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Biden’s Taiwan shift calls for increased security force assistance

U.S. President Joe Biden waves as first lady Jill Biden watches standing at the top of the steps of Air Force One before boarding at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe, File)
U.S. President Joe Biden waves as first lady Jill Biden watches standing at the top of the steps of Air Force One before boarding at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. President Biden said during and interview broadcasted on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, that U.S. forces would defend Taiwan if China tries to invade the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing as part of its territory, adding to displays of official American support for the island democracy in the face of Chinese intimidation. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe, File)

President Biden clarified this week during a CBS interview that U.S. forces would be marshaled to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, a proclamation that sent ripples through the global policy arena. While decades of U.S. policy regarding Taiwan has largely held onto the ‘strategic ambiguity’ outlined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, this summer has seen a profound turn in American posturing with regard to China.

This should not come as a major surprise, as Biden’s administration has repeatedly taken steps to address the growing threat of Chinese aggression in the Pacific and abroad — notably including the expansion of strategic partnerships, increased foreign military sales to the region and a toughened rhetoric, which includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) unprecedented visit to Taipei during her Pacific rounds.

But if U.S. policy now hinges on a commitment to defend Taiwan from an “unprecedented attack,” then the best course of action to take in the immediate future is bolstering military security force assistance (SFA) activities. SFA — also referred to as ‘security cooperation’ depending on the defense lexicon — is a partnership/sponsorship between two nations whose security interests coincide, where the greater power provides equipment, training and initial operational capabilities to the weaker partner. 

SFA/SC is most often and errantly misunderstood as chiefly consisting of foreign military sales. While equipment sales are a critical and necessary — and the most expensive — element of security cooperation, enabling operational capabilities requires American service personnel to assist in the implementation, training and sustainment of that equipment to share in the burden of collective security and achieve mutual security objectives. This requires units capable of training partners in the use of equipment, operations and self-sufficiency. 

The most notable and recent example of SFA operations is the U.S. Air Force’s mission to enable Afghan Air Force pilots to perform their own air power missions with U.S.-exchanged A-29 and MD-530 aircraft to fight the Taliban. The train/advise/assist mission, it should be noted, was one of the only positive findings from the SIGAR report on the Afghanistan campaign. Similarly, the Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) proved “the Army got it right” by utilizing its SFA capability to aid the over-exerted Brigade Combat Teams from across the force.

Admittedly, those programs benefited from access to Overseas Contingencies Operations (OCO) funds, a seemingly bottomless well of money allocated to the equally boundless War on Terror, both of which now exist as pieces of American policy history and are no longer active tranches of defense priorities. But that the programs proved to be successful in their missions to enable partner forces to subsume U.S. security obligations to scale demonstrates the potential for SFA as an extension of U.S. foreign policy and strategic posturing. 

Taiwan then, and this new and unequivocal policy, stands as the next opportunity for American military forces to expand U.S. security and diplomatic interests in what is arguably the key region of strategic competition. While the criticality of SFA and security cooperation grows daily, the Department of Defense has taken inexplicable steps to divest this capability, both in terms of functional devolution and resource allocation, by terminating funding for SFA programs in Africa once empowered under Title 10 and Title 22 authorizations. 

Congress has an opportunity to reinvigorate SFA at a grand scale in order to fully empower deterrent capabilities aimed at Beijing in both Taiwan and Africa. They have clear vectoring from the principle under Article 2 of the Constitution giving such rights and power to the executive office. But the muscle on the bone to execute deterrence rests with Congress under Article 1. Herein lies a tremendous opportunity to overcome a growing capabilities gap and decisively commit to curbing Chinese ambitions in the Pacific. 

The timing is coincidental and apropos that President Biden should pivot American policy with Taiwan when the defense enterprise is simultaneously expanding its SFA obligations while listless in its future strategy and resourcing for the program writ large. This issue is currently being discussed at senior levels of Air Force leadership, per a senior source I’ve recently interviewed as part of an ongoing investigation into this issue. The Army has institutionalized SFA into brigade form but lacks strategic vectoring. The Navy — arguably the most important player in American-Pacific interests — has a fledgling SFA capability, but little initiative or guidance for maritime applications. 

Taiwan just became the locus of American security cooperation interests, and both Congress and the Defense Department are at a critical juncture in responding if the United States truly wishes to deter Beijing from upending the security status quo in the Pacific. 

Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point) and RealClearDefense. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.

Tags Biden China-Taiwan tension Nancy Pelosi Politics of the United States US-China relations us-taiwan relations
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