There’s a famous quote in the U.S. military: “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.” Though this adage was originally said by a U.S. general in World War II, it has grown all the more salient in today’s complex world—a point highlighted by developments throughout the war in Ukraine. The Russian invasion has been marked by spectacular logistical failures, notably the failed Russian advance on Kyiv, as well as logistical successes, exhibited by the steely resolve of the U.S. and other NATO members to ensure a reliable supply of weapons, ammunition, and other materiel to the Ukrainian armed forces.
In the era of great power competition, much focus has been placed on the capacity of global superpowers to field the most advanced weaponry. But the United States’s capacity to ensure that the appropriate weaponry and logistical support are made available to its allies—in other words, the coordination of resources in conflict—has received far less attention in national security discourse.
To guarantee that U.S. military assistance continues to flow to the frontlines, the U.S. must ensure that statutory authorization and logistical capacity exist to provide support to U.S. allies where it is most needed. The recent successes supplying Ukraine with arms from existing stockpiles may hold lessons for how the U.S. should prepare to be in a position to assist in Taiwan’s defense against an increasingly assertive China.
Administration of U.S. Military Assistance to Ukraine
Despite the challenges posed by coordinating support among a large bloc of NATO allies, as well as securing congressional authorization to dramatically increase appropriations for military assistance to Ukraine, the U.S. has succeeded in providing substantial and timely support to bolster Ukrainian defenses. In the year since Russia launched its invasion, the U.S. has provided approximately $27.5 billion in security assistance to support Ukraine’s defense. As of Jan. 23, U.S. security assistance committed to Ukraine has included an impressive range of equipment and weapons systems: 38 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and ammunition, eight National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, one Patriot air defense battery, 31 M1 Abrams tanks, 45 T-72B tanks, 109 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 160 155-mm howitzers with more than 1.5 million rounds of ammo, over 1,800 Switchblade drones, in addition to other combat vehicles, ammunition, and communications and intelligence equipment.
The provision of military assistance to strengthen the capabilities of U.S. allies and partners requires interagency coordination, as well as congressional authorization. The Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, oversees most arms transfers and commercial export of arms and training to other countries. The Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) and the Arms Export Control Act are the most prominent legislative authorities that govern the provision of military assistance.
One section of the FAA, in particular, has proved critical in enabling the expeditious delivery of defense articles and services to Ukraine: the presidential drawdown authority pursuant to Section 506(a)(1). This authority facilitates the provision of defense articles that the U.S. currently has available in domestic stockpiles or via third-party transfer from an allied nation. It authorizes the secretary of state to exercise delegated presidential authority to direct the drawdown and implement the transfer of military assistance in coordination with the Defense Department. This expedited authorization process and ready transfer of supplies from pre-positioned stockpiles allows for the arrival of assistance within a matter of days.
Since August 2021, the secretary of state has directed 33 drawdowns totaling $19.6 billion in defense articles and services, with the exercise of drawdown authority increasing dramatically as the Ukrainian conflict escalated through 2022 to the present day. Congress increased the cap on drawdown authority from $100 million to its current level of $11 billion in the Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2022. In fiscal years 2022 and 2023, congressional support for the defense of Ukraine manifested itself in $48.7 billion in supplemental appropriations, including funds to replenish stocks sent to Ukraine via presidential drawdown authority, as well as foreign military financing grants for Ukraine and other countries affected by the war. Most recently, the Continuing Appropriations and Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2023 provided an additional $1.5 billion in funding to replenish U.S. stocks of equipment sent via presidential drawdown authority; these funds will remain available until Sept. 30, 2024.
To facilitate the transfer of materiel to allies and partners in Europe, as of Feb. 19, U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM)—the organization with the primary responsibility for the military’s logistical movements—has utilized 995 flights, 61 vessels, 143 trains, and 6,455 trucks to ensure the ammunition, air defense systems, radars, helicopters, small arms, missiles, and other critical materiel for Ukraine’s defense arrive expeditiously. The U.S. has effectively coordinated this delivery by leveraging USTRANSCOM’s military logistics infrastructure and utilizing both military and contracted civilian companies to transport supplies from all over the world. Most recently, USTRANSCOM began delivery of more than 60 Bradley Fighting Vehicles that may prove crucial in Ukraine’s efforts to deter Russia’s recent escalation in the Donbas.
U.S. military assistance to Ukraine has benefited from a number of logistical advantages and statutory authorizations. The sea and ground lines of communication linking the U.S. and its allies to Ukraine, which are generally secure and protected from foreign interference, have also played a crucial role in this effort. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, the U.S. and its European allies acted swiftly to provide the delivery of anti-armor missiles and other materiel that proved vital to Ukraine’s initial defense. As the conflict enters a new phase, Ukraine’s battlefield success may hinge on its ability to maintain ground combat firepower. To address this challenge, the U.S. has begun tapping large preexisting artillery ammunition stockpiles for expedient transfer to Ukraine. These critical advantages, coupled with the legislative authorizations to provide support for Ukraine’s defense, provide key lessons on how the U.S. could prepare to support Taiwan’s defense in the event of Chinese aggression across the Taiwan Strait.
Shifting From Ukraine to Bolstering Taiwan’s Porcupine Strategy
The impressive U.S. effort to militarily support Ukraine has gained broad political support. However, some lawmakers have increasingly called to refocus U.S. military assistance priorities toward addressing the more salient threat to U.S. national security posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Dec. 6, 2022, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) requested clarification on whether the provision of military assistance to Ukraine was having any adverse impact on the U.S.’s ability to bolster Taiwan’s defenses against the threat of a Chinese invasion.
