Should Taiwan prepare for war? How does deterrence work? What makes for a credible defense?

Michael A. Hunzeker is an assistant professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and the associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies. He graduated from UC Berkeley and holds a PhD, MPA, and MA from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He also spent 15 years in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve.

In November 2018, Mr. Hunzeker and his team published A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture (link). In the conversation below, he shares with us their recommendations for Taiwan.

This email correspondence took place at the end of March 2019 and has been edited for clarity.

Click here (link) to read the Chinese translation.

[NSF] Your research raised some critical questions about Taiwan’s current defense posture, and how we might want to rethink our strategy (or implement what we say is our strategy). But, before we dive in: of all the security issues globally, why did you — an academic sitting in DC — decide to study Taiwan’s defense? How did this project come about?

[MAH] There are two reasons I decided to recruit a team of scholars and practitioners to study this important issue.

First, I was increasingly convinced that the conversation about Taiwan’s defense needs was not receiving enough attention here in the United States.

I also thought that it could benefit from a ‘fresh,’ outside perspective — one that challenged prevailing assumptions, orthodoxy and recommendations. Without a doubt, a relatively small number of smart, hard working government officials, scholars and analysts have dedicated their careers to understanding the challenges associated with deterring conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Their work is extremely important. Yet I also believed that the same, relatively small group of experts has been working on the same sets of questions for so long that there was a real risk that the conversations and debates were now occurring inside of an echo chamber.

These issues and questions are too important to remain on the margins. What happens to Taiwan has the potential to impact everyone in America. Taiwan is a thriving liberal democracy. It is an important partner in the global economy. It is a possible flashpoint in the U.S.-China relationship. And the United States has a legal obligation to help Taiwan with its security needs, ambiguous though these commitments might sometimes seem.

So in my mind, it was important to bring a new group of experts into the conversation. At the very least, I hoped it might inject new ideas into an old discussion. At best, I wanted to inspire more American students and analysts to join in this critical debate. New ideas are a good thing, not something to avoid.

The second reason is that I thought my team had something interesting to contribute to this conversation. Specifically, my colleague and frequent collaborator, Professor Alexander Lanoszka, and I had recently completed a study for the United States Army on conventional deterrence in Northeastern Europe (link). Over the course of working on that project for the better part of two years, we noticed a number of parallels between the challenges facing Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the ones with which Taiwan is wrestling. All four countries are literally next door to a state that might one day attack them. All four countries share a complex history with their potential attacker. All four countries lack the geographic size, economic power and military strength to go toe to toe with their potential attacker. And, of course, all four are thriving democracies.

There are also important differences, to be sure. But Alexander and I believed that the similarities were striking and relevant enough that they might help us think about Taiwan’s challenges and opportunities in new ways.

How much time did your team spend on this project? The Taiwan problem has been the subject of many analyses. What made you think that you could bring something new to the table, given the limited time you and your team had to study the issues? (Sorry for being direct!)

This is a terrific question and I’m really glad that you asked it.

We spent about three months doing background research to prepare for our trip to Taipei in January 2018. We spent a week ‘on the ground’ conducting interviews. And then we spent roughly six months doing additional research, writing and revising the report after receiving invaluable critical feedback from regional and defense experts. So this report is very much not something that we hastily threw together at the last minute.

It is also important to point out that although my team and I received a grant to cover our travel and research expenses, we received no personal or institutional financial compensation for our work. We truly spent months working on these questions because we believed they were important and not because we stood to gain anything from it. In fact, all of us worked on this while still doing our full time day jobs!

The fact is that my team and I will be the first to admit that we are not Taiwan experts. But again, we think this is a feature, not a bug — which is a very American way of saying we think that our status as ‘outsiders’ is a strength, not a weakness. I must be frank: the conversation surrounding Taiwan’s security needs and options here in the United States has grown a bit stale. It can only benefit from more voices, ideas and opinions.

