Ukraine war shows how we must prepare for hostilities in Taiwan

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The Pentagon is shown in this Dec. 5, 2017, file photo.

As the tragic war in Ukraine continues, both our friends and competitors on the world stage are watching and learning. One obvious lesson is that America’s approach to protecting Taiwan from China’s aggression needs adjusting. Congress should use the 2023 budget to change course by fully funding ground force modernization and a deterrence strategy that protects Taiwan and U.S. national security interests across the globe.

America’s defense budget is rooted in the view of strategists who believe technological advances in space, cyber, and anti-access/area-denial defenses are making large-scale, all-domain combat less likely. In this view, kinetic warfare is being transformed into missile-centric combat predominantly in the naval and air domains, with little requirement for ground forces beyond ground-based, long-range fires, force protection and logistics. 

When applied to Taiwan, these strategists focus on denying an amphibious landing through a missile exchange over the Taiwan Strait while discounting follow-on activities such as countering a landing in Taiwan, restoring Taiwanese sovereignty, and forcing war termination. To succeed, they assume mobilization of our forces and potential military attacks on Chinese forces before a single Chinese boot steps onto Taiwan soil — and consider, if necessary, attacking military targets on the Chinese mainland. 

All of this is counter to the reality that we see today in Ukraine. The breakout of a ground war in Europe obviously contradicts the strategists’ assumption that ground combat is a thing of the past. Another red flag is that the weapons driving the outcomes in Ukraine — artillery, infantry, armor, and anti-tank and air missiles — are some of the Pentagon’s lowest modernization priorities. 

But the lessons of Ukraine run much deeper. While U.S. intelligence provided evidence that a Russian invasion was likely long before the actual attack on Feb. 24, it was not possible to build domestic and allied support for significant economic action, let alone sizable deployment of forces, until the invasion began. Furthermore, since the onset of hostilities in Ukraine, our policy has been economic sanctions coupled with military aid and support to Ukraine — with U.S. military action against nuclear-armed Russia ruled out so far. 

As with Ukraine, galvanizing American and international support for the defense of Taiwan will take time once a conflict starts. We are unlikely to conduct a military attack against the forces and the homeland of a nuclear power before an invasion has occurred and, if we do engage militarily, it will likely be an all-domain conflict. 

As I learned as acting Secretary of the Army, many Pacific nation military leaders are Army, and the Army is most able to build enduring relationships with these allies and partners. Succeeding in the Pacific requires a ready, modernized U.S. Army that can develop relationships and partner with nations to build the capabilities required to maintain regional stability.

Our defense budgets do not account for these realities. Since the call in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) for accelerating modernization to maintain overmatch against near peer competitors, Army modernization funding has fallen by $4 billion while Navy funding increased by $10 billion and Air Force funding grew by almost $20 billion. 

The Army also starts with a significantly lower base level of modernization funding. From 2019 to the 2023 President’s Budget submission, the Navy and Air Force each have been allocated almost twice as much funding for modernization as the Army — all while Army end strength is decreased by 12,000 soldiers in the most recent budget submission.

Focus on a plan we have just demonstrated to the world we will not execute — funded by cuts to the forces and capabilities required to engage in the combat more likely to occur — makes the loss of Taiwan more likely, not less. And building a specialized force for a single unrealistic scenario while ignoring the range of potential threats we face across the globe makes us less safe, not more.

To build robust, credible deterrence in the Pacific, Congress should enact a 2023 budget that accelerates modernization in all domains. Investments in the Navy and Air Force are needed and should be supported, but new funding added by Congress should support Army modernization. The Army budget should be increased to fully fund the Army Chief of Staff’s priority list, inflation, and the forces and posture we need in the Pacific and in Europe.

The Army has the clearest and most consistent modernization plan in the Pentagon, and it is producing results. The Army is testing directed energy weapons this year, will field the first U.S. hypersonic weapon battery next year, and is leading the world in advancing capabilities in vertical lift, armored vehicles, artillery and small arms. After years of self-funding this successful modernization plan — with a declining budget — through its night court process, the Army’s budget is strategically focused like never before. Congress can be assured that added investments for the Army will go to developing and fielding needed technology in support of the NDS. 

Our soldiers and marines will pay the price if we fail to prepare for the next war. Let’s not let them down.

John E. Whitley served in the Trump administration as Assistant Secretary of the Army for Financial Management and Comptroller and served in the Biden administration as the Acting Secretary of the Army. The views expressed here are his alone.

Tags China aggression Defense spending Russian invasion of Ukraine Taiwan defense US armed forces

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