Recent reports coming out of the White House, Department of State (DOS), and Department of Defense (DOD) stated that Taiwan should focus weapons purchases on “asymmetric weapons.” This article argues that the current push by the Biden administration, especially in the DOD and DOS, to force Taiwan to pursue “asymmetric weapons” reflects an inaccurate assessment of the PRC military threat to Taiwan. The Biden administration seeks to limit the scope of weapons that Taiwan can purchase, and unwittingly aligns with the CCP’s desire to weaken Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.
What are "asymmetric weapons" and what is asymmetric warfare?
Asymmetric warfare background
Asymmetric warfare is defined as war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics differ significantly. Using or threatening to use a nuclear weapon against a non-nuclear state is an example of asymmetric warfare.
Asymmetric warfare can also include using non-military means to coerce or degrade an adversary’s ability to conduct war. For example, the US and Israel were able to infiltrate the malware "Stuxnet" into Iranian centrifuges, causing them to spin out of control and destroy themselves. This action is an example of asymmetric warfare.
Examples of symmetric warfare would be typical force-on-force battles that occurred in trenches along the French and German borders during World War I; both sides used similar means and ways to pursue victory. An example of asymmetric warfare during World War II was the Nazi use of “Blitzkrieg” aka "lightening war," where the German military combined air power and rapid land maneuvers to devastate their enemies. The Nazis developed the Blitzkrieg tactic prior to WWII when the German military assisted Franco and his Nationalists in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).
In his book "American Way of War," Russell F. Weigley argues that the US prefers a strategy of annihilation and unconditional surrender as typified by General Grant's tactics against the South during the Civil War. This strategy reappeared during WWII with the annihilation of the German military and the use of atomic bombs in Japan. Developing new tactics, operational concepts, and weapons against an adversary is an example of asymmetric warfare. In summary, asymmetric warfare describes the asymmetry between the two belligerents.
Following the end of WWII, the US did not apply an annihilation strategy in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and most recently, against Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East. Even though the US had a larger military force and related resources in these cases, the asymmetric advantage did not result in a US victory. North Koreans, North Vietnamese, and the Viet Cong received training and weapons from Russia and the People’s Republic of China, allowing them to conduct attritional symmetric and asymmetric warfare against the US to the point that the US lost the will to continue fighting. At the end of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Communists were flying the most advanced Soviet military jets and had the full spectrum of Russian and Chinese weapons.
The 20 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that asymmetry in weapons and resources does not guarantee victory. The focus on weapons is not useful when speaking about winning a war, especially in Taiwan’s case.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan
After then-President Carter abandoned Taiwan for the PRC in 1979, Congress began the process of healing the rift by enacting the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA promised to ensure that Taiwan’s status would be resolved peacefully. The TRA also established the American Institute on Taiwan (de facto US Embassy) and provided Taiwan defensive weapons. Former President Reagan reinforced the US commitment by providing Taiwan with the Six Assurances, two of which were related to weapons:
- The US has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan
- The US has not agreed to consult with the PRC on arms sales to Taiwan
Weapons denied or delayed
In October 2021, Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正), Defense Minister of Taiwan, stated that "by 2025, China's costs and attrition will be brought to the lowest level and it will have the ability to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.” Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has consequently made orders for weapon systems to arrive no later than 2025.
However, during a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Representative Andy Barr (R-KY) stated that arms “deliveries to Taiwan are falling behind: 66 F-16 fighter jets are not expected until 2026; 108 Abrams tanks not until 2027; and 40 Paladin self-propelled Howitzers have now been pushed back to 2027. In addition, Taiwan is seeing delays right now in Stingers, Harpoon Coastal Missile Defense Systems, and F-16 V upgrade--this is unacceptable.”
With the 2025 timeline in mind, the Biden administration is either not selling or is delaying the following seven weapon systems to Taiwan, risking the possibility that these resources could not be available in time to defend Taiwan from the PLA:
- E-2D aircraft (Northrop Grumman): Denied. Taiwan requested the six E-2D for airspace command and control to defend Taiwan’s airspace against daily PLA aircraft incursions into their air defense identification zone (ADIZ), an aerial attack against Taiwan, or an aerial blockade, boycott, or embargo.
- MH-60R Seahawk anti-submarine helicopter (Lockheed Martin produced): Denied. Taiwan’s military requested twelve new MH-60R helicopters to protect shipping to and from Taiwan against the threat of PLA submarines conducting a sea denial strategy such as a naval blockade, boycott, or embargo. Taiwan bought its current anti-submarine 500MD and S-70C (Sikorsky) helicopters in the 1970s and 1980s, and the helicopters are now over 40 years old.
- F-16 Fighter Aircraft (Lockheed Martin produced): Delayed to 2026. The Obama administration rejected the Taiwan request to purchase sixty-six new F-16 Block 70 fighter aircraft but approved the upgrade of 140 F-16 A/B models to V models (called the Phoenix Rising program) for Taiwan. The Trump administration approved the sale of 66 F-16 Block 70 fighter aircraft (replacing the F-5E/Fs).
- Stinger anti-aircraft missiles (Raytheon): Delayed. Delivery on the order of 250 Stingers is delayed but not as a result of Ukraine.
- M1A2 Abrams tanks (General Dynamics): Delayed. General Dynamics is on contract to deliver 108 tanks, now delayed to 2027; the Biden administration is questioning the utility of the purchase.
