Overall Defense Concept Reshapes Taiwan’s Views on Defense Against China

Overall Defense Concept Reshapes Taiwan’s Views on Defense Against China
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

The Overall Defense Concept, a proposal by Taiwanese admiral Lee Hsi-ming, may be what Taiwan needs to prevent China from taking over its shores.

National security was the central theme of Xi Jinping’s speech at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on October 16, 2022. In the face of “hostile forces,” Xi has declared that he “reserves the option of taking all measures necessary,” including the use of force, in his pursuit of Chinese unification. It has, therefore, been evident that a full-scale invasion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is still a possibility for Taiwan. By all measures, Taiwan’s militaristic capabilities are dwarfed by those of China. The pragmatic approach of the Overall Defense Concept (ODC) may just be what Taiwan needs to prevent China from taking over its shores.

Redefining “winning”

In terms of military strength and capability, China outclasses Taiwan in many respects. In 2018, China earmarked US$250 billion for military spending, surpassing Taiwan’s defense budget of $11 billion. Taiwan cannot afford to engage in a traditional war of attrition against China. It must set realistic goals and look at “winning the war” as “defeating the enemy’s mission to occupy Taiwan.” 

The ODC, which provides a work-around for Taiwan’s military budget constraints and focuses on further developing its existing capabilities, espouses two elements: “force buildup” and “concept of operations.” In order to successfully deter an invasion, Taiwan must focus on procuring highly survivable and resilient asymmetric defense capabilities. Survivability pertains not only to weaponry but also to a joint strategy of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.

Force buildup

According to the ODC, Taiwan needs to boost its asymmetric defense capabilities by procuring small and mobile, yet lethal weapons in large numbers. They must be cost-effective and be built to withstand anticipated massive air attacks deployed by China in the initial phase of a full-scale invasion. 

The ODC’s suggestion parallels Ukraine’s initial defense strategy against Russia. Ukraine has used a fleet of switchblade drones supplied by the United States, which only weigh 2.5 kilograms and can fit inside a backpack, to use against invading Russian forces. Ukraine’s kamikaze drone force is said to have successfully attacked a Russian military base, as well as an airbase and ships in Sevastopol. Asymmetric weapon systems are crucial during an invasion since they can be easily hidden in the natural environment and activated to launch timely strikes at the enemy’s vulnerable points with minimal effort and collateral damage.

前參謀總長李喜明新書發表(2)
Photo Credit: CNA
Admiral Lee Hsi-ming promoting his book, “The Overall Defense Concept: An Asymmetric Approach to Taiwan's Defense” in Taipei, September 2, 2022.

Conventional capabilities, effective for countering gray-zone coercion, are also necessary during peacetime. In addition to safeguarding Taiwan’s air and maritime space, dual use capabilities such as planes, boats, and communications systems also serve civil defense purposes such as search and rescue and disaster response. 

Concept of operations

The Concept of Operations under the ODC outlines the usage of Taiwan’s force through various stages of an invasion. It has four components: force protection, littoral zone battle, beachhead battle, and Taiwan’s civilian reserve force as the last line of defense. Force protection ensures that the majority of Taiwan’s military capabilities will survive and remain operational after initial missile strikes launched by the PLA. 

The battle in the littoral zone is a decisive point in ensuring the success of Taiwan’s operations. At the littoral zone, Taiwan has the best chance of releasing fire strikes from the air, sea, and shore, inflicting serious damage on Chinese forces, with particular focus on center-of-gravity targets such as specialized amphibious transport vehicles and other high-value military assets that are critical to the PLA’s beach landing operations. 

