December 8, 2022 | Washington Examiner

Losing an arms race with China is much worse than competing in one

December 8, 2022 | Washington Examiner

Losing an arms race with China is much worse than competing in one

The Pentagon’s annual China Military Power Report published last Tuesday makes clear that Beijing is sprinting to ensure the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) possesses the military means to conquer Taiwan and defeat any effort by the U.S. military to intervene. The good news is that the Pentagon and most members of Congress are finally awake to the danger. They are working to reinforce the eroded U.S. military deterrent and better arm Taipei to deter Beijing from attempting to achieve its political objectives in Taiwan with military force.

The problem is that the pace of American progress remains too slow. It is exacerbated by an insufficient sense of urgency in Washington, stubborn bureaucratic inertia, which makes it difficult to expeditiously field new weapons and reinforce American military posture in the Indo-Pacific, and inadequate defense industrial capacity. Many worry that Chinese military aggression could come into the Taiwan Strait by 2027, a target date for key PLA modernization priorities, the 100th anniversary of the PLA’s founding, and the last year of Xi Jinping’s third term as general secretary.

Unfortunately, absent urgent additional action, many of the laudable efforts underway in Washington may not deliver the combat capability and capacity necessary soon enough to deter or defeat an attack. That makes aggression in the Taiwan Strait more likely and increases the costs Americans would have to pay to prevail in a war that could have been prevented. Some might be inclined to dismiss such warnings as unwarranted alarmism. But a careful review of recent developments suggests otherwise.

The essence of a genuine threat is the combination of hostile intent and the capability to carry it out. Beijing clearly has the intent to “unify” Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China. “Complete reunification of our country must be realized,” Xi declared in his recent speech to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party. He made clear that Beijing reserved the right to use military force to achieve that goal.

Washington cannot safely assume such statements are merely political posturing. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken assessed in October that China had made a “fundamental decision that the status quo was no longer acceptable and that Beijing was determined to pursue reunification on a much faster timeline.” Matching actions with words, the “PLA is preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the PRC by force if perceived as necessary by Beijing,” the Pentagon warned. The 20th Party Congress focused on “intensifying and accelerating the PLA’s modernization goals over the next five years.”

China already boasts the largest navy in the world (approximately 340 ships and submarines), an air force “rapidly catching up to Western air forces,” and a PLA Rocket Force that launched 135 ballistic missiles for testing and training in 2021, “more than the rest of the world combined,” the Pentagon says. To make this more challenging, the PLA is heavily focused on a Taiwan contingency, whereas the U.S. must spread its military assets more broadly around the globe, providing Beijing a numerical advantage at the likely point of conflict. And as the PLA has become increasingly powerful, Beijing has acted more aggressively in the seas and skies around Taiwan and elsewhere in the Western Pacific.

In 2021, “The PLA conducted more than 20 naval exercises with an island-capture element, greatly exceeding the 13 observed in 2020,” according to the Pentagon. More recently, in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, the PLA launched ballistic missiles over Taiwan and flew roughly 250 aircraft sorties across the Taiwan Strait median line, highly provocative and destabilizing actions. The PLA also engaged in several live-fire exercises that appeared to simulate an attack on Taiwan ports and infrastructure and intended to intimidate Taiwan and set a new normal that could initially better disguise a future attack as yet another exercise.

The PLA’s activities regarding nuclear weapons are concerning as well. The Defense Department warns that Beijing’s nuclear warhead stockpile will likely grow from more than 400 warheads now to about 1,500 by 2035. To support this expansion, Beijing is building three solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silo fields, which will cumulatively contain at least 300 new ICBM silos. To be sure, the U.S. possesses a larger nuclear arsenal. However, the pace and opaque nature of Beijing’s ” strategic breakout ,” combined with its refusal to engage in substantive nuclear arms talks with Washington, invites dangerous miscalculation and forces the Pentagon to assume the worst.

How are the Biden administration, the Pentagon, and Congress responding to this growing threat?

The administration published its National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and Missile Defense Review on Oct. 27. On balance, with some exceptions, these documents set an appropriate strategic framework, asserting that this is a “decisive decade” and that the PRC is the “pacing challenge,” which is Pentagon-speak for the most serious threat.

With this guidance in mind, the Pentagon, with the help of Congress, is advancing the most significant U.S. military modernization effort in four decades. Vital research and development programs are underway. Too many programs, however, are years away from achieving full operational capability. After all, combat capabilities in the hands of warfighters, not research and development programs, deter and defeat aggression. To begin to better understand the challenge for the United States, consider two weapon systems: the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and the Harpoon Coastal Defense System.

American aircraft would fire the LRASM and Taiwan’s ground forces would fire the Harpoon Coastal Defense System. Either way, the result would be the same: sunken Chinese ships. Reviews of some publications in China linked to the PLA demonstrate that capabilities such as the Harpoon create genuine dilemmas for PLA planners that are likely conducive to deterring aggression. Unfortunately, American forces do not have enough LRASMs , and the ground-based Harpoons may not get to Taiwan before aggression begins.

The Pentagon has about 200 LRASMs today, and there is reason to believe the U.S. needs about 800–1,200 to deter or defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Despite that fact, the average annual LRASM procurement rate across fiscal years 2020–2022 was only 38 missiles (including both the U.S. Navy and Air Force). One can also see problems with the Harpoons. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced in October 2020 the decision to approve sales to Taiwan of 100 Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems, including more than 400 missiles. Delivery of the first systems was originally slated for 2024 but was later postponed to 2025. Indeed, the shipment to Taiwan is now not expected to be complete until 2029. There’s a chance Beijing could be in control of Taiwan by then.

Thankfully, Congress is pushing on a bipartisan basis to spend more on defense, procure more capabilities sooner, place a higher priority on U.S. military force posture in the Indo-Pacific, address the nation’s munitions production capacity crisis (including the specific LRASM issue mentioned above), and deliver weapons quicker to Taiwan . Each of those efforts is essential, and there is good progress on many of these priorities in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, which will hopefully become law soon.

However, a single year’s worth of successful defense authorization and appropriation bills won’t solve these long-standing challenges. It will require sustained bipartisan focus and resourcing propelled by a genuine sense of urgency in the Pentagon and Congress.

In its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, the administration expressed a desire to “head off costly arms races.” Unfortunately, as the new Pentagon report reveals, Beijing is already racing, and losing an arms race is much worse than competing in one.


China Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy