The video was impressive. Fighter jets streaking across the sky, missiles soaring atop columns of fire, tanks and artillery firing salvoes of shells.
The video, recently posted on the Ministry of National Defense’s Twitter account, was supposed to showcase Taiwan’s ability to repel a Chinese invasion. “Don’t underestimate our determination to #protectourcountry,” the defense ministry wrote. “The #ROCArmedforces will not antagonise but we will respond hostile actions.”
But is a real depiction of Taiwanese military might – or just a fantasy?
For example, Taiwanese tanks are shown on maneuvers, creating the impression that a Chinese amphibious assault would be smashed by an armored counterattack. But the Taiwanese army’s combat units only have 60 to 80 percent of their personnel.
“That number might not seem so bad until you realize it means at least a third of your tanks are useless in a war because there’s no one to man them,” a lieutenant colonel, who formerly commanded a tank battalion, told Foreign Policy Magazine.
The problem is that volunteer soldiers – Taiwan’s military uses a mixture of conscripts and volunteers – prefer to avoid combat duty in favor of rear-echelon units. “This means that armor, mechanized infantry, and artillery units are always in desperate shortage of enlisted soldiers—even though they are expected to be the ones bearing the brunt of ground fighting against the formidable People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ground force if it comes ashore,” according to Foreign Policy.
To the sound of stirring music, the video also showed Taiwan’s French-made Mirage 2000 fighters thundered into the air. But in real life, the 20-year-old fighters are becoming more difficult to maintain and suffer from shortages of spare parts. The Republic of China Air Force’s F-16 A/B and indigenously produced F-CK-1 fighters are also growing tired.
“Taiwan asked France to upgrade its Mirages in 2012, but France, under pressure from China, forced Taiwan to withdraw its request by demanding a sky-high price,” the Taipei Times wrote in 2018. “Until Taiwan’s other two mainstay fighters have completed mid-life upgrades, the air force will have to go on loving its Mirages for their capabilities, even if it hates their high operation and maintenance costs.”
Should China invade, there are serious concerns that China’s vast arsenal of ballistic missiles and bombers would pulverize Taiwan’s airfields and neutralize the country’s airpower. This would put the onus of defense on Taiwan’s navy, as well as its anti-aircraft and missile defense batteries.
These missiles are prominently shown in the video, but they can’t change the sheer numerical imbalance between Taiwan and China,, For example, Taiwan’s government recently proposed hiking the defense budget to T$453,000,000,000 (US$15.4 billion). China just announced the equivalent of a US$178.2 billion defense budget.
Equally worrisome is that Taiwan’s arsenal essentially dates from the Cold War. In contrast, China’s rapid modernization of its military – including aircraft carriers and stealth fighters – will give the People’s Liberation Army a qualitative edge over Taiwan’s military and will seriously challenge U.S. technological superiority.
Taiwan is seeking to close the technology gap with F-16V fighters, M1A2 tanks and land-based Harpoon anti-ship missiles from the U.S. But 60 or 70 new fighters and a few missiles won’t really change the balance of power. And heavy tanks – especially if they lack trained crews – won’t do much to stop a Chinese invasion. If Chinese naval and air power prove sufficient to land assault troops ashore in strength, it’s too late for the defender’s tanks to make a difference.
Taiwan does have sufficient enough weaponry to deter limited Chinese military action, and enough firepower to make China pay a stiff price for any full-scale invasion. Nonetheless, Taiwan simply does not have enough firepower to defeat a Chinese invasion without the help of the U.S. military.