Time Is Running Out to Defend Taiwan

Time Is Running Out to Defend Taiwan. Ann Wang / Reuters
Time Is Running Out to Defend Taiwan. Ann Wang / Reuters

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it abundantly clear that “reunifying” Taiwan with mainland China is a legacy issue for him, something he intends to accomplish on his watch through political and economic means or, if necessary, through military force. Right now, he is preoccupied with the COVID-19 crisis, the slowing growth of the Chinese economy, and the upcoming 20th Party Congress, where he hopes to secure a third term as chair of the Chinese Communist Party. But once these immediate concerns are addressed, it is possible that sometime in the next five years Xi will consider taking Taiwan by force, either because nonmilitary efforts at reunification have fallen short or because he believes his chances of success will diminish if he waits and U.S. military capabilities grow.

The long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” deliberately leaves uncertain whether and under what circumstances the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. But it is clearly in the United States’ interest to deter China from attempting such an operation in the first place. As the scholar Hal Brands noted in a July report for the American Enterprise Institute, a Chinese assault on Taiwan that draws a U.S. military response is likely to ignite a long conflict that escalates beyond Taiwan. Like great powers that have gone to war in the past, the United States and China would grow more committed to winning as a conflict progressed, each making the case to its public that it has too much to lose to stop fighting. Given that China and the United States both have substantial nuclear arsenals, preemptively deterring a conflict must be the name of the game. To do so, the United States must help Taiwan modernize and enhance its self-defense capabilities while also strengthening its own ability to deter China from using force against the island.

The good news is that the Biden administration’s new National Defense Strategy, transmitted to Congress in March and due to be released in unclassified form in the coming months, reflects the need to move with greater speed and agility to strengthen deterrence in both the near and long term. The strategy reinforces the focus on a more aggressive China as the United States’ primary threat and emphasizes a new framework of “integrated deterrence”, drawing on all instruments of national power as well as the contributions of U.S. allies and partners to deter future conflicts that are likely to be fought across multiple regions and domains. It also identifies a number of technologies that will be critical for maintaining the U.S. military’s edge—including artificial intelligence, autonomy, space capabilities, and hypersonics—and calls for more experimentation to prepare for future warfighting. And it rightly aspires to bolster the United States’ military position in the Indo-Pacific and substantially deepen its relationships with important allies and partners.

But a critical piece of the deterrence puzzle is still missing: a focused Department of Defense-wide effort to dramatically accelerate and scale the fielding of new capabilities needed to deter China over the next five years. The Pentagon is developing both offensive and defensive capabilities that will take decades to design, build, and deploy. But emerging dual-use technologies are changing the character of warfare much faster than that. This is already evident in Ukraine, where commercial satellite imagery, autonomous drones, cellular communications, and social media have shaped battlefield outcomes. For example, satellite imagery created with synthetic aperture radar, which can see through clouds and at night, has provided a nearly real-time view of Russian movements, enabling Ukraine and NATO countries to counter Kremlin misinformation and sometimes giving Ukrainian forces a tactical advantage. Using this satellite imagery, drones have been able to collect valuable intelligence and serve as effective antitank weapons. Geolocation data has enabled the Ukrainian military to target Russian generals who carelessly used their cell phones. Cell phones have also enabled Ukrainians to document atrocities, while social media has bolstered the Ukrainian resistance and international support for its cause. Many technologies that were previously available only to governments are now readily available to individuals, including in countries that are hostile to the United States. To harness the power of these new technologies, the U.S. military must adopt new capabilities much more swiftly than it has in the past.

China—which leads the world in the manufacture of small drones and advanced telecommunications—already exhibits this sense of urgency. It compels its private companies to work closely with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to accelerate the development and adoption of new technologies and concepts. For decades, China has carefully studied U.S. capabilities, even stealing the designs for many major U.S. weapons systems. Now, it is rapidly modernizing the PLA, exploiting asymmetries between U.S. capabilities and its own in order to diminish Washington’s military advantage. It also makes use of innovations from its commercial sector. For example, the PLA uses commercially derived artificial intelligence technologies to power drone swarms and underwater autonomous vehicles. It also draws on leading private companies for electronic warfare tools, virtual reality technologies for training, and sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.

Although the Pentagon leadership deserves credit for strengthening U.S. strategy and enhancing U.S. force posture and activities in the Indo-Pacific region, the bottom line is that the U.S. military is simply not moving fast enough to ensure that it can deter China in the near term. If Washington wants to deny Beijing the ability to blockade or overrun Taiwan in the next five years, it must step up the pace and scale of change and adopt a new approach: relentless leadership and focus at the top of the Department of Defense to make deterring China a daily priority, immediate investments in rapidly fielding promising prototypes at scale, greater integration of commercial dual-use technologies, and an emergency effort to solve the most critical operational problems the United States would face in deterring and defeating a Chinese assault on Taiwan. Such a crash effort is not without precedent. Consider the Pentagon’s urgent endeavors to increase unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to counter terrorism after 9/11 and the rapid fielding of mine-resistant vehicles to protect U.S. troops from improvised explosive devices during the war in Iraq.