Moreover, I genuinely believe that my team has a unique perspective and set of experiences to bring to bear on the problem. It is true that we are not regional experts. But four of us are combat veterans. Two of us are retired military officers. Two of us graduated from U.S. military academies. Two of us have served on both active and reserve duty (in fact, one of us worked on this report on the back of a ship while deployed as a reservist). Two of us have previous experience serving with — and training — members of Taiwan’s military. We also represent a genuine ‘joint’ military perspective, since our team members have served in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, respectively.

Beyond our military expertise, Professor Lanoszka is an established scholar of alliances, nuclear proliferation and hybrid warfare. Matt Fay is an experienced defense budget analyst. And Erica Seng-White is an up and coming scholar of public opinion. It stands to reason that these are valuable perspectives worth adding to the conversation.

Regional expertise and local knowledge are of course essential. Our goal is not to ignore or replace such perspectives. But as I like to tell my students, bullets and missiles don’t care about culture and history — they have a logic all their own.

The subtitle of your monograph is “Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture.” In Taiwan, we use the same Chinese term for ‘conventional’ and ‘traditional,’ and it carries a negative connotation particularly in the defense context (Taiwan’s fixation on conventional platforms comes to mind). Can you explain to us what you mean by “conventional (traditional) deterrence”?

This is another great question, because you highlight an important difference in how the term is used and understood in Taiwan and in the United States. By conventional deterrence we mean something very specific, which is to say we are specifically focusing on deterrence options that do not include nuclear weapons.

So when we use the term conventional we are not only referring to ‘traditional’ weapons and platforms. In fact, we think that Taiwan should seriously consider shifting away from ‘traditional’ weapons — things like main battle tanks, advanced fighter jets and large submarines — in order to free up money so it can buy large numbers of truly asymmetric capabilities: weapons like anti-ship missiles, naval mines, air defense assets and even guerrilla warfare units.

Why do you exclude nuclear weapons from consideration? Isn’t that the ultimate (and perhaps only real) deterrent?

We do not consider nuclear weapons because we think that in Taiwan’s case, nuclear weapons would invite the very threat that it wants to deter.

I agree that a credible, nuclear arsenal can deter aggression in theory. But if Taiwan tried to acquire nuclear weapons, it would face some very real obstacles.

The first obstacle is time. Experts think it would take Taiwan at least a year or two to design and build a nuclear weapon.

Which leads to the second obstacle: detection. Taiwan tried to develop nuclear weapons twice before. The United States detected both programs and pressured Taiwan to shut them down. And this occurred while Taiwan was still under authoritarian rule. It is hard to imagine how a vibrant, transparent and democratic Taiwan could keep such a program secret for a year or more.

The risk of detection leads to the third obstacle: China’s red lines. China will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Taiwan.

If we put all of these obstacles together, it seems likely that China will detect a Taiwanese nuclear program and would respond with military force long before Taiwan could design, develop, test and field a viable nuclear weapon.

I think this is a good time to clarify what you mean by “deterrence.” This word is used often by American and Taiwanese defense analysts, but we appear to have different understandings and views of what actually deters.

When my team uses the term deterrence, we are referring to attempts to convince a potential aggressor not to change the status quo by threatening to impose unacceptable pain on the aggressor if it tries. In other words, we can think of deterrence as drawing a line in the sand and telling the other side that it will pay an unacceptable price if it tries. If we apply this definition to Taiwan, we mean convincing China not to attempt to force unification on Taiwan against Taiwan’s will.

Building on generations of deterrence scholarship in the United States, we also believe that Taiwan must meet a number of prerequisites if it wants to deter aggression.

·     First, Taiwan’s deterrence posture has to be credible. This means that China must believe that Taiwan has the resolve and the capability to make good on its threats. In other words, China must think that Taiwan has the military ability to make good on its threats. And China must think that Taiwan has the political willpower to make good on its threats. After all, making good on a threat to impose unacceptable pain means sending Taiwan’s military in to battle.

