Friday, September 26, 2008

Taiwan Arms Sales: Naval War College Study Argues for Major Cut Back

A Naval War College study, perhaps the most meticulous condemnation of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in history, provides an interesting context for a potentially dramatic decline in U.S. security assistance to a long time friend, non-NATO ally, and struggling democracy. The study (click here for link), entitled "Revisiting Taiwan's Defense Strategy," is authored by a recently retired U.S. Navy officer, William S. Murray, and published in the Summer 2008 edition of the Naval War College Review.

At a minimum, the study offers a well-developed starting point for a more detailed debate over Taiwan's legitimate defense requirements. However, the study's political conclusions, related to the 1982 Shanghai Communique and the Taiwan Relations Act, dilute its value as a sound yet debatable argument in favor of a ground-centric strategy.

The Naval War College (NWC) study develops a sophisticated set of tactical and operational arguments to justify its end conclusion: the United States should cap, reduce, and ultimately terminate arms sales to Taiwan. If the study were a simple academic treatise on Taiwan's defense, similar to those RAND, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), or other think tanks produce, then that's one thing. But this study is not just academic. On the surface, it appears to be a rational military judgment, presumably informed by modeling, which advocates Taiwan's adoption of a "Porcupine Strategy."

Many of the study's arguments, with some exceptions, appear compelling when viewed from an exclusive American military perspective. This by itself is one counter-argument: Taiwan's conceptual approach to defense differs markedly from the United States. But more important is that underneath the surface and from a broad political perspective, the NWC study strengthens the hand of authorities in Beijing, pro-unification elements within Taiwan, and American academics and policymakers who view Taiwan arms sales as an impediment to closer U.S.-China relations. Whether or not this was the study's intent is unclear. Nevertheless, the effects are the same.

The study's conclusions have become a clarion call for key figures in both Washington D.C. and Taipei. The study's army-centric arguments may appeal to some at the operational level, while others, who view Taiwan arms sales as a problem, may find its political implications appealing.

According to senior level civilian and military sources in Taiwan, a group of Washington DC-based academics urged President Ma Ying-jeou to carefully review the study during a visit to Taipei in July 2008, shortly after the study was published. This assertion was confirmed when a recent visit to Taiwan by a U.S.-China Economic Security Commission delegation met with President Ma. Since then, the senior KMT leadership has directed that the study become required reading for senior military officers. In doing so, the KMT administration has created discontent within some military ranks that not only mock the study's conclusions, but also resent perceived undue civilian interference in military affairs. Furthermore, it appears that the study may have inspired some of Taiwan's strongest advocates of unification with China. CV Chen (Chen Chang-wen), a Harvard educated lawyer and close confidente of President Ma, authored a prominent editorial in the China Times on September 15, 2008 that called for support for the Bush administration's hold on Congressional notifications, citing similar operational shortcomings of major systems that are referenced in the Naval War College study.

The ROC Army, of course, has a right to be happy since it is almost in 100% lockstep with long-standing Army views that the Air Force and Navy are support elements and not really needed. These kinds of debates, the result of organizational competition within a resource constrained environment, are common throughout defense establishments around the world. In addition, at the political level, the potential reversion back to traditional KMT favoritism of the Army is worthy of note.

Who would have thought that an ostensibly innocent study, authored by an operationally competent retired field grade officer with little Taiwan-related experience, could have created such a storm?

Here's the study in a nutshell:

The proper starting point can be found in the study's conclusion. Arms sales should be reduced significantly and US should adhere, by inference due to its omission of important preconditions that Beijing rejects, to the Chinese interpretation of 1982 Communique. In other words, the so-called "strategy" is singular in purpose - reduce and ultimately terminate US arms sales and let Taiwan fend for itself. With the political end in mind, the study pieces together an argument to support a reduction and possible eventual termination of arms sales.

The centerpiece is an argument that establishes the ineffectiveness of Navy and Air Force systems in light of what the study portrays as relatively new PLA capabilities. The Bush administration approved a major package of arms sales in 2001, but ostensibly did so before these new PLA capabilities came about. Therefore, the change in strategic situation warrants a relook at the package and its cancellation.

The study asserts that only valid high cost procurement is the Boeing AH-64D APACHE, because it's an army system. The study posits that diesel submarines are not only "offensive" and "destabilizing" for Taiwan (or any navy for that matter, except China), but also ineffective in countering other submarines. The study neglects to mention that a submarines could be effective tools of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) if part of a broader ASW architecture that includes an integrated undersea surveillance system for strategic cueing, airborne maritime surveillance, and associated communications and ASW operations centers.

The rest of the study's anti-Air Force and anti-Navy argument is built around the ballistic missile threat. China's growing arsenal of increasingly accurate and lethal conventional ballistic missiles are said to negate the operational utility of expensive F-16s, P-3s, PAC-3, and P-3s and frigates and destroyers, and even submarines. Only mobile Army assets that could resist an invasion on Taiwan are appropriate in light of the changed security environment.

Main problem with the study's operational arguments is that they ignore a whole range of coercive scenarios far short of a full scale amphibious invasion, supported by large scale ballistic missile raids that would prepare the battlefield and suppress air defenses and naval forces in port. The study gives only passing reference to coercive theory. Based upon the assumption that a full scale amphibious invasion is the only scenario for PRC use of force, the NWC study argues Navy and Air Force assets are no longer necessary because they are no longer effective. Also implied is that there is no longer a need for an Air Force and Navy that are independent of the Army.

The Taiwan Relations Act requires that the United States provide necessary defense articles and services. By extension, provision of unnecessary defense articles and services, as the study defines them, would be a violation of the Taiwan Relations Act. The net effect is that opponents of arms sales could draw from the study to counter criticism that a strict adherence to the 1982 Communique counters the Taiwan Relations Act. Beijing's goal is to resolve the Taiwan issue once and for all. Arms sales have been the main obstacle. This is not necessarily due to their operational value, but because they represent continued U.S. acknowledgement of Taiwan's unresolved international status and de facto independence.

Getting the U.S. to move toward its interpretation of the 1982 Communique framework, which appears to have been a success in light of the freeze on notifications, is Beijing's goal. And the NWC study certainly has given those who support Beijing's position the ammunition they believe is needed.

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