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  • Writer's pictureWei Azim Hung

U.S. Military Inventory and Supply Capacity For Taiwan Conflict

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Key takeaways:

  • Xi Jinping asserting Taiwan to be the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations

  • U.S. Defense industrial base unprepared for the competitive security environment under the status quo

  • U.S. is rapidly exhausting existing inventories due to war in Ukraine

  • Deterrence credibility is eroding, decision makers must respond to challenges

Taiwan is the Bedrock of U.S.-China Political Foundation

Revisiting critical junctures in the past year from the U.S.' aggressive tech decoupling, Xi Jinping's unprecedented third term as the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party to former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's whirlwind Taiwan visit — we have forcefully entered a new phase of U.S.-China competition that will set the momentum, shape new boundaries, and stipulate new conditions for the trilateral relationship between the United States, China, and Taiwan for the coming decade.

During the Biden-Xi meeting at G20 Bali, Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled to his American counterpart that make no mistake: Taiwan question is the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations. Xi called it the “first red line” that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations. Subsequently, in a call with the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and incumbent Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi warned the U.S. to stop using "salami tactics", challenging China's "red line" on Taiwan.

China No Longer Comfortable With the Status Quo

In a recent conversation with David Axelrod at the Institute of Politics, Blinken said China is no longer comfortable with the status quo. Phil Davidson, former chief of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, also told Nikkei Asia he stands by his earlier assessments previously given to the Senate Armed Services Committee that China may try to attack Taiwan by 2027. His successor, Admiral John Aquino, corroborated his statement that 'this problem is much closer to us than most think'.

What explains China's radical switch in attitude towards its Taiwan policy? One explanation suggests that maintaining a political grip over Taiwan would help Xi’s quest in seeking a fourth term as head of the party in 2027. More substantially, Xi intends to complete his political CV by completing the ‘impossible’ — annexing Taiwan. This would cement his position as one of the most influential and powerful leaders in modern Chinese history, above that of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Will this eventually manifest in terms of full-blown conventional warfare is disputed. In another article, Lam and Hung make the case that “gray zone measures” coupled with lower organizational constraints make measures short of war more likely than a full-scale amphibious invasion in the next five years. However, as suggested in the war game report by CSIS, the plausibility and credibility of a full-scale military option should not be dismissed, either. For one, the willingness of China's political leadership should not be underestimated. For two, if preparations against a full-scale invasion would deter the prospect of a Chinese invasion, it is then necessary for the U.S., Taiwan, and other stakeholders to plan accordingly — before it becomes too late.

U.S. Intervention as a Military Option

This raises the question: should the United States decide to intervene at the onset of a cross-strait conflict — does it have the capacity and inventory to back up such conflict? In other words, is the U.S. defense industry in the position to produce and supply, say, long-range, precision-guided missiles or other essential systems or munitions in the context of a protracted conflict with China? In a report recently produced also by CSIS, it argues that “The U.S. defense industrial base is not adequately prepared for the competitive security environment that now exists”.

Inventory and supply capacity are essential components when it comes to large-scale conflicts. Under the status quo, the current manufacturing tempo would not match the manufacturing quota necessary to sustain a major conflict outbreak. The inability to rapidly manufacture weapons and ammunition would exhaust existing inventories leading to an undesirable outcome: empty bins. According to the cross-strait war games conducted by CSIS, the United States will consume all its long-range, precision-guided munitions in less than one week. For example, stocks of the Harpoon coastal defense system, a key capability for Taiwan, are considered medium, though current U.S. inventories may not be sufficient for a protracted conflict. As such, making any attempts of U.S. war efforts difficult to sustain. Moreover, China could see such deficiency as a window of opportunity, undermining deterrence. Even more alarming is that China has been ramping up investments in equipment, munitions, and high-end weapons systems five to six times faster than the United States.

Unsurprisingly, the war in Ukraine is rapidly consuming U.S. inventories. Growing security competition and the prospect of fighting not one but possibly two major wars will continue to erode the credibility of deterrence. Decision-makers in the Pentagon and White House must respond to existing pitfalls before the conflict begins, such as enhancing the capacity to streamline production in emergency wartimes situations. Recommendations from the report include:

(1) creating more co-production facilities and searching for opportunities in “ally-shoring”;

(2) broadening acquisition approaches and taking advantage of flexibility in the contracts process;

(3) determining a sustainable munitions procurement plan to meet current and future requirements.

China's increasingly coercive and aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait suggests that East Asia and potentially Southeast Asia are slowly shifting away from a peacetime environment. Japan's recently released national security strategy, which favors a more activist role and military buildup and a five-year defense spending plan worth 43 trillion yen (US$329 billion) is one such example. As a result of changing dynamics, stepping up military preparedness during peacetime will be crucial in determining the trajectory of East Asia.


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