Sunday, March 20, 2011

Taiwan forced to square the circle on national defense

Defense cuts. Procurement sources drying up. A modernizing Chinese military. Can Taiwan meet its defense needs under the prevailing system?

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.

My analysis piece, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here with more comments by Minnick, Holmes, Cliff, Fisher and Murray.

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