Taiwan’s Defense White Paper Shows New Candor on Challenges Ahead

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 16

MND Spokesman Presents the Defense White Paper

In mid-July, Taiwan published the 2011 edition of its defense white paper (“National Defense Report”). This was actually the third such document released in the last 38 months—the Ministry of National Defense (MND) having published a white paper in the final days of the Chen Shui-Bian Administration in May 2008, followed by a revised edition under the Ma Administration in October 2009 and the current report. The effort still appears largely intended for the domestic (or, at least, a Chinese-reading) audience, since the English version of the white paper continues to be an inadequately edited (and, at times, sub-par) translation of the original Chinese-language document.

Compared to the previous edition, this National Defense Report appears somewhat more candid, both in terms of threat assessment and in its articulation of Taiwan’s defense policy, posture and even some of the limitations.

The chapter on the Chinese military, for the first time, credited the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with the ability to blockade Taiwan or capture (Taiwan-held) offshore islands, even while the MND continues to reject a direct invasion of Taiwan as a viable military option on the grounds that China lacks sufficient conventional amphibious lift capacity [1]. Through the document, MND also confirmed that China has begun operational deployment of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile system, following a low-rate, initial production in 2010 [2]. This suggests a further significant addition to Beijing’s anti-access capability aimed at denying intervention by foreign (namely U.S.) forces into the western Pacific region. This position is in line with the December 2010 testimony by Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard that China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile had achieved initial operational capability (IOC) (Washington Times, December 27, 2010).

On the other hand, MND seemed to have held back in other areas, even though sensitive intelligence about specific new PLA capabilities had already been disclosed by other Taiwan intelligence agencies. The prime example was the conspicuous absence in the new defense white paper of China’s alleged deployment of the new DF-16 tactical ballistic missile, which was first broached publicly by the Director of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (CIA-equivalent) back in March 2011 (United Evening News, March 16).

In addition to the traditional Chinese military threat, MND enumerated a list of non-traditional factors as potential threats to Taiwan’s security. These include natural catastrophes; compound disasters; cross-border communicable diseases; food and energy shortages. In response to these challenges, Taiwan’s armed forces would engage “proactively” in disaster prevention with advance deployment of troops and assets in order to take timely action in response to major natural disasters. The military also would work in conjunction with other government agencies to respond to the threats of cross-border epidemic outbreaks [3].

Of particular interest was the concern expressed in the white paper about Taiwan’s aging demographic trends and rapid talent drain. The steady decrease in the number of male citizens of military service age constitutes a new challenge to Taiwan’s security that urgently needs to be redressed. The MND report indicated that the number of young men eligible for military service has been declining in recent years. There are now only some 117,702 males of military service age available for conscription each year, down from over 120,000 a few years ago. By 2025, this number is projected to decline to just 75,338, and the military would have to compete for this dwindling pool of manpower with demands from the police and other law enforcement or paramilitary agencies [4]. This would make Taiwan’s current force size unsustainable, if only based on manpower resources limitations alone, and, in time, could force further force rationalizations.

A major policy topic of attention discussed in the new defense report was the plan to transform the military to a voluntary service system. Even though the white paper still clings to the government’s declaratory position of completing the transition of all regular forces to volunteer personnel, the MND quietly included three pre-conditions for a successful achievement of the stated plan [5]:

  1. Passage and implementation of the proposed amendment to Taiwan’s Military Service Law by the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliamentary body);
  2. Steady growth in the number of high-quality volunteer personnel in the coming years;
  3. Defense budget could satisfy the transformation and the long-term operating needs of a voluntary military service system.

MND has drafted the amendment to the Military Service Law in coordination with the Ministry of the Interior, and the law is slated for review by the parliament in this Fall’s session of the Legislative Yuan. After legislative approval, the Executive Yuan will need to provide MND with the budget necessary to fund the move to an all-volunteer standing military (male citizens would still be required to undergo 4-month basic military training and serve in the reserve forces after discharge). Once this has been secured and a cut-off date agreed on with the Ministry of the Interior and signed off by the Executive Yuan, the program can be implemented. Because the amended Military Service Law however needs to be posted (publicly announced) at least one year prior to its actual implementation, this means the absolute earliest Taiwan can begin to wind down conscription (at least for service in the regular, standing forces) would be sometime after the spring of 2013 (Liberty Times, July 20).