·     Second, the threats that Taiwan is making must exceed China’s pain threshold. In other words, Taiwan has to be able to convince China that Taiwan can ‘impose so much pain’ that the costs of attacking will exceed any conceivable benefits. This requirement also means that Taiwan must know where China’s pain threshold. As I sometimes tell my students, you can’t threaten a sadomasochist with pain…

·     Third, although threats are important, Taiwan also has to provide assurances. In other words, Taiwan must be able to convince China both that it will impose unacceptable pain if China tries to attack AND that Taiwan will not try to impose unacceptable pain if China does not try to attack. This is one reason we think Taiwan needs to be careful when it considers acquiring long-range missiles that can strike targets deep inside China. Although it might seem implausible, China might worry that Taiwan could one day use those weapons to force its will on Beijing.

·     Finally, Taiwan must signal its threats and its assurances in a clear and contingent way. Basically, Taiwan needs to be explicit about the kinds of behaviors that will trigger a military response; and it needs to be able to show China that it has the capabilities it claims to have. This is why secret military programs and weapons are not useful for deterring aggression. To quote from a famous American movie, “the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”

Here in Taiwan, officials articulate the idea that while a traditional (conventional) weapon or platform may not be useful in combat, we need it for its deterrent value. Submarines and tanks are often cited as examples of such requirements. On the other hand, you just talked about capabilities such as anti-ship missiles, naval mines, air defense assets, and even guerrilla warfare (let’s get to this later). Can you try to bridge this gap for us?

We respectfully disagree with officials who think that submarines and fighter jets can deter even if they are not useful in combat: We think this argument ignores the basic logic behind deterrence.

There are two basic ways to deter: deter by punishment and deter by denial.

“Deterrence by punishment” means threatening to retaliate to aggression by imposing unacceptable pain. For Taiwan to credibly deter by punishment, it would need to be able to convince China that it could impose unacceptable pain after an invasion or a major attack has already occurred. This probably requires nuclear weapons, which are problematic for all the reasons I already discussed. Or it will require a massive arsenal of long-range precision missiles that Taiwan could be reasonably sure would survive a preemptive strike. And I do mean massive. Pinprick strikes are unlikely to exceed China’s pain threshold, especially if the CCP has already made the decision that it is willing to go to war over Taiwan. So Taiwan would need an arsenal that is so large that it could use it to achieve nuclear-like levels of destruction. Either way, deterrence by punishment is risky, because it forces Taiwan to wait for China to unambiguously cross a red line before retaliating. And by then it might be too late.

This leaves Taiwan with “deterrence by denial.” Unlike deterrence by punishment, which involves retaliating, deterrence by denial means convincing your adversary that you can prevent your adversary from accomplishing its goals on the battlefield at an acceptable price. As Thomas Schelling puts it, deterrence by denial means inducing your opponent not to attack by making his or her military operations so painful or costly that they will be convinced not to bother trying in the first place.

We think deterrence by denial is a far more credible and plausible way for Taiwan to deter China. But this means that Taiwan’s military weapons and platforms have to be useful in combat. Maybe if Taiwan had an unlimited defense budget it could afford to buy some weapons for purely symbolic purposes. But Taiwan faces some very challenging budget constraints, and so we think it has no choice but to focus its scarce defense resources on genuine warfighting capability.

To be clear: deterrence by denial does not mean that Taiwan has to be able to defeat China in a war. But deterrence by denial does require Taiwan to have enough combat capability to convince China that waging a war will be unacceptably costly. And we think the best way to do this is to focus on buying large numbers of cheap, highly survivable weapons.

The general public would expect that what actually deters our adversary is what is ultimately driving our defense planning: what we buy, how we use them, and how we train. But in Chapter Four, you mention interviews with senior Taiwanese defense officials who said – I’m paraphrasing here – that the reason to buy advanced, expensive, shiny platforms is to bolster the public’s morale, and to reassure the public, even if these items would have limited war-fighting capabilities. Can you highlight briefly for us: why do you believe that some advanced weapons would be of little use?

Yes, I will try to be brief! Thankfully, I think my really long winded answer to your previous question sets the stage for a relatively short answer to this one.

