TAIPEI — Taiwan president-elect Tsai Ing-wen is planning the island’s most ambitious defense policy overhaul in two decades. At the crux of her plan is a focus on boosting asymmetric warfare capabilities that would allow Taiwan to maintain control of its skies and waters in case of attack by the vast forces of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
She envisions Taiwan manufacturing its own submarines, potentially with assistance from the U.S. or Japan, and creating a dedicated cyber defense command. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party estimates the plan would create business opportunities worth 250 billion Taiwan dollars ($7.6 billion) and create 8,000 jobs by 2020.
“The revitalization of combat capabilities is not only a matter of introducing new weapons systems and equipment, but requires initiating changes from the deeper level of defense mindset and military culture,” Tsai wrote in the “2015 Defense Policy Blue Paper” of the New Frontier Foundation, a think tank backed by the DPP.
With a strong mandate from the Taiwanese electorate, which handed control of the parliament to the pro-independence DPP for the first time, Tsai “is feeling quite confident about the course she can chart,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, managing director of defense and security at U.S. consultancy Bower Group Asia.
Tsai inherits a military demoralized by eight years of perceived neglect under President Ma Ying-jeou. Focused on overtures to China, the Ma administration downplayed the military threat posed by the mainland even as the imbalance between the two sides widened further in Beijing’s favor. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said last October that China is on track to have the capability of successfully invading Taiwan by 2020 even if the U.S. comes to the island’s aid.
China’s military budget, which reached $136 billion last year, is the world’s second largest after that of the U.S. The Pentagon has estimated that China’s official defense spending expanded at an annual average rate of 9.5% in 2005-14. By contrast, Taiwan defense spending fell between 2008 and 2013. Last year’s budget included $10.7 billion for defense, 0.2% more than a year earlier.
“The Ma administration has always liked to roll out the dollar value of its defense expenditures, but they were actually very modest,” Hammond-Chambers said.
The outgoing president signed off on just one major new defense program: upgrades for the island’s fleet of U.S.-made F-16 jet fighter planes. Playing down national defense “offered Ma some leverage with the Chinese in negotiations,” Hammond-Chambers said.
For her part, Tsai holds a less sanguine view of Beijing’s intentions. “To seize control of Taiwan is aligned with China’s strategic interests regardless of how positive cross-Strait relations may be,” she noted in last year’s policy paper.
Tsai’s push to bolster Taiwan’s defense comes as the island faces an onslaught of cyber attacks from China. FireEye, a U.S. cyber security company, said in March that Taiwan organizations were the most targeted globally among its customers in the second half of 2015.
“We have consistently seen targeted attacks by Chinese hackers against our customers in Taiwan since 2014,” said Bryce Boland, chief technology officer of FireEye Asia Pacific. Top sectors targeted have included communications, electronics, information technology and education.
Boland declined to confirm whether Chinese hackers targeted the Taiwanese government or military, but noted that a Chinese hacking group sent messages in December to Taiwanese journalists that were meant to appear to have come from the DPP.
Industry analysts and the incoming Tsai administration differ on how to best tackle the problem. “Let’s assume cyber attacks from China are constant. We need to be sure the creation of a cyber command will be more effective than fighting covertly,” said Alexander C. Huang, a former Taiwan official who is now chairman of the Council on Strategic & Wargaming Studies, a think tank in Taiwan.
According to the “2015 Defense Policy Blue Paper,” the DPP hopes augmenting Taiwan’s cyber capabilities will help the island leverage its information technology acumen to become a global player in information security.
The Ma government made some moves to start domestic production of submarines in 2014, but the island still has just two combat-ready subs, both Zwaardvis-class vessels built in The Netherlands and acquired in the late 1980s. It also has two U.S.-made Guppy-class submarines that served in World War II.
Under Tsai’s plan, Taiwan would refurbish the Zwaardvis subs and build six new vessels. “Given their asymmetric capabilities, a fleet of submarines could massively complicate an attempted PLA invasion of Taiwan,” Hammond-Chambers said.
The Pentagon estimates that Taiwan would face nearly 35 PLA Navy submarines and the threat of a blockade if war broke out in the Taiwan Strait. “Taiwan needs the submarines now,” said Rick Fisher, who researches Asian military trends at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a security think tank outside Washington. “As it stands, if Taiwan’s program received all the necessary assistance, it would [still] not start producing submarines until the early 2020s.”
To make the costs of invading Taiwan unbearable for China, experts say Taiwan should accumulate an arsenal of advanced asymmetric weapons. Foremost among those would be rail guns, which use electricity to create magnetic fields that propel kinetic energy projectiles at ultra-high speeds.
Analysts say the rail gun prototype being developed by the U.S. Navy requires less than one second to accelerate a 45-pound projectile from zero to 5,000 miles per hour. That prototype could be taken to sea as early as 2017.
Fisher reckons that by the early 2020s, rail guns could be used from ships to defend against missiles and aircraft and to conduct strikes out to 200 nautical miles. He expects smaller, less powerful rail guns will be available sooner to help deal with short-range ballistic missiles, aircraft and ships.
“Rail guns should be attractive to Washington [to sell to Taiwan] because they are essentially defensive weapons,” Fisher said. If combined together with some 1,000 so-called loitering missiles, which hover while honing in on their targets, then “a PLA invasion fleet of 5,000 ships becomes insufficient,” he said. “This in turn, would give Taipei many more years to convince Beijing to live with Taiwan’s democracy and its choices.”