The current bipartisan consensus on defense strategy is a bright spot in a highly polarized Washington, but also masks disagreement on our Pacific approach, including how to protect Taiwan and defense budget requirements. After two decades of counter-insurgency warfare in the Middle East, most agree that our military needs to refocus on (near) peer competitors. And most agree that China is the long-term concern. Congress should take advantage of this remarkable continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations to develop a credible Pacific deterrence plan.
The loss of Taiwan would be devastating, breaking open the island chain that constrains China’s aggression. In addition to destabilizing the region, it would provide the Chinese Communist Party a stepping stone for global maritime expansion that would not only put at risk the estimated one-third of global shipping that passes through the South China Sea, but would fundamentally weaken our ability to protect American interests globally.
Defending a military attack on Taiwan can be broken into two phases. First, we degrade and, if possible, deny an amphibious attack through conventional missile strikes. Second, we counter the landing in Taiwan to restore Taiwanese sovereignty and force the war’s end. When I led the Department of Defense’s (DOD) central analytic office, we closely studied the first phase because it provides a stressing test bed for tough technological problems such as how to penetrate the “anti-access, area-denial” environment China has created and how to reduce decision time between sensing systems and shooters.
But some go further and want DOD to focus its capabilities on this first phase. This view contends that we can absorb shrinking defense budgets by taking risk against “all-domain conflict,” focusing scarce resources on a more specialized naval and air missile exchange capability. This is not surprising. Ignoring the messy follow-on phases of combat — when the challenge moves from high technological “shock and awe” to the hard-nosed realities of regaining sovereignty and bringing war to closure — is nothing new. Post-invasion Iraq is a recent example, but a more apt Pacific example is the bloody Korean War, when planners had assumed new technology (atomic weapons) reduced the need to prepare for the entire range of wartime challenges.
Are we about to repeat these mistakes? Focusing on the “deny phase” of the Taiwan challenge to identify key technology gaps is sound, but specializing regional posture investments, DOD’s global mix of forces, and the overall defense budget for the first half of the conflict could be catastrophic for two reasons.
First, it could make the loss of Taiwan more likely. To justify focusing on denying the landing, advocates assume aggressive actions such as striking the Chinese mainland, sinking the Chinese Navy, and authorizing these actions early when intelligence is ambiguous. But is this credible — has President BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE signed on to authorizing mainland strikes against a nuclear power, even if allied resolve and intelligence is uncertain? In reality, galvanizing American and international support for the defense of Taiwan will take time once a conflict starts. We will need Taiwan to hold on. If the plan relies on mainland strikes that never occur, and we don’t have the posture or forces required for the second phase, what will the effect be on Taiwanese resolve?
A credible plan requires partnering with Taiwan and our allies now — based on clear-eyed assessments of force and posture requirements — to deter and, if necessary, defeat Chinese aggression.
Second, such a specialized force would increase risk across the globe. Taiwan is only one of China’s expansionist objectives and China is only one potential adversary. China is engaging throughout Asia — the most recent Chinese shooting skirmish was with India — attempting to divide countries and coerce them into China’s sphere of influence. My experience as the acting Secretary of the Army was that success in the Indo-Pacific region requires a holistic approach with U.S. military-to-military engagement across the region. In addition, a military force unable to sustain operations in Europe could embolden an already aggressive Russia, placing countries such as Ukraine at further risk. And a diminished military deterrent against regional threats could jeopardize hope for diplomatic gains with places such as Iran.
Bipartisan agreement on national defense strategy is good for national security, but there remains significant uncertainty about how to implement the strategy. Congress should have this discussion now. We need a holistic Pacific plan that includes credible protection of Taiwan, and a defense budget large enough to support these aims. Some are arguing for a reduced budget, specializing DOD on naval and air missile forces while taking risks against the posture and ground combat capability required to win in the Pacific. Before accepting these risks, Congress should ask, “What if we are wrong?”
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.