The answer boils down to one word: Money. Advanced weapons can be useful. But Taiwan cannot afford enough of them to credibly deter China. After all, China is really close to Taiwan. China has a large inventory of missiles, more troops, more ships and more jets than Taiwan. And Chinese weapons are quickly closing the gap in terms of quality as well. All of this means that if China ever decides that it wants to attack Taiwan, it will almost certainly start by launching a preemptive strike that uses missiles, special forces units and cyber attacks to deliver an overwhelming ‘knock out blow’ to Taiwan’s military.

So the only way for Taiwan to convince Chinese leaders that the PLA cannot prevail on the battlefield at an acceptable price is to buy so many weapons that China will worry that it cannot destroy most of them in a first strike; and that enough Taiwanese weapons and units will survive to still fight PLA invasion units.

This is where money becomes the problem. Advanced weapons are expensive. If Taiwan had an unlimited defense budget, we would probably agree that it should buy lots of diesel submarines, Aegis-like surface ships, and F-35s.

Unfortunately, Taiwan does not have an unlimited defense budget. So it cannot afford enough of these expensive, exquisite, advanced ships and jets to amass a large inventory that it can guarantee enough such weapons will survive a first strike.

Therefore, we think Taiwan should instead focus on acquiring large numbers of cheap things – weapons like naval mines, anti-ship missiles, drones and missile boats. Taiwan can afford to buy many of these weapons for the cost of a single submarine or F-35. Mines, missiles, drones and missile boats are small enough so that Taiwan can also disperse them around the island so as to make it hard for the PLA find and destroy all of them in a single blow.

And just because a weapon is cheap and small does not mean that it is ineffective. Many smart defense experts in the United States — people like T.X. Hammes — think that the world is in the middle of a revolution in how wars are fought. He says that for years the best militaries in the world spent all of their money buying small numbers of expensive, advanced weapons. But new advances in long range targeting, micro-processing, 3D printing and drone technology mean that armies, navies and air forces that buy large numbers of cheap weapons will be able to defeat adversaries who insist on fighting with small inventories of really expensive and technologically complex weapons

It seems that what these officials are really expressing is the belief that, first, the “worst-case war” won’t happen: China can just buy Taiwan or squeeze us politically and economically; China needs to win the hearts and minds of the local population, so won’t do anything to inconvenience our civilians, much less risk killing them. And second, that Taiwan stands no chance on its own: we’re outnumbered and outgunned; we have no will to fight, as evident in the decision to abolish conscription.

The implication is that there won’t be a conflict — or much of one — so we might as well spend on the shiniest toys for open houses and photo ops. And maybe, if the US sells us the most exquisite weapons, it’s a signal that US will backstop Taiwan’s defense: the US won’t want to risk losing the first island chain.

Clearly you find the above views to be problematic. But until we adequately answer these questions — Is war possible? And if so, does Taiwan stand a chance on our own? — we can’t have a productive conversation about our defense policy.

My team and I hope that war will not break out in the Taiwan Strait. But we wrote this report because we think that war is possible, and that an inadequate deterrence posture actually makes it more likely that China will one day consider using military force.

We also agree that China prefers to ‘win’ without fighting. It is using — and it will continue to use — economic and political tools to try to compel Taiwan. We do not want to downplay these important challenges.

Nevertheless, we still focus on the military problem for two reasons. First, we are scholars and military officers who study security and defense issues, so we are not the right people to comment on political and economic challenges. Just like you shouldn’t get medical advice from your car mechanic, it isn’t right for us defense scholars to offer political and economic advice!

Second, we actually think Taiwan’s defense challenges are more pressing issue than its political and economic challenges. Yes, China prefers to use its political and economic tools. But Taiwan already has powerful defenses against such threats. It is a vibrant, transparent democracy. It has a globalized economy. It has strong institutions. Its citizens are intelligent, highly educated, and believe in the democratic process. All of these things help inoculate Taiwan against the insidious threat of economic and political subversion. Which means that we do not think that China is likely to prevail if it relies on economic and political tools alone.

Since Taiwan is a core, national interest for China, there is a very real risk that it will increasingly consider resorting to military force as it comes to believe that it cannot get what it wants peacefully. And for all of the reasons that I have already mentioned, my team does not think that Taiwan’s military defenses are as robust as its social, economic and political defenses.

