A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility

Friday, October 11th, 2019

American defense experts who come to the island all agree that the Taiwanese military needs cheap, expendable, mass-produced weapons systems to deter a Chinese invasion force, but that’s not what Taiwanese leaders buy:

On June 6, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced a $2.25 billion arms purchase from the United States. package was broken down into two parts: $250 million for a consignment of Stinger missiles, and $2 billion for 108 main battle tanks. The first part of the package fits well enough within a distributed “anti-access” defense posture. The second purchase does not.

Taiwan is a piebald of jungle-covered mountains, muddy rice paddies, and densely populated urban cores—terrain that frustrates tank maneuver. The most likely use for tanks like these would be in formation near beaches for counter-landing operations, where they would be extremely vulnerable to attack from the air. As Chinese commanders would never land an invasion force unless they first secure air superiority, these tanks will never amount to anything more than 108 very expensive sitting ducks.

The purchase fits a longstanding Taiwanese pattern: prioritizing high-prestige platforms over people. The Ministry of National Defense has cut military pensions and failed to pay volunteer soldiers a competitive wage or provide them with necessary benefits, and it doesn’t have enough bullets on hand for conscripts to practice riflery more than a few times in their entire course of duty.

Yet in addition to buying the tanks, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has promised to find $8 billion—equivalent to 70 percent of Taiwan’s 2019 military budget—to purchase 66 new F-16 fighter jets (even though in the event of a conflict with China most of these would be destroyed by PLA missiles while still on their runways). The Taiwanese navy also regularly promotes plans for an indigenously constructed helicopter carrier and Aegis-style destroyer. Billions have been poured into developing indigenous jet engines and fighters. Most disastrous of all, around one-tenth of the defense budget has been earmarked for the development of Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. According to the wildly optimistic government projections, the very first of these submarines will be seaworthy in 2025. Only a few more could be built before the decade’s close, at an estimated $1 billion per ship.

Taiwanese leaders’ defense priorities make a perverse sort of sense, T. Greer argues:

Taiwanese leaders have a powerful political incentive to raise Taiwan’s stature on the international stage and publicly resist Chinese attempts to cut it away from its allies. Similarly, they are incentivized to show that under their leadership, the Taiwanese military remains a world-class fighting force. Purchasing fancy military equipment makes little strategic sense, but it accomplishes both of these objectives.

In an anonymous interview, one DPP official told me why he believed the purchase of the tanks was so important: “The purchase is a signal that the DPP can lead on defense. It will give the people more confidence that we are not being outclassed by the Chinese. And most important, that Tsai’s good relationship with the Americans is the reason for that.” A senior official interviewed by a Center for Security Policy Studies research team justified Taiwanese requests for F-35 fighter jets, rather than less expensive drones, with similar logic: “You can’t create a hero pilot of a UAV.” The CSPS team concluded that for most of the Taiwanese officials they interviewed, “buying advanced aircraft from the United States was at least as much about assuring the public as it was about improving war-fighting capability.”

This is especially important given Taiwan’s lack of a formal alliance with the United States. For Taiwanese leaders, weapons sales are one of the few metrics available to judge the U.S. commitment to their cause. Taiwanese leaders can trumpet their purchase of American-made weapons systems as something their party has done to raise Taiwan’s international stature. A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility but its symbolic value.


  1. Bruce says:

    Symbolic value, way to bribe important people in the US military-industrial complex to keep supporting Taiwan, tomayto tomahto. I hope Taiwan keeps bribing our crooks- I like an independent Taiwan, and the way Carter screwed West Germany and tried to dump South Korea was about our speed.

  2. Aretae says:

    Isn’t this about the same as the US Navy buying big ships and losing naval wargames to fleets of minis?

  3. Kirk says:

    If Taiwan is really serious about independence from mainland China, they’ll embrace next-generation war and start weaponizing things like UAV “toys”.

    I’m actually rather surprised that Hong Kong hasn’t done that, TBH. It’s probably that they don’t have access to ready military-grade or improvised explosives, and they’re unwilling to take it to the hot stages of such a conflict.

    But, for the sake of Gedankenspiel, imagine that you take a thousand quadcopter drones, and then put actual explosive packages on them. Have a half-dozen decoys for each, and then take to the air around the invading forces. Even with a significant attrition rate, what you’ve basically got there is a mobile minefield that you can use to interdict and divert organized forces with. During the 1950s, it was pie-plates on the street that looked like landmines–Imagine the reaction of the troops if they had to adapt to an environment where little toy drones shot out of concealment at random, and fastened themselves on your armored vehicles or anything carrying an antenna, followed by a detonation of a small shaped charge.

    Sure, there are anti-drone systems coming on-line, but for the moment…? Most forces are vulnerable, especially in built-up areas with a lot of clutter. It would be like trying to make war in Australia during magpie season… After a certain point, enthusiasm would wane, and survival instincts take over.

    TBH, we’re not that far off from someone like Singapore or Hong Kong doing just this to an invader. Your “Big Army” techniques and equipment will avail you naught, once the next revolution in military affairs takes hold.

    Recommended reading would be “New Model Army” by Adam Roberts, and “Second Variety” by Phillip K. Dick. Both stories have definite pointers towards the future, particularly the inchoate nature of military force made possible by modern technology that Roberts posits. I imagine that there are bootleg apps on phones in Hong Kong that serve the same rudimentary purpose that the AI in Robert’s novel serves. We’re a a beta-test level, but I’m pretty sure that version 1.0 is lurking out there.

  4. Christopher says:

    Appearances, versus the substance of Taiwan’s defence (i.e. U.S.-China geopolitical stability). Mirrors China’s facade that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic. It may even be detrimental for Taiwan’s relations to develop a credible deterrent to China’s local military superiority.

  5. Christopher says:

    Aretae: U.S. Navy big ships (carrier groups) useful for their primary U.S. foreign policy behavior: launching air strikes, invasions, interdiction and control of waterways (as well as making America appear powerful). Existential threats of big war repelled by nuclear weapons, or is U.S. unprepared for the next big war? Always fighting the last war, as the saying goes?

  6. Wang Wei Lin says:

    The only way for Taiwan to stay in a long term conflict with Biejing is 4GW asymetric tactics.

  7. Sam J. says:

    They need a shit load of fiber optic guided missiles.

    “…the Europeans have already developed the Polyphem fiber optic missile, with an incredible range of 60km by using a turbojet engine…:



    Combined with a high quality air defense and lots of machine guns there would be no way they could land anywhere. A lot of truck mounted remotely fired 20mm or 30mm exploding round ammo Gatling guns with massive amounts of ammunition.

    For air defense you could combine radar to track, fiber to launch and point the right direction and heat for the actual aircraft final hit. I’ve been told I’m a fool and there’s no way to defend Taiwan but if you read through Carlton Myers site there’s lots and lots of already built solutions to defend the country off the shelf.

    The only way to take Taiwan would be to kill everyone and/or supermassive destruction but that would bring severe publicity problems. These could super sensitize every single country around them and bring about a complete loss of trade. I don’t think they would do it. The key is Taiwan has have to have enough to blast the shit out of the Chinese at the beginning to where the Chinese see it won’t be easy.

    By the way what the people in Hong Kong should do is the whole damn country defect to to Taiwan.

    Here’s Carlton Meyers’s book on war. It’s very good and mostly based on practical already built solutions where no magic tech is needed.


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