Congress Must Pass Senator Hawley's Arm Taiwan Act | Opinion

Recently, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced the Arm Taiwan Act of 2021, which would "ensure Taiwan has the asymmetric defenses it needs to deter a Chinese invasion." Given Beijing's rapidly intensifying pressures on Taiwan, Congress must waste no time passing the bill.

On the ground,Taiwan's military is reforming by the minute. Earlier this year, Taiwanese officials announced a new army structure that decentralizes operations by empowering regional commanders to coordinate activities of all service branches within their region. This new structure enhances operability in peacetime, but more importantly, conflict.

At sea, President Tsai Ing-wen unveiled a new submarine production facility that will produce eight new diesel-electric attack submarines. And in September, she commissioned a navy warship designed with air defense capabilities and anti-ship missiles. The United States has been helping these ventures as much as possible. The Biden administration approved exports of submarine hardware that Taiwan cannot produce on its own.

In the air, Taiwan understands that Chinese activity in its air defense zones necessitates major changes. It plans to spend $1.4 billion on new fighter jets (likely F-16s) plus an additional $9 billion special budget in defense spending over the next five years once Parliament approves. Further, Taiwan will develop more air-defense missiles to counter the People's Liberation Army Air Force's (PLAAF) J-16s and J-20s.

But while the government of Taiwan deserves some praise for these efforts, it's all too little, too late.

President Tsai's proposed military budget for next year is a measly $16.9 billion, a tiny increase from this year's $16.2 billion. In comparison, China said it would raise its defense spending by 6.8 percent, likely in naval and airpower, two areas that Taiwan has prioritized yet failed in countering China. Taiwan remains incapable of warning off Chinese aircraft whenever they enter its air defense identification zone.

Taiwan's flag is seen on tower
Taiwan's flag is seen on the tower of the Presidential Office in Taipei on Jan. 13, 2021. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

Taiwan said it will commit an additional $9 billion to its military in the next five years. But five years is a long time. If U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Philip Davidson's hypothesis of a Chinese invasion within six years holds true, the People's Liberation Army will be parading in Taipei before Taiwan can christen its new submarines.

Even if Taiwan continues to acquire long-range cruise missiles, the Department of Defense claimed that Beijing's anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) and increasing amphibious capabilities could easily counter Taiwan's sea defenses. In the air, Taiwan's small F-16 fleet can't defend Chinese bombings of Taiwanese airfields. And Taiwan knows this: The new Open Defense Concept de-emphasized fighter jets just as Taiwan is replacing its older ones because even doubling the fighter fleet still represents only half of the PLAAF's. Simply put, "Taiwan is nowhere where it needs to be."

Here's where Senator Hawley's Arm Taiwan Act comes in. The act prioritizes asymmetric defenses like cruise missiles, unmanned aerial systems, naval mines and anti-armor weapons instead of expensive submarines that will take years to develop or fighter jets that are inferior to China's. It establishes the Taiwan Security Assistance Initiative, which would provide the Department of Defense $3 billion each year from 2023 to 2027 for equipment, training and other support to build these defenses.

Currently, Taiwan's defense spending only accounts for 2.1 percent of its GDP, a number far too small to counter the world's No. 2 military. The act mandates that Taiwan spends no less than 3 percent of its GDP on defense, creating necessary conditions on American aid to ensure that Taiwan plays its part in defending its island.

The act also repeatedly mentions Taiwan's reserve personnel. Despite a population of 23 million and a reserve of nearly 2.2 million, the force is both declining and underprepared. "Basic training," recounted a conscript in the Taiwan Army, "mainly involved sweeping leaves, moving spare tires and pulling weeds." To ensure that Taiwan's reservists are ready, the act calls for equipment and concept developments so they can better operate in tandem with active forces.

From reserve numbers to fighter jets, Taiwan is playing catch-up in a military buildup race it will never win. Once again, Senator Hawley gets Taiwan right: The Arm Taiwan Act solidifies the United States' commitment to its democratic partner, reorients its defense to more reasonable priorities and conditions assistance on matching investments. For these reasons, Congress must waste no time passing it.

Sam Abodo is a 2021 National Defense Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Society. His writing has appeared in The National Interest, Washington Examiner, Newsweek, Defense Post and more. Follow him on Twitter @sam_abodo.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.