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Why nearly $40 billion worth of U.S. weapons may not be enough for Taiwan

Supply chain delays and the choice of weaponry have hurt the island's readiness for war with China


Over the past decade, the Taiwanese government has bought nearly $40 billion in U.S. weapons, but military experts say the self-governed island is still not ready to defend itself against a Chinese invasion.

Delays in arms shipments from the U.S., a mismatch between Taiwan’s weapons purchases and the weapons most needed  for the potential fight, and inadequate training have raised concerns in both the U.S. and Taiwan.

In recent war games conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) with U.S. military and government officials, the problems have been laid bare. “The Taiwanese Air Force and surface navy are wiped out in the first couple of days,” said Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at CSIS who helped run the war games. “It’s just that they are so vulnerable.” In the event of an invasion, a similar result is likely, given  the comparative strength of the Chinese military. Experts told The Messenger that Taiwan needs more unconventional weapons – and better training – to stand a chance of fending China off at its shores until help arrives. 

Stocking up before it’s too late 

The threat to Taiwan is real – and it’s growing.

China has long claimed the island as its own province, but President Xi Jinping has ratcheted up the rhetoric and made clear that “reunification” with Taiwan is a top priority – and that it will happen, ideally by peaceful means, but by force if necessary. And China has pursued a rapid military buildup of its own to prepare for that possibility.

“The threat has increased at a staggering pace,” said Ian Easton, a senior director at Project 2049, a U.S.-based think tank focused on Taiwan’s security.

Some experts doubt it will come to an invasion. But according to CIA director William Burns, China aims to be ready by 2027, and several senior U.S. military officers have suggested that war could come much sooner than that.  

For Taiwan, arming itself before an invasion is essential. Western nations have been able to rearm Ukraine by shipping weaponry over the country’s long land borders, but that won’t work for Taiwan. As an island, Taiwan might be harder to attack, but it will also be harder to resupply. Military strategists predict a Chinese invasion would involve a blockade of the island, making delivery of additional weapons during a conflict difficult if not impossible.

The right weapons?

Under the Obama and Trump administrations, U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan included big-ticket items - Black Hawk helicopters, mine-hunting ships, F-16 fighter jets and Abrams tanks.

It’s a robust assortment of American military hardware, but many analysts question whether it’s enough - and whether it’s what Taiwan needs.

U.S. officials have recently pushed Taiwan to adopt a “porcupine strategy” - as in, making the swallowing of the island as unpalatable and painful as swallowing a porcupine. The idea is for Taiwan to stock up on “a large number of small things,” as the former chief of staff of Taiwan’s army described it – weapons that are relatively cheap and can be spread across the island. That would make an invasion more difficult and buy time for the U.S. to come to Taiwan's defense - although the U.S. hasn't to committed to doing so.

However, some of the weapons Taiwan has ordered or already received may not fit the bill. 

Tanks and F-16s “aren't going to be all that useful in preventing or responding to an amphibious attack, or an air attack from China, because those [weapons] are very vulnerable,” Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Messenger. Fighter jets have their use – helping Taiwan patrol its airspace, for instance – but most U.S. military experts, and many in Taiwan, believe the urgent need is for Taiwan to buy weapons that are less vulnerable to Chinese attack and better fit the “porcupine” approach.

With this in mind, the Pentagon has been pushing deals for smaller weapons - including some that have been useful on the frontlines in Ukraine: Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), and Javelin anti-tank missiles. These weapons are important because “they’re small and they can support a layered defense,” Kavanagh said. 

In April, the Pentagon announced that Boeing will supply Taiwan with 400 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, weapons that have shown their value in the Taiwan war games, and are considered key to the porcupine strategy

“Land-based anti-ship and anti-air missile systems are better because they're mobile,” CSIS’s Cancian told The Messenger. “You can move them around, you can hide them – they're very difficult to find and target, so they are much more survivable, whereas an airplane has to be on an airbase and the Chinese have lots and lots of missiles to take out airbases.”

While Taiwanese officials have publicly supported the porcupine strategy, Cancian and other analysts say the Taiwanese military needs to realign its priorities accordingly. “Taiwan still spends most of its defense budget on expensive ships and aircraft that China will quickly destroy,” the CSIS said in its report on their recent war games.  

Troubles in the weapons supply chain

Then there’s the timing problem. 

U.S. officials and analysts say that even some weapons ordered in prior administrations won’t reach Taiwan for years to come. The backlog in U.S. arms deliveries – a function of bureaucracy and pandemic-related supply-chain issues -- has swelled to $19 billion worth of weapons. To take one example, the Pentagon said those 400 Harpoon missiles, originally pledged in 2020, are only expected to be ready in 2029.

That won’t help if China invades in 2027 or sooner. And the delays have stirred frustration among U.S. lawmakers and Taiwanese officials. After visiting Taiwan in February, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on China, said “we should move heaven and earth” to clear the $19 billion backlog.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters in Taipei last week, "We are procuring the necessary weapons for our self-defense – even though some of the items seem to be a little delayed – but we have been working with the U.S. administration to find creative ways for those weapons to be delivered."

One of those “creative ways” could be the Biden administration’s use of an emergency presidential authority, authorized by Congress last year, to send Taiwan up to $1 billion a year in weapons directly from U.S. stockpiles. That’s the same route the U.S. has used to arm Ukraine. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Biden is planning to send $500 million in weapons using the authority. But the war in Ukraine has already thinned American military stockpiles, and as it drags on, experts say Ukraine and Taiwan may compete directly for U.S. weapons. 

Training on American weapons systems has lagged too. Chieh Chung, an assistant research fellow at the National Policy Foundation, told The Messenger that integrating existing and incoming weapons into Taiwan’s military is a major challenge, in part due to a lack of training and manpower. The recent Pentagon documents leaked by a Massachusetts national guardsman underscored the concerns: in one example, the Washington Post reported the Taiwanese military has trained on fixed targets and isn’t prepared to hit China’s mobile missile launchers.

All these issues are in play as analysts worry about a dangerous Taiwan conundrum: On the one hand, there is a concern that growing U.S. military support for Taiwan  may provoke China – and bring on the conflict the world is seeking to avoid. Others argue that fear of provoking China has meant the U.S. and Taiwan haven’t moved quickly enough. 

As Easton put it, “It's like we're almost trapped in amber.” 

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