The 2011 National Defense Report subtly reiterated the shift in Taiwan’s key operational objective, amending the definition of “victory” in a war with China from complete defeat of enemy forces to one centered on preventing enemy landing forces from establishing a secure foothold on the island [6]. The significance of this change is to allow Taiwan to more narrowly and realistically focus its operational requirements, which directly translate into much more affordable and attainable force size, capabilities and budget resources. The revised “victory condition” conveniently affords the Army a raison d’être in the new joint operational war plan, which traditionally had evolved around layered (sequential) interdiction by air, naval, and ground-based air/missile defense forces. Nevertheless, under the new operational concept, it is still theoretically possible for Taiwan to “win” without major contribution by the ground forces. Indeed, Taiwan may eventually adopt an operational strategy that could call for certain force structure characteristics that are conceptually similar to some of China’s “anti-access/area denial” (A2AD) capabilities. Given Taiwan’s geography, economic lifeline and operational environment; however, the development of such access-denial capabilities would most likely have to be balanced by retention of a critical mass of sea-control and counter-air assets.

The report was also slightly more articulate with respect to the types of new capabilities and systems that Taiwan is acquiring to meet the evolving Chinese threat. In this respect, the MND document could not resist uttering such heavily U.S.-championed buzz words as “innovative and asymmetric” capabilities [7].  While few, if any, of Taipei’s major recent arms purchases from the United States (totaling about $13 billion over the past 3 years) appear to fit this bill, Taiwan does seem to be making a serious effort toward this direction in its indigenous weapon development efforts.

Taiwan apparently has adopted a spiral or capabilities-based approach to weapons development, where a new system is rolled out in stages, with each stage producing a new version that is an improvement on those from previous spirals. Among the new weapons and technologies being developed are long-range guided missiles, electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) bombs, and “strategic” (long-endurance) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). According to the white paper, in 2010, MND completed 15 research and development (R&D) programs in critical technologies and is continuing to work on 25 weapon systems R&D projects [8].  These include a wide range of technology demonstration and validation programs in which Taiwan’s military has invested significant resources over the past few years.

The following is a partial listing of some of the major defense R&D projects, together with the total program budget [9]:  (exchange rate $1=NT$29)

  • Anti-radiation UAV systems ($33.96 million);
  • Graphite bomb ($12.96 million);
  • High-energy EMP weapons and EMP protection ($29.96 million);
  • Hypersonic vehicle testing capability ($31.72 million);
  • Long-Range Unmanned Aerial Vehicle ($99.27 million);
  • Next-generation secure, broadband communications satellite ($16.37 million);
  • Open-architecture shipboard combat system ($15.51 million);
  • Posheng/Syun An follow-on C4ISR system study ($15.2 million);
  • Surface ship stealth technology ($30.89 million);
  • Torpedo decoy system ($33.17 million);
  • Twin/catamaran-hulled surface combatant ($96.55 million)

The increased frankness exhibited by the 2011 white paper probably stems from a number of factors. It is partly attributable to the style and (now more politically established) confidence of the current MND leadership, which appears to enjoy the trust of President Ma and perhaps even somewhat improved civil-military relations than had been the case two years ago. Taiwan’s military establishment as a whole however continues to struggle with the low overall priority and limited agenda visibility given to defense policy. Given the cross-Strait-centric agenda of the Ma Administration, MND effectively has become the only voice in Taiwan government that still regularly warns of the persistent and growing military threat posed by China. It, therefore, felt compelled to utilize the 2011 National Defense Report as an opportunity to more clearly and more convincingly present its case, so as to improve the public’s awareness of Taiwan’s military challenges and, hopefully, raise the visibility of defense policy in the current presidential campaign.

To the extent that one of the MND’s most important immediate objectives was to justify a halt to and perhaps even a reversal of the decline in direct defense spending that has taken place since the Ma Administration came to office, the new defense white paper was probably released just in time to claim a small but practical victory.  Thanks in part to the $875 million court-ordered punitive damages Thales S.A. and the French government paid to Taiwan in July 2011 as a result of the Lafayette frigate contract litigation, the MND’s call for more resources is being heeded.  As announced by the Executive Yuan’s Director-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics in mid-August, the FY2012 defense budget will grow by NT$23.3 billion ($803.4 million), though apparently not all of the increase in funding will be applied towards direct defense spending (Broadcasting Corporation of China, August 18).

Notes:

  1. National Defense Report 2011, Republic of China’s  Ministry of National Defense, July 2011, p. 57. Available online at  <http://www.mnd.gov.tw/2011mndreport/index1.html>
  2. Ibid., p. 60.
  3. Ibid., pp. 39–45.
  4. Ibid., p. 105.
  5. Ibid., pp. 92–97.
  6. Ibid., pp. 104–105.
  7. Ibid., p. 150.
  8. Ibid., p. 149.
  9. Defense and National Security Report, 1Q/2011, U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, May 2011.