Can Taiwan “win” on its own? I think this is asking the wrong question. First, deterrence does not depend on whether or not Taiwan can win. It depends on whether or not Taiwan can convince China that Taiwan’s military can make the PLA pay an unacceptable price if it tries to invade.

Second, I also think that if Taiwan does not take drastic steps to enhance its deterrence and defense capabilities, it will almost certainly lose before the United States or other potential partners will have time to intervene militarily. Every U.S. defense expert with whom I have spoken believes that it will take the United States much longer to project decisive military force into the region than most people assume.

So even if Taiwan’s political and military leaders believe that the U.S. will have no choice but to come to Taiwan’s aid, they still have to take steps to ensure that Taiwan will hold out long enough for the United States to arrive. My team and I do not believe Taiwan’s military will last very long if it continues to depend on small inventories of expensive jets, ships and submarines.

Moreover — and this is a very important point — I do not think American voters will support intervening on Taiwan’s behalf if they do not think Taiwan is doing everything in its power to provide for its own defense. The current presidential administration is very worried about allies and partners ‘free riding’ on the United States by under-spending on defense and expecting the U.S. military to bail them out in a conflict. There are also deep debates going on here in the United States about the role that America should play in the world. In particular, younger Americans are increasingly asking why the United States should intervene abroad when there are so many problems at home. My personal opinion is that the United States will continue to stay engaged in Europe and East Asia, but that it will prioritize its efforts on allies and partners that are willing to take the necessary steps to help themselves first.

Finally, my team and I reject the argument that Taiwan’s young men and women are “soft” or unwilling to fight. We think they will be willing to serve and to fight if they have weapons and training that they believe in. And we think that the approach we suggest — one that is organized around hit and run attacks instead of futile defenses; and one that depends on soldiers waging guerrilla warfare in and around their homes; is more likely to be something they can believe in.

Your recommendations center on two concepts (at the risk of oversimplifying a 40,000-word monograph): First, an alternative way of fighting that avoids direct confrontation and decisive battles, and does not seeks to control any battlefield. Second, you emphasize the value of a credible homeland defense and ground-based operations. Your first suggestion is quite different from the idea of “resolute defense” — holding that line, that fight to the last man — that our public is so used to hearing. What would this fight look like, as you envision it? And what could we hope to achieve?

That’s a terrific way to summarize a hundred-plus page monograph!

Yes, we do think that Taiwan’s ground forces play an under-appreciated role in deterring aggression. And we do not think that ‘resolute defense’ is a credible way to fight given the geographic, quantitative and qualitative challenges that Taiwan’s military forces face.  

Unlike “resolute defense,” a “denial in depth” campaign starts on the far side of the Strait and continues all the way into the heart of Taipei.

Ground forces are the bedrock on which the entire scheme is built. But the fight really starts with Taiwan forces sending large numbers of long- range missiles and suicide drones across the Strait to begin sinking invasion ships before they leave port and bombers while they still sit on the runway.

Of course, many PLA ships and jets will survive. Yet once they start to sail and fly across the Strait they will then run into Taiwan’s mini-submarines, missile boats and, of course, more drones. Closer to the shoreline, PLA ships will run into mines (which are especially effective, because there are only a few beaches suitable for landing operations) at the exact same time that hidden and dispersed ground units begin firing long range artillery and anti-ship missiles at them. Then, as the landing craft begin making the final assault, ground troops will hit them with shorter-range anti-armor rockets, artillery and machine gun fire.

The biggest difference between ‘denial in depth’ and ‘resolute defense’ is that denial means that Taiwan’s ground troops should not stand and hold their ground once the first PLA troops make it ashore.

Instead, we suggest that Taiwan’s ground troops start to conduct a series of fighting withdraws. By this we mean that Taiwan’s ground units should hit the invasion force to impose casualties and to slow it down, and then pull back to a new position further away from the beach.

