deliveries to the three partners. That would enable Congress to scrutinize the order of arms deliveries and ensure that it supports American national security interests. That would mean, for example, ensuring countries not confronting a genuine threat of attack or invasion in the next few years are not scheduled to receive vital weapons before Ukraine, Israel or Taiwan.
The report should also include any creative options for providing an interim solution to fill a capability gap until the ordered weapon system finally arrives. The administration could use the report to request any additional authorities or appropriations that would expedite the arms deliveries. And the report could describe any ongoing or potential measures to train the partner forces on the respective system before delivery. That would reduce the time necessary to attain full operational capability once Washington delivers the system.
Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has provided a sobering wakeup call that such aggression does in fact still happen in the 21st century. If we want to avoid similar national security and subsequent humanitarian catastrophes elsewhere, Congress should demand an annual accounting from the administration on efforts to expedite arms deliveries to our most threatened partners. There is no time to waste.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served as a national security adviser to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, and was an officer in the U.S. Army. Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery is a senior fellow at FDD. He previously worked as policy director of the Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.