Earlier this month, the Ministry of National Defense announced plans to cut troop levels by 9,200 in light of “warmer” ties with China, saying the measure would not jeopardize national defense because Taiwan was seeking “more advanced” and “high-tech” weapons.
However, with five consecutive years of shrinking defense budgets, more than US$13 billion in arms purchases still in the pipeline, a modernizing Chinese military and a US administration that appears increasingly reluctant to provide Taiwan with the weapons it needs, is the ministry’s optimism realistic or merely a smokescreen?
When asked to comment on the state of Taiwan’s defenses and how the nation could do more with a limited budget, in several instances, several defense experts made the case against high-profile expensive platforms in favor of smaller, relatively inexpensive and in many cases domestically produced asymmetrical options.
“Taiwan is on a peacetime footing budget-wise, even as its strategic plight worsens,” said James Holmes, associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific.
“Three percent of GDP is not a serious budget for a nation facing mortal peril,” Holmes said of the goal set by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), which has not been reached as the level of spending has dropped since Ma came into office in 2008, settling at about 2.2 percent of GDP for the current financial year.
In Holmes’ view, the Ma administration is allowing numbers to drive strategy and determined structure.
“The notion of substituting technology for large numbers of bodies is a seductive one, but is Taipei just trying to justify predetermined budget cuts or has it developed a strategy of island defense that can be executed with far fewer troops?” he asked.
“It sounds like the former,” Holmes said.
Normandy, France, or Okinawa, Japan, should be the frame of reference for Taiwan’s defense strategy, he said, with a future war -representing nothing less than a battle for national survival.
“Even assuming the US authorizes sales of the items Taipei wants, the present, meager defense budget would rule out purchases of high-tech arms in adequate numbers,” he said.
For Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief at Defense News, the ministry’s rhetoric was yet another attempt to demonstrate calm to the Taiwanse public that is increasingly concerned about continued threats from China.
“Its solution to a reduction in manpower is magic swords to slay the dragon, [but] every US military commander knows that training, maintenance and logistics win wars,” he said.
“It helps to have a magic bullet or two, but it also helps to keep the gun that fires it clean and operational,” he said.
“Taiwan’s military budget is being squeezed as defense budgets decline and costs rise with the recent acquisition of about US$13 billion worth of new arms in the pipeline. The streamlining and reorganization plan is now delayed for the next three years due to this issue,” Minnick said. “Training will be reduced as will the move from conscription to an all-volunteer force.”
Ma promised during his electoral campaign in 2008 that he would seek to create an all--volunteer military by 2014, a very expensive endeavor by any measure.
Patriot PAC-3 missile systems, P-3C Orion aircraft, early-warning radar, F-16C/Ds and submarines are among the items that are believed to be part of the ministry’s high-tech shopping list. Several of those platforms were first offered by former US president George W. Bush’s administration nearly a decade ago and may no longer reflect the scope of the military threat that China represents today, as the US-Taiwan Business Council noted in a report recently.