Planning for a blockade or invasion of Taiwan has long been the highest priority for the PLA, shaping everything from its acquisition priorities to its exercises to its military posture. This possibility has also motivated decades of Chinese investment in “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities designed to prevent U.S. forces from projecting power into the region to defend Taiwan. Many of the PLA’s new capabilities are now coming online at scale, significantly complicating the U.S. military’s operational challenges. Yet many of the U.S. military’s most promising capabilities to counter China in the event of a conflict over Taiwan will not be ready and fully integrated into the force until the 2030s. This creates a window of vulnerability for Taiwan, most likely between 2024 and 2027, in which Xi may conclude he has the best chance of military success should his preferred methods of political coercion and economic envelopment of Taiwan fail. Indeed, thanks to the PLA’s substantial investments, the U.S. military has reportedly failed to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in many war games carried out by the Pentagon.


To deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan in the next two to five years, the United States must immediately reorient U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific. Acquisition processes that worked well for the United States during the Cold War are ponderous and leave the Pentagon ill-equipped to compete in a period of profound technological disruption against a faster-moving, more capable adversary than the Soviet Union. Coming from diverse backgrounds in the executive branch and private sector, we are united in our view of what needs to be done to provide the best deterrence against China and, if necessary, the best defense of Taiwan.

First, the Pentagon’s leadership must urgently address the gap between what the United States has and what it needs to deter China in the near term. With the commanders of the military’s geographic and functional combatant commands focused on current operations and the chiefs of the military services focused on building the capabilities they will need in the 2030s and beyond, the Department of Defense has no accountable senior leader solely focused on improving the United States’ ability to deter Chinese aggression in the 2024­–27 timeframe. Accordingly, the U.S. secretary of defense should create a senior civilian or general officer position that reports directly to him and has the singular mission of driving the changes necessary to achieve this objective. This official would need to have prior Pentagon experience, deep understanding of U.S. military operations, comfort with new technology, a reputation for driving change, and the resources and backing to create an empowered, effective, and collaborative team.

Job number one would be to lead an intensive, department-wide sprint to identify the most consequential problems associated with deterring an attack on Taiwan; determine which currently unfunded priorities should receive more resources (such as addressing critical munitions shortages); canvass the different branches of the military, the units of the Pentagon dedicated to innovation, and defense and commercial firms for solutions; and then work with leaders in Congress to reallocate funds to ensure these capabilities are fielded within the next two to five years. Success would be measured by the new capabilities deployed into the hands of U.S. warfighters and the speed at which this is done—not by the number of experiments and demonstrations that are performed.

One initial area of focus could be rapidly fielding large numbers of smaller autonomous systems to augment conventional capabilities at low cost. For example, small autonomous systems for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance could be deployed to create a vast and much more resilient sensor network that improves U.S. situational awareness across the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, swarms of small, AI-enabled expendable strike systems could be brought online, enabling U.S. forces to confound and overwhelm an adversary in any number of situations. Such off-the-shelf systems can be fielded quickly and cheaply with easy-to-upgrade software.

The United States could also improve its ability to hold Chinese naval forces at risk and thereby deter them from crossing the Taiwan Strait by arming U.S. bombers deployed to the Indo-Pacific with large numbers of long-range antiship missiles, as the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office has demonstrated. Urgently funding the scaling and deployment of such innovations should be among the Department of Defense’s highest priorities in the next two to five years, yet few have been fully funded in the most recent budget request. Ideally, some of these efforts could be undertaken jointly with the capable militaries of U.S. allies.

The Pentagon should also accelerate and scale up its security assistance to Taiwan, making the island more of an indigestible “porcupine” and improving its ability to slow down and impose costs on any aggressor. In particular, the United States should assist Taiwan with operational planning, war-gaming, and training while also helping Taiwan leverage commercial capabilities to improve its situational awareness and acquire critical asymmetric capabilities such as air and missile defenses, sea mines, armed drones, and antiship missiles. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan indicated at the Aspen Security Forum in July that planning for such an effort is already underway, but hardening Taiwan’s defenses in the two- to five-year time frame will require more hands-on, determined leadership to overcome persistent bureaucratic obstacles and delays. The Biden administration’s recent announcement that it will sell both Harpoon and Sidewinder missiles to Taiwan is a promising first step.