- M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers (BAE Systems): Delayed. Taiwan officials claimed the Paladin systems have been delayed and delivery is shifted to 2026.
- AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles (Boeing): Delayed. The Biden administration considers the land-based Harpoon II anti-ship missiles as “asymmetric weapons.” The US recently approved Taiwan contract with Boeing for land-based Harpoon II missiles, which are part of the Harpoon Coastal Defense System (HCDS), but with a maximum range of 120.7 kilometers (75 miles). The missile does not threaten any PRC port since the distance from Taiwan to the PRC coastline is over 160 km (100 miles). Boeing designed the Harpoon II missiles to also strike “coastal defense sites, surface-to-air missile sites, exposed aircraft, port/industrial facilities and ships in port.” None of these additional targets are relevant when the targets are beyond the range of the land-based missile. Harpoon missiles are effective tools against invasion and sea denial (blockade, boycott, and embargo).
CCP sanctions US defense contractors
In February 2022, the CCP sanctioned US defense companies Lockheed Martin Corporation, Boeing Defense, and Raytheon Technologies Corporation for weapons sales to Taiwan. The Biden administration is preventing Taiwan from purchasing E-2D (Northrop Grumman), MH-60R (Lockheed Martin), and other weapon systems from similar US companies. By denying these American companies from selling their weapon systems to Taiwan, the Biden administration is helping the CCP enforce its own boycott. Taiwan’s requested weapons amount to more than three billion dollars in sales.
One track mind
The Biden administration’s “asymmetric weapons” policy focuses only on one scenario—invasion. The Taiwanese know that the CCP and the PLA are planning at least five lines of attack which would require a response composed of a greater variety of weapons than only the invasion scenario.
For example, in a recent article in Real Clear Defense, four Taiwanese and American academics argue that Taiwan should have a variety of defense capabilities to match the four scenarios the PRC has considered for taking the island: “Cross-Strait war games have demonstrated that China has considered various ways to coerce Taiwan, such as a naval blockade, an amphibious attack, a surprise attack, a decapitation strike, or a combination of the above.”
In early 2022, a Center for a New American Security analyst examined five scenarios. In 2019, Ian Easton, a Project 2049 analyst, published “China's Top Five War Plans,” which lists five war plans against Taiwan based on PLA primary sources.
On 17 May 2022, the US-Taiwan Business Council (USTBC) and the American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan (ACCT) posted a press release stating the following concerns:
“We understand that the Biden administration wishes to end most arms sales to Taiwan that do not fall under the category of ‘asymmetric’ – a concept that remains only broadly and subjectively defined. We further understand that there is a list of priority capabilities that the administration will pursue for Taiwan, but that list is currently unavailable to the relevant industries. We also understand that the Biden administration will seek to directly deter Taiwan from submitting Letters of Request (LoRs) that do not fit this new approach, as with the effective rejection of the MH-60R and E-2D requests in March 2022.
The Biden administration is sending a paternalistic message to Taiwan that Taiwan is unable to determine their own lessons to learn from the Russia-Ukraine war. Lt Gen Scott D. Berrier, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, exemplified this attitude when he testified at the Senate Armed Services Committee about his lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war for Taiwan: “So I think we have to engage…the Taiwan military and leadership, to help them understand what this conflict has been about, what lessons they can learn, and where they should be focusing their dollars on defense and their training.” This policy is called out in the same letter sent from the USTBC/ACCT:
“The new Taiwan arms sales process and associated policies appear dismissive of Taiwan’s democratic agency. It creates an impression that Taiwan is under U.S. direction, and suggests policy paternalism rather than a mutual discussion to determine which systems and capabilities Taiwan truly needs. This also runs the risk of weakening public support in Taiwan for sustained defense spending, which would be counterproductive to U.S. goals.”
The CCP has complained about arms sales since Congress passed the TRA. Then-President Carter assured the CCP that he would use his executive position to prevent certain weapons sales and reduce arms sales to Taiwan. President Reagan contradicted Carter’s promises and assured Taiwan that the CCP would not have veto power over weapons sales to Taiwan and that the US had not promised the CCP that weapons sales would end.
Professional militaries develop multiple plans to provide political leaders options to accomplish their political objectives. In the case of Taiwan, PLA documents reveal at least five separate scenarios Taiwan should be prepared to defend against. The PLA could use these five attack scenarios independently or in any combination. An additional attack method is the CCP political warfare campaign which attempts to convince Taiwan to voluntarily give up its sovereignty.
The US is the only country willing to sell large weapon systems to Taiwan. The CCP has threatened economic and other sanctions on other countries friendly to Taiwan for doing the same.
Taiwan should continue to press the US and other potential (brave) countries to assist Taiwan with its defense needs. Taiwan should continue to ramp up its indigenous weapons production and training of its defense forces based on its needs and for all contingencies, not just one contingency and not as arrogantly directed by the current administration.
Based on the denials and delays of weapon systems and the "asymmetric weapons" policy, a cynic would suspect that the current Biden administration’s policy is simply an extension of the Carter and the Obama administrations’ desire to kowtow to CCP pressure to reduce the quality and quantity of weapons that the US provides for Taiwan’s defense.
If the U.S. changed its strategic ambiguity policy to strategic clarity and declared that it would support Taiwan if the PLA attacked, then this clarity would help the Taiwanese people, politicians, and military trust that the US would truly help them and purchasing "asymmetric weapons" would make sense. Deploying US military personnel to Taiwan to train and exercise together would certainly enhance this trust.