Building a Global Arsenal of Democracy: The Taiwan Case

By Steven Rudder

There is widespread bi partisan agreement on supporting the Taiwan Relations Act and arming Taiwan to defend itself.  Several duty expert authors reference “the porcupine” concept when it comes to arming Taiwan, but very few understand the policy, authority, and industry hurdles to adequately support our national vision.

Since 1979 our Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process for Taiwan has been the pillar of Taiwan defense but in recent years it has been episodic. In some cases, years went by without Taiwan FMS cases being approved. Even when a particular Administration is in full support, the FMS process for Taiwan is slow and complex.

The FMS process to transfer arms to Taiwan in antiquated. The foreign military sales process formally begins when a potential customer submits a letter of request for a given American-made weapon system. Then the Defense and State Department staffs each conduct a series of reviews, assessing a range of issues including the risk of disclosing sensitive, classified technology as well as potential human rights concerns.

With most experts cite the potential of a 2027 invasion scenario, Taiwan continues to be subjected to the FMS process of asking by letter of request and then waiting for DoD, State, and Congressional notification and approvals to be completed. All of this transpiring over months sometimes years even when there is widespread agreement on a particular weapon system.

To streamline the process in the 2023 NDAA, Congress authorized up to 2 billion in annual grants from 2023 to 2027 and an additional 2 billion in loans for Taiwan to use to bolster its military capabilities from the U.S. It also authorized a regional contingency stockpile for Taiwan of up to 1 billion in munitions a year for use in the event of a conflict. Unfortunately, Taiwan leadership is painfully aware that the U.S. Congressional Appropriations committees did not fund the authorization for 2023.

As another attempt for support Taiwan, the proposed 2024 The State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs bill included $52.5 billion dollars which includes $500 million in Foreign Military Financing Program for Taiwan.

Near term, the 2023 authorization allows for a Presidential Drawdown Authority for Taiwan. Not ideal and not enough, but it appears to be moving forward.

Meanwhile, as we deliberate on arms to Taiwan, U.S. Industry watches by the sidelines with no sure investment way ahead other than the currently appropriated support for U.S. forces, current FMS cases, and the added work contributed by the Ukraine conflict.

Currently, buying defense products continues to be based on the DoD budget process, acquisition laws, an industry production model, and year-by-year appropriations.  While the program numbers are mostly known by industry, the ability to react with additional skilled labor, advanced procurement, extra machining, and other investments are based on the budgetary process.

This bureaucratic process creates the widely captured dilemma of not being able to quickly scale U.S. industry to a war footing.  As Ukraine expenditure of U.S. munitions highlights, the process of munitions procurement and the acquisition path is insufficient under the most ideal circumstances.

There are several ways ahead to consider in altering the acquisition process to aid in the defense of Taiwan.

First, we need to streamline the FMS approval and funding process.

Congressional Defense committees should have sole approval authorities for Taiwan FMS and Grants that support weapons deliveries.  Each year the U.S. should commit to an FMS and Grant budget for Taiwan. There were years during the previous administrations where no cases were approved.  The Trump Administration approved over 18 billion dollars in arms sales and thus far the Biden administration has approved just over 4 billion dollars.  A streamlined process and yearly budgeted funding would allow for predictability for Taiwanese and U.S. industry.

Second, Congress needs to have oversight of FMS delivers to Taiwan.

As the U.S. offers staunch support for Taiwan’s democracy, there is no question that the 19 billion dollars of U.S. sales and associated “late” deliveries is having an impact. The lateness of supply chain deliveries coupled with the drain on U.S. stockpiles by Ukraine is well understood inside Taiwan, but the road to recovery is an unknown.

Third, we need to award multi-year munitions contracts to industry.

Like multi-years procurement of aircraft and block buys of ships, munitions should be procured with multi-year contracts with a minimum of 5-year contracts. This would stabilize industry and negate the historical variations in munitions procurement.

Fourth, we need to have congressional oversight on divestments of extant weapon systems.

Congress should have a say in closing production lines without a suitable replacement. The Stinger may be the best example of this. Was there oversight of this production line and the U.S. or partner nations requirements for air defense?

Services should not be allowed to close production lines or divest of equipment without a suitable transition to a replacement. Divest to Invest without a suitable replacement should be scrutinized.  Once a capability is gone without a suitable replacement, we have not only closed the capability production and supply base but, in many cases, the active-duty expertise and the skilled labor that builds it.

Fifth, we need to avoid single points of failure.

It is unthinkable to believe that a single company in the U.S. holds the keys to a particular warhead, rocket motor, or guidance system. Acquisition down selects should consider a winner but also select co production partners with other U.S. companies. What we really need is more than one line for the systems that we’re building. Currently, our defense department acquisition laws mean that we down select one winner. And usually, one winner means one production line and one point of failure.

Sixth, we need to focus a new arsenal of democracy which sees co-production with global industries.

There are valid reasons to enter into co production with foreign companies. For Taiwan, co-production could be the answer to many of the asymmetric capabilities. In other words, instead of thinking of Taiwan as a country of last resort in selling whatever FMS systems we are willing to sell, why not make them a player in building the new arsenal of democracy in the Pacific, certainly with regard to asymmetric or autonomous systems? There are several historical examples where partner nations successfully added to a production of key capabilities.

And finally, we need to amend the Buy American Act which makes a realistic arsenal of democracy impossible in the real world.

We need to review and consider amending Buy American Act for critical capabilities. The process for fulfilling the additonal regulations for key end items hinders industry’s ability to rapidly scale production.

In short, as with the Ukraine war, the defense of Taiwan is a wake up to shaping a global arsenal of democracy.

LtGen Steven Rudder is a retired Marine Aviator, the former Commander of Marine Forces Pacific, and aerospace advocate.