Lawmakers have a fix for Taiwan’s weapons backlog: Build them on the island

Lawmakers in both parties have joined forces in a new push to speed up weapons deliveries to Taiwan as the island nation suffers from a years-long, $19 billion backlog of U.S. systems.

But the move could be risky.

The lawmakers, who are wary of China’s aggressive moves in the region, want to allow Taiwan to build some U.S.-designed systems themselves under license in a bid to unclog the pipeline for fighter jets, tanks, drones and missiles.

It’s a sign of the deep frustration among lawmakers as they watch Beijing rapidly bulk up its naval and air forces. On the U.S. side, supply-chain issues, workforce shortages and competing global priorities have complicated Washington’s ability to deliver military hardware to Taiwan.

“We need to do this for speed, and putting some pressure on huge defense contractors who refuse to meet production goals in the process doesn’t hurt,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a member of the House Select Committee on China and House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

If successful, the effort would boost Taiwan’s ability to defend itself from China while deepening industrial ties between Washington and Taipei. It would also help smooth over a longstanding source of frustration in both capitals that the U.S., with its lumbering bureaucracy and overwhelmed defense industry, is unable to help Taiwan in its hour of need.

Coproduction, however, carries risks, and experts cite concerns that the sensitive technology could be leaked to China, which already heavily harvests intelligence from Taiwan.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the committee’s outgoing chair, floated shifting the production of U.S. aerial and underwater drones to Taiwan to speed up their deployment to Taiwanese military units. Doing so would “preposition weapons and strengthen deterrence so Xi Jinping thinks twice before believing the People’s Liberation Army could quickly and easily take control of the island,” Gallagher told reporters this year after a visit to the self-governing island.

Allowing the island’s defense firms to produce U.S. weapons systems stuck in supply chain bottlenecks is “worth exploring as we seek to strengthen deterrence” in the Taiwan Strait, committee ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said in an interview.

Lawmakers plan to introduce a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow for the transfer of sophisticated weapons technology to Taiwan to enable production on the island, said a committee staff member who was granted anonymity to discuss plans that haven’t been announced. The fact that members from both parties are pushing the issue gives it a better chance of making it into the defense policy bill.

And the State Department may back such a plan. Military hardware “coproduction arrangements with key allies and partners” could be a potential solution to bottlenecks in U.S. defense contractors’ production lines, Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said on April 3.

“The growing number of international threats “demand that we work with trusted allies and partners even on the most sophisticated of weapons,” Campbell said at a Center for a New American Security event.

The State Department acknowledged that “insufficient production capacity” linked to unspecified “industry constraints” is slowing weapons deliveries to Taiwan, but declined to comment on whether Campbell included Taiwan as a weapons coproduction candidate.

The Defense Department declined to comment on the possibility of weapons’ coproduction deals with Taiwan. U.S. policy “makes available to Taiwan defense articles and services necessary to enable it to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” said a Pentagon spokesperson who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Taiwan’s government won’t publicly take sides. “It is a long-standing practice that we do not comment on the details of Taiwan’s defense cooperation with the United States,” Taiwan’s diplomatic outpost in Washington said in a statement.

Raising risks

The issue pits U.S. commitments in the Taiwan Relations Act to provide the island the weapons it needs to defend itself from a Chinese invasion against Pentagon and defense firms’ concerns about whether Taiwan can protect the designs of advanced weapons systems from Beijing’s espionage operations.

Taiwan has probed dozens of cases of current or retired military officials implicated in spying for China in recent years.

“There is an assumption that Taiwan is so leaky to China, that if you did IP [intellectual property] transfer or IP development that the Chinese would get it,” said Richard Weir, vice president of global strategy at the Utah-based radar firm IMSAR, which has signed preliminary contracts to supply radar systems to two military drone producers in Taiwan.

That assumption extends to Capitol Hill. Licensing of advanced weapons systems for production in Taiwan requires “ensuring our technology is safe from Chinese espionage, which we know is a challenge in Taiwan,” Moulton, the Democratic lawmaker, said.

Taiwan authorities are trying to reverse those perceptions. Military officials “provide counterintelligence training to our soldiers…[that] allow us to detect suspicious activities early on,” Taiwan’s Defense Ministry posted on social media last month.

That risk may be overstated. “It’s not a show-stopper — really more of an excuse for inaction,” said Randy Schriver, who was DOD’s assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs in the Trump administration. Taiwan has a good record of safeguarding U.S. technology and intellectual property from Chinese spies due to “a hyper-vigilance that results from decades of counter-espionage experience,” Schriver said.

The State Department recognizes that the threat of espionage has hampered efforts to allow allies and partners to produce U.S. arms for themselves. The traditional U.S. approach to weapons technology has been to “make sure that it did not fall into the wrong hands [but] as we work more closely with allies and partners, that requires a whole scale rethink,” said the State Department’s Campbell.

Can Taiwan do it?

Missiles are an acute need of Taiwan’s, as Taipei competes with Ukraine, Poland and other countries in awaiting orders. Taiwan therefore needs to strike partnerships with U.S. weapons firms such as RTX and Lockheed Martin to produce “Javelin and Harpoon and Stingers and the other critical missiles that [the U.S.] can't produce enough of” for timely delivery to the island, said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the Washington-based U.S.-Taiwan Business Council.

Neither firm wanted to address that issue. “Discussions about sales to foreign governments are best addressed by the U.S. government,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement. RTX didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But U.S. defense technology firms may applaud moves to bridge the bureaucratic divide that stands in the way of Taiwan weapons production partnerships. “My understanding of the thinking of Raytheon and other places is that they're ready to expand what they're doing, but they need the U.S. government to support it,” said Wallace “Chip” Gregson, assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs in the Obama administration.

The risks to Taiwan posed by stalled weapons deliveries make such partnerships a strategic imperative. “We need a demonstrated boost to our deterrent capability and if that means coming up with new ways to produce modern weapons inside Taiwan, under license from U.S. corporations … then yes, let's do it,” Gregson said.

But even among lawmakers supportive of shifting production of key weapons systems to Taiwan, there are doubts about whether Taiwan has the industrial capacity to do so.

“There is a lot of government red tape and regulations required to get a strong industrial base established in Taiwan — given the rate of Chinese aggression, there doesn’t seem to be enough time” to do that, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said in a statement.

Military experts say Taiwan has the industrial heft to pull it off. “Production of the missile body, the propellant and the warhead are all low-tech, something Taiwan can already do,” said Tony Hu, a former senior Taiwan country director at the Pentagon.

Supply chains would also still be a problem. While the U.S. defense industry is struggling to find new suppliers for critical parts for its weapons, any new production lines established in Taiwan would rely on those same suppliers, unless they can find domestic supplies to carry the weight.

Bureaucratic obstacles are a major issue when it comes to the approval of weapons manufacturing partnerships with U.S. defense technology firms. “U.S. bureaucracy is hopelessly slow, and far too conservative with a small ‘c,’” in approaching such deals, said Hammond-Chambers at the USTBC.

Overlapping supervisory and approval processes on the U.S. side are part of the problem. “The State Department, the Pentagon, and the national security advisers’ teams all have different views — you have to put all three on the same page and create consensus, otherwise it’s difficult to make things happen,” said Taiwan’s former defense minister Andrew Nien-dzu Yang, who led negotiations for U.S. weapons systems while in office.

That red tape hurts the U.S.’s ability to ensure that friendly nations have the weaponry they need to defend themselves from potential aggressors. “There are good reasons why we have missile technology regime controls, but they are not to prevent our closest allies from being well-equipped, or to work with us on joint production,” of defensive weaponry, Campbell said.