The idea is to repeat this process for as long as possible. And even if PLA units manage to ‘break into’ Taiwan’s cities, they will quickly find themselves bogged down by guerrilla units fighting for their homes and their families.

Ultimately, we are not in favor of trying to mount a decisive battle on the beach, because we think that plays to China’s strengths. This is because decisively defending means that Taiwan will have to mass ground forces. But massed ground forces will offer an easy target for Chinese aircraft and missiles. It is better to stay dispersed and hidden.

Although dispersed and hidden ground units cannot decisively thwart an invasion force, they can slow it down. And slowing the invasion force down buys time – time for the United States and other partners to mount an intervention.

Of course, the entire point of deterrence is to convince China not to attack in the first place. We think Chinese political and military leaders are more likely to attack if they think they can deliver a quick, knockout blow against a small Taiwanese military organized around a few jets and ships, and which will mass its soldiers in and around the beaches so as to be sitting ducks for long range missiles and bombers.

We think China will worry a lot more if they think they cannot win a quick victory and will find themselves fighting a prolonged conflict that drags on long enough for the United States and its allies to intervene.

Since you mention “ground forces [as] the bedrock,” I must ask for your thoughts on tanks. How might they fit into your concept? This program is controversial in Taiwan.

Tanks could play a role in these kinds of combat operations. However, my team and I do not think that large main battle tanks, like the Abrams, are the best option. Although they have some of the best armor and targeting optics in the world (depending on which version the United States is selling), they are so large and heavy – over 60 tons – that they will have problems navigating many of Taiwan’s narrow roads or crossing Taiwan’s countless small bridges. So main battle tanks could have a role helping out with the ‘close in’ coastal defense fight. But they will probably be a liability in the subsequent ground fight. Large tanks can only drive on main roads and big bridges, which will make them easier to target and destroy.

We think that Taiwan’s ground forces might be better off relying on small, lightweight armored vehicles. They are lighter, faster and more maneuverable. They can be modified to carry rockets and missiles in addition to cannon. They will be easier to hide. Many can carry their own small team of soldiers for protection. And they are cheaper.

In Chapter 5, you write: “You do not win an asymmetric war by dying. You win it by getting the other side to die instead.” And how would we train for this fight?

We admit that it will be a lot harder to train ground troops to conduct denial operations than it is to prepare them for resolute defense.

Denial in depth requires units to be small, fast and flexible. Large units will move too slowly and will be too easy to target and destroy.

But in order for small units to conduct hit and run attacks, the army must empower and train lieutenants and captains, not colonels and generals, so that they can make critical decisions about when to fight and when to pull back.

These kinds of changes are hard, but we think young Taiwanese men and women are more than capable of handling it.

Aggressive, realistic training is key.

Your second idea is also quite refreshing. We rarely hear analysts talk about the ground phase of battle, because the assumption has long been that the fight will be lost once the PLA is able to land its first soldier on Taiwan (“Why send our boys — and girls? — to die unnecessarily”). This would suggest that either your proposals are unrealistic, or our defense community is missing a critical piece in our thinking. If I may put you on the spot: which is it?

I do not think Taiwan’s defense community is wrong per se. They are smart, hard working professionals who have dedicated their lives to protecting Taiwan.

We do respectfully disagree with the prevailing assumption that the war will be lost once the PLA lands its first soldier. Actually, the first PLA soldiers are probably already in Taiwan (and they will not be wearing a uniform). And many more will arrive by parachute and on stealthy boats while the first missiles are raining down. On top of this, we think that even if Taiwan does invest in thousands of anti-ship missiles, suicide drones and naval mines, some transport ships will invariably get through (but far fewer than if Taiwan tries to rely on a small number of submarines and surface ships).

For all of these reasons, we think it is dangerous to build a defense concept around the assumption that the fight is over once PLA troops gain a foothold or a beachhead. Because if Chinese political and military leaders think Taiwan will ‘give up’ as soon as PLA troops secure a foothold, it makes it even more likely that they might attempt a rapid strike and invasion.