To augment current U.S. capabilities, the Department of Defense should adopt a “fast-follower” strategy to accelerate the adoption of commercial technologies that solve key operational problems. Private companies are leading the development of cutting-edge technologies such as AI and autonomous systems, so the Pentagon must be fast to follow these commercial innovators and make itself a more attractive customer by streamlining the acquisition process for commercial technologies. Deterring a Chinese assault on Taiwan, or defending against one, will require rapidly fielding a range of new capabilities from commercial dual-use suppliers. Commercial technologies such as advanced secure communications, AI software, small drones, and synthetic aperture radar satellite imagery can deliver novel capabilities at a fraction of the cost of technologies developed to meet military requirements and specifications—and in one to two years instead of one to two decades. Accelerating the early adoption of commercial technologies such as these will help the Pentagon erode Beijing’s confidence in its ability to take Taiwan by force.


Instituting a fast-follower strategy would require overhauling the Pentagon’s outdated, cumbersome, and painfully slow procurement processes to deal more efficiently with commercial technology vendors. Currently, the department spends years developing detailed specifications for nearly every capability that it procures—whether or not that capability is already available off the shelf. And if a system does not meet a specified military requirement, finding funding to buy it from a commercial vendor can be difficult, even if it clearly meets a priority operational need. Given the urgency and gravity of the challenge posed by China, the Pentagon must innovate to dramatically speed up the procurement process for commercial technologies.

To that end, the Pentagon should designate units that can assess, budget for, and procure specific commercial capabilities such as small drones and counterdrone capabilities that are not designed with a specific branch of the military in mind. Doing so will require training a new cadre of acquisition professionals who specialize in the rapid procurement and integration of commercial technologies. It will also require keeping pace with private-sector innovation so that U.S. warfighters can be outfitted with the latest technology.

These Pentagon procurement units should follow commercial best practices, maximizing competition among vendors while also minimizing the costs for vendors to participate. The Defense Innovation Unit, which works to accelerate the adoption of commercial technology, already exclusively uses these practices, drawing an average of 43 vendors to each of its 26 competitive solicitations last year. Using a special authorization from Congress known as Other Transaction Authority, the Department of Defense can also eliminate requirements for vendors to recompete for contracts once they have successfully competed with a prototype; these vendors could proceed immediately to follow-on production contracts to scale the new capability.

Finally, the Pentagon should deepen its collaboration with U.S. allies in procuring critical capabilities, sourcing commercial technology from these countries, and selling proven technologies to their militaries. Prevailing in its competition with China will require the United States to innovate beyond its borders and collaborate with allies to field joint capabilities. The easiest, fastest way to do this is with commercial technologies that are unclassified and therefore easily shareable, as the war in Ukraine has demonstrated.


Many analysts will say that the Department of Defense is already modernizing the U.S. force and investing in technology and innovation to compete with China. And it is true that the Pentagon is moving in the right direction. But it must make bigger changes—and faster. Most of the department’s investments in research and development will not yield fielded capabilities in the two- to five-year period that is critical for deterring China.

To effectively prepare for the approaching window of vulnerability in which Xi may conclude he has the best chance of taking Taiwan by force, the Pentagon must do a better job of balancing its need to invest in long-term capabilities with what it needs today. In so doing, it can create an element of strategic surprise, a stronger deterrent, and a more modern force that combines traditional large weapons platforms with new and transformative capabilities. If the Pentagon fails to adopt a new vision of warfighting, and the PLA succeeds, the United States will find itself with plans and platforms to fight the last war instead of the one it may face next.

Xi has likely learned a dangerous lesson from Russia’s mistakes in Ukraine—namely, that if he wants to take Taiwan by force, he needs to go big and move fast. A potential conflict over the island could therefore unfold much more rapidly than the war in Ukraine, with China attempting to create a fait accompli within days. Therefore, the United States needs to dramatically strengthen deterrence and undermine Beijing’s confidence in its ability to succeed.

The U.S. Congress has already recognized the need to rapidly improve deterrence by funding the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which aims to provide the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command with the capabilities it urgently needs. The head of that command, Admiral John Aquilino, has repeatedly stated that he is most interested in additional capabilities that can be fielded in the next few years—not those that can be delivered decades from now.

The stakes could not be higher, and the clock is ticking. The United States is running out of time to deploy the new capabilities and operational concepts it needs to deter China in the near term. The Department of Defense still has time to make the necessary changes—but only if it acts with greater urgency and focus now.

Michèle A. Flournoy is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of WestExec Advisors and Co-Founder and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009 to 2012, she served as U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. Michael A. Brown is a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. From 2018 to 2022, he served as Director of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

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