For the Chinese army, landing operations will be particularly challenging during an invasion. Thousands of troops and heavy machinery need to disembark from the vessels. In a threat assessment report released in 2021, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense stated that China’s transport capacity is limited and would not be able to land all its forces and artillery in one go. To make a safe landing, China’s troops would have to use port facilities for ships and airports for aircrafts. At this point in the invasion, Taiwan can take advantage of China’s logistical difficulties by employing strong defense systems in ports and airports. “The nation’s military has the advantage of the Taiwan Strait being a natural moat and can use joint intercept operations, cutting off the communist military’s supplies, severely reducing the combat effectiveness and endurance of the landing forces,” the Defense Ministry’s report suggested. Meanwhile, the PLA would have difficulty focusing all its capabilities on Taiwan as it tries to land. It will need to put some of its forces on reserve to defend against foreign forces that might come to Taiwan’s aid including the United States. 

The beachhead battle is where Taiwan can make the most out of its home court advantage. While China is limited in what it can transport across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan can boost its defenses by utilizing its geographical advantages as well as civilian resources. On its shores, Taiwan can plant sea mines and other pre-deployed obstacles to keep the PLA from further advancing into its territory. Ground forces would also provide additional firepower to aircrafts and missile assault boats.

Taiwan’s reserve force is the last line of defense against a full PLA invasion. According to the ODC, their function would be similar to Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force, which is composed of part-time reserved, former combat veterans, and trained civilian volunteers. During peacetime, they would be responsible for local disaster relief. During war, they could be positioned to attack the rear-echelon elements of the PLA, providing insurgent resistance.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Soldiers prepping the AAV7 amphibious assault vehicle after an Amphibious landing drill as part of the Han Kuang military exercise in Pingtung, Taiwan, July 28, 2022.
The ODC’s shortcomings 

For the ODC to fully materialize, Taiwan needs to take on radical defense reform and reshape its thinking on military defense. But Taiwan’s approach to national defense has remained largely inconsistent and slow-moving since the ODC’s conception in 2017. The strategic paradigm shift has so far been met with resistance from Taiwanese officials and policymakers. The Ministry of National Defense has continued acquiring long-range missiles and large artillery against the suggestions of the ODC. In 2019, Taiwan purchased M1A2T Abrams Tanks and other related equipment from the U.S. The deal, which cost approximately US$2 billion, includes 108 units of M1A2T Abrams Tanks. In 2020, the U.S. approved the sale of 11 units of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) M142 Launchers, 135 AGM-84H Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) missiles and related equipment, amounting to $436.1 million. The HIMARS launchers will come with 64 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) missiles, which can reach targets up to a 300-kilometer distance. 

Taiwan is also behind in implementing defense reforms. At present, Taiwan’s military conscripts only undergo four months of basic military training, which lacks effective combat training. After their military training, reservists will then be discharged and required to take a seven-day refresher course once every two years. This system has been widely criticized for being insufficient to fully prepare reservists to support military efforts during an invasion. As of September 2022, Taiwan only has 300,000 combat-ready reservists and 188,000 active-duty military members set to face two million members of the PLA. 

Next steps

Taiwanese lawmakers are now calling for quick action on reform. Former Minister of National Defense Michael Tsai called on the legislature to extend the conscription period from four months to one year. Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, who developed the ODC, proposed the establishment of a “homeland defense force” that will provide small-arms training to the public. 

The Biden administration is pressing Taiwan to purchase asymmetric weapons rather than jets, tanks, and submarines. The U.S. government has said some of the equipment Taiwan has requested, such as the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter, are not suited for deterring China, and officials have warned Taiwan that it will reject purchase requests for weapons not designed for asymmetric warfare. 

In March 2022, a U.S. delegation of five former senior national security officials visited Taiwan to discuss defense strategy and weapons procurement with President Tsai and other Taiwanese officials. A representative from the State Department said, “Continuing to pursue systems that will not meaningfully contribute to an effective defense strategy is inconsistent with the evolving security threat that Taiwan faces. As such, the United States strongly supports Taiwan’s efforts to implement an asymmetric defense strategy.”

Taiwan’s ODC is a purely defensive strategy. It operates on the knowledge that the defending entity can inflict significant damage to a larger enemy force by focusing on flexibility and survivability of its military capabilities. For it to work, however, Taiwan needs to completely reshape its views on military defense, reform its current military reserve system, and enhance its asymmetric warfare capabilities.


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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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