Again, the point of deterrence is to convince China not to take the first step by reminding it how difficult the last step will be. The last step means fully securing, occupying and pacifying Taiwan. Ground troops are the only way to deny and delay such an outcome. So we believe that Taiwan must vigorously prepare for ground war so that China will know that getting its troops ashore will only be the first step in a long and costly campaign – a campaign that comes with an increased risk of outside military intervention every day that it drags on.

Your monograph, to a sensitive ear, might be taken as a repudiation of everything Taiwan’s defense establishment is currently doing. While this is an alarming assessment — as decisions here directly affect our national survival — senior military officials may also find it unfair; after all, each policy was approved by a democratically-elected political leader. So, where do we go from here? Your proposals include a different mission for our Marines, a new Territorial Defense Force (in place of the Reserve Command), not to mention drastic changes to our procurement priorities.

But force planning (modernization) is a long term project; domestic R&D and foreign purchases take years to realize. In other words, there is existing work in progress (and always will be). How do you suggest that we adjust course when “the ship has already sailed”?

Also, have you considered the impact your recommendations would have on existing programs, organizations, and careers (and families)?

MND is an institution that has faced pension cuts, continued force reductions, scandals and bad press; it is often targeted by legislators and mocked by the public (a good number of whom have served and know the system first-hand); it has been told that it can’t fight, that it’s primary job would henceforth be disaster relief, and then now lectured that it must take fighting seriously; it is expected, by political leadership, to follow instructions, but simultaneously accused of failing to think critically about its defense plans. Put simply, it is short on stability and affirmation.

Yet your call for a transformational shift in how Taiwan goes about approaching its defensive challenges could also be quite disruptive, particularly from the military’s perspective. Of course, it is the policymaker’s job to find a viable path forward, but considering what is at stake, we would welcome any comments you might have on this dilemma. We’ll let you have the final word here. Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.

We will be the first to admit that our recommendations are bold. Although we sincerely believe everything that we recommend, we are not trying to tell Taiwan’s political and military leaders that they are doing it all wrong. Instead, we want to offer bold, provocative recommendations to stimulate debate and interest.

We think that Taiwan will benefit when more people get involved and start thinking about its defense needs and preparations. We also think that it is a good thing to challenge long held assumptions and orthodox beliefs. Even if Taiwan’s leaders ultimately decide that their long held assumptions and views are correct, they will benefit from thinking rigorously about alternative options.

Also, we hope that our report will stimulate more discussion and debate among Taiwanese voters. After all, they have a stake in the outcome! These issues decide how their government spends their tax dollars. They determine how – and how many – young Taiwanese men and women will serve in the military. And they shape how likely it is that China might decide to attack in the first place. At the end of the day, my team and I are happy if we have stimulated new ideas and encouraged more people to think about the problem – even if Taiwan ultimately decides to reject everything we suggest!

We also realize that MND and the armed forces would have to make major changes to implement our recommendations. And we know that these kinds of changes are costly — not just in monetary terms, but also in terms of how they would impact people’s lives, jobs and families. At the same time, my team is sensitive to these challenges. I think it matters that the majority of my team come from an active duty military background. We know what kind of sacrifices Taiwan’s servicemen and women make on a regular basis to keep Taiwan safe.

For example, while on active duty in the Marine Corps, I deployed three times in three years (2002, 2003 and 2004). My wife is now an active duty Army physician, and the Army uprooted us from Washington DC and sent us to live in Texas such that I must now fly between San Antonio and Washington DC to get to work every single week. I know the other prior military service members of my team have similar experiences. So we understand the consequences and impacts of the things that we are suggesting.

At the same time, we know that Taiwan’s servicemen and women are every bit as dedicated and committed as we were. So we sincerely believe that they are willing to pay whatever price is necessary to enhance Taiwan’s deterrence posture – especially if doing so actually reduces the risk of war in the first place. Simply put, we think the stakes are too high and the consequences too unimaginable not to consider every possible option, no matter how bold or costly it might seem.

And thank you for taking the time to read our monograph and to ask such hard hitting questions. I know that we have learned a lot from this experience and from our exchange with you. We very much hope that our report and our discussion have been useful for you too.