Admiral Lee’s main argument is that smaller, resource-poor Taiwan’s best defense policy is to transform its national security establishment’s long-held mentality and focus on smaller, mobile, survivable platforms-munitions in all branches while emphasizing resiliency, mobility, and survivability in surveillance, intelligence, and logistics. These are difficult changes because they revolutionize how things have been done within the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense since 1949. These proposals also revolutionize how the nation’s elected leaders and citizens evaluate their national security and express their sense of national pride – pouring concrete and making small mobile communication vehicles and producing thousands of cheap, replaceable drones make national security sense, but challenges the psychology and emotions of all sectors of this nation.
Which gets us to the mystifying process of how the Taiwanese Navy has been pursuing its surface fleet since the early 1980s. I am not a partisan in intra-Taiwan Ministry of National Defense factions and arguments – I find those arguments, dating back to their China days (big northern fleet versus small attack craft southern command ….) tiresome. It is fascinating to think carefully about Admiral Lee’s stillborn manned and unmanned stealth missile crafts versus recent news that once again the Taiwan Navy will reverse course, delay its larger AEGIS/VLS surface vessels, and build smaller non-AEGIS/VLS frigates.
I do not have the professional-academic background to argue which model makes the most sense. Whether Taiwan is better off with a large vessel fleet, small fast attack craft fleet, a combination of both, and/or focus on submarines (and if so, what size and how many ….) I do have the background to conclude that Taiwan has not had an adequate, democratic, public policy debate over such an important issue. Admiral Lee’s argument is that if the US warning that dictator Xi and the Chinese communists want to be ready for a war of annexation no later than 2027 – then quickly getting hundreds of small, cheap, rapidly manufactured missile crafts into service is far more sensible than programs requiring decades. He further makes the argument, convincingly, that the Chinese communists would like nothing more than a grand, conventional, force-on-force battle – reminiscent of how Chiang Kai-shek’s army melted into thin air in 1948-1949 China I think.
And if these smaller frigates take too long to build, require too many sailors to staff, take too long to train to bring online, and are too easily sunk by the Chinese – well then in the same issue of this Taiwan-based military magazine, the additional mystery of Taiwan Navy building a massive amphibious landing vessel. In an ideal world – say if you are cheating in a computer game and money can be infinitely replaced, then sure you buy everything. In the real world, Admiral Lee argues correctly, one needs to prioritize – and the priority is not choosing weapons that make people proud, but choosing weapons that will survive the initial strikes from China and be able to inflict enough damage on the invaders so as to deny them the victory they seek.
But then the peculiar modern history of Taiwan is this. In the early 1980s when Taiwan was still under China KMT martial law military publications began to appear, but military affairs were very much seen as highly confidential, only the military ought to discuss the military. Taiwan has a long history of civilians rightly avoiding politics, military, history, and diplomacy – no one wanted to become yet another political prisoner of the China KMT. This is what I thought of when Admiral Lee pointed out Taiwan is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-end speed seacrafts – one of many, many areas where the democratic, civilian Taiwanese civil society thrives, yet this historically created chasm between the national security establishment and Taiwanese civilians remain. In this sense, the greatest proposal from Admiral Lee’s book is not about a particular model or approach, or a particular weapon or munition – I’ve noticed in publications and online discussions these shorthands, asymmetry, porcupine, Javelins and Stingers. I think the main conclusion from Admiral Lee’s book, and the experience of Ukraine, is that a democracy cannot compartmentalize its national security policies from other realms of democratic policy debates. That in order for a democracy to make difficult national security decisions, in order for the democracy to harness all of its talents, its national security apparatus must be as democratic and modern as the rest of the nation. Admiral Lee pointed to the thriving and creative ship design and building industry in Taiwan – contrast that with the uncreativity and directionlessness of the Taiwan Navy since the 1980s. I see similar gaps in unmanned vehicles (design, manufacturing, deployment-uses), in gaming, in information warfare, etc etc. Taiwanese businesses are perhaps some of the most creative and resilient in global logistics – whereas the Taiwan military has had a reputation for weaknesses in logistics. Democratizing and modernizing the national security establishment are the only ways forward to ensure Taiwan’s national security can withstand the challenge posed by its imperialistic autocratic neighbor.
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