That type of basing decision would likely abandon the current policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, which intentionally leaves it unclear as to whether Americans would defend the island in a cross-strait conflict. Uncertain about their superpower backers, Taiwanese leaders are less likely to unilaterally declare independence and China is less inclined to hurry to war.
Still, arguments for a kind of “tripwire force” have gained steam in recent months, including from a fall of 2020 essay published in a U.S. Army professional journal.
Such a force would make China know it would confront U.S. troops on the first day of any planned invasion of the island or push eastward into the Pacific, said Dr. Loren Thompson, CEO of the Lexington Institute. Thompson spoke about the service’s role in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at an Association of the U.S. Army panel on Wednesday.
“There is no substitute for being there on the first day of conflict,” Thompson said.
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Before the United States formally recognized the Chinese government in the 1970s, the Army had 30,000 troops stationed in Taiwan, Thompson said. Currently, the Army has no permanently based troops on the island.
Fellow panelist, Dr. Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, used his opening remarks to lay out a case for the Army’s continued development of ground-based long-range precision fires.
That effort was briefly criticized earlier this year as a kind of funding “power grab” that sought to expand the Army’s role over capabilities resident in the Air Force, Karako said.
That criticism, lodged publicly by Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command during a Mitchell Institute Aerospace Advantage podcast on March 31 drew quick and sustained backlash from fellow Air Force and later Navy leaders. Those critical of Ray’s comments have emphasized that the Army’s fires pursuit complements the capabilities of the other services.
Bolstering his advocacy of stationing an ABCT along with support capabilities in Taiwan, Thompson said that “there are big problems with depending on long-range air power and naval forces” to deter or prevent an invasion of Taiwan.
The Air Force has only a handful of bases within the 2,000-mile range of Taiwan, he said. And more than half of the two dozen locations suggested for basing air assets for use in the Pacific have runways too short for a B-52 bomber to take off.
To top it off, the air service only has 158 long-range bombers in its entire fleet, many of which are not operational day-to-day, Thompson said.
Thompson added that if the Air Force were to use nuclear-capable bombers on conventional missions to China, it could trigger China’s use of its nuclear arsenal.
The Navy, he said, has a “relatively small fleet to deploy” in the crowded area around Taiwan. And its assets would be vulnerable to growing Chinese Navy capabilities.
By having an ABCT and other assets on the island, the Army could use mobile ground fires to hit invading ground forces and even strike at-sea targets, Thompson said.
He pointed back to similar stationing during the Cold War in Europe to deter the Soviet Union. And currently, U.S. forces in the Baltic region and on the Korean peninsula to deter Russia and North Korea, respectively.
Others, however, have argued that a scenario in which U.S. military intervention is guaranteed may not serve the intended purpose.
In an article published this month for War on the Rocks, Harvard professor Alastair Johnston, National Chengchi University election researcher Tsai Chia-hung, and others, detailed surveys they conducted in 2019 and 2020 on a random sample of the Taiwanese population.
“On the one hand, strategic clarity could enhance deterrence because it increases the Taiwanese people’s willingness to fight,” the researchers wrote of the survey results. “On the other hand, strategic clarity could reduce deterrence because it appears to increase the Taiwanese people’s support for independence.”
Senior Chinese officials warned Taiwan earlier this year that independence could mean war.