Hawley expressed concerns aligning with U.S. national policy on strategic threats to the nation. The 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) identifies “the PRC’s coercive and increasingly aggressive endeavor to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system” as the “most comprehensive and serious challenge to U.S. national security.” The NDS further warns that “the PRC’s increasingly provocative rhetoric and coercive activity towards Taiwan are destabilizing, risk miscalculation, and threaten the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.” To meet this challenge, the NDS pledges to “support Taiwan’s asymmetric self-defense commensurate with the evolving PRC threat.” Taiwan has adopted an asymmetric self-defense approach referred to as the “porcupine strategy.” This strategy involves using coastal defenses to deter an amphibious invasion and engaging in defense-in-depth insurgency operations to confront People’s Liberation Army troops that successfully land ashore. To implement this strategy, Taiwan has requested the provision of several U.S. weapons systems and armaments, such as radar warning systems, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Sidewinder anti-aircraft missiles, and F-16 fighter jets.
In March 2021, Adm. Phil Davidson, then-commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, estimated that the PRC’s threat to Taiwan’s territorial integrity will likely manifest by 2027. More recently, a private memo that U.S. Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan issued to his forces at Air Mobility Command in February warned that war with China over Taiwan and the South China Sea may come in less than two years. Though the Pentagon was quick to clarify that Minihan’s position was “not representative” of the Defense Department’s policy, the memo has nonetheless spurred debate on Capitol Hill regarding the urgency with which to prepare for conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
In a showing of bipartisan support, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) led the effort to dramatically enhance the U.S.-Taiwan defense partnership with passage of the Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act (TERA). Incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, TERA was signed into law on Dec. 23, 2022.
Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, TERA seeks to accelerate modernization of Taiwan’s defensive capabilities to resist “a resort to force by the People’s Republic of China to invade and seize control of Taiwan before the United States can respond effectively.” TERA bolsters Taiwan’s defenses by authorizing $10 billion in security assistance to be provided over the next five years. It also creates a comprehensive training program for Taiwan’s armed forces, to include appropriated funding for Taiwanese military officers to participate in the U.S. International Military Education and Training program that provides training in military strategy and doctrine to future leaders of allies’ and foreign partners’ armed forces.
Sections 5502 and 5503 of TERA create new regional contingency stockpile authorities for the purpose of supporting Taiwan’s defenses. Per Section 5502(d), up to $100 million per fiscal year from 2023 to 2032 is authorized for the purpose of maintaining a regional contingency stockpile. Additionally, Section 5503(c)’s treatment of Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally will further expedite its access to defense articles currently available in Defense Department stockpiles. As demonstrated by the conflict in Ukraine, having access to large ammunition stockpiles is crucial for successful territorial defense and the ability to launch counterattacks. The creation of a new regional contingency stockpile, authorized under TERA, will provide Taiwan with access to a pre-positioned resource that is essential for the rapid and sustained execution of the porcupine strategy in the event of cross-strait aggression.
Section 5505 authorizes presidential drawdown authority for defense articles from Defense Department stocks for up to $1 billion per fiscal year. Additionally, it provides $25 million per fiscal year for the transfer of commodities and services from U.S. government agencies other than the Defense Department. Expanded presidential drawdown authority has been instrumental in facilitating the rapid delivery of defensive armaments to Ukraine, and TERA provides the legislative authorization to conduct similar efforts for Taiwan.
TERA also includes measures to address a significant concern among many members of Congress that military assistance to Taiwan is suffering from extensive delays that are negatively impacting Taiwan’s ability to adequately prepare its defenses. In November 2022, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission identified that deliveries of approved military sales to Taiwan have been delayed due to supply chain concerns and provision of military assistance to Ukraine. Section 5507 of TERA authorizes preclearance of foreign military sales to Taiwan, and prioritizes the rapid processing of foreign military sales requests from Taiwan. Per Section 5507(b)(2), the prioritization of foreign military sales requests from Taiwan is not linked to a set temporal duration but, rather, will last “until the threat to Taiwan has significantly abated.” Further stressing the need to prioritize foreign military sales to Taiwan, Section 5505(c) directs the secretary of defense to utilize the Special Defense Acquisition Fund to expedite procurement for Taiwan’s needs. And in a sign of increased oversight of U.S. support for Taiwan’s defense, following the passage of TERA, U.S. lawmakers returned from a visit to Taiwan and renewed calls for the prioritization of foreign military sales to Taiwan.
But the existence of these new authorities alone may prove insufficient. While Ukraine has benefited from Europe’s geography, established logistical lines, and closely located NATO allies and weapons stockpiles, Taiwan does not enjoy similar advantages. The main means of providing support to Taiwan will likely be seaborne and with air transport, through potentially contested waters and airspace. Therefore, pre-positioned contingency stockpiles within Taiwan and closely located partner states will be critical to sustaining a prolonged defensive effort.
The Defense Department has taken steps recently to improve the U.S.’s logistical ability to provide military assistance to Taiwan and confront China’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric. On Feb. 2, the U.S. and the Philippines struck an agreement to allow the U.S. to station military equipment and use basing facilities in four new locations in the Philippines. This agreement marks an important expansion of the previously agreed-upon security cooperation framework—the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement of 2014, which now gives the U.S. access to a total of nine bases in the Philippines.
While the exact locations of the basing facilities are still being determined, possible sites in Cagayan in the northern Philippines would provide convenient access to waters near Taiwan. Further, the northernmost inhabited Philippine island of Itbayat is located just 93 miles from Taiwan. Access to new basing facilities under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement will allow the U.S. to rapidly respond to threats in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait and creates a key logistical-support role for the Philippines to play in a future conflict. While TERA provided congressional authorization to greatly increase regional contingency stockpiles, expanded basing agreements like the one just announced by the U.S. and the Philippines create the logistical nodes in a regional network capable of providing critical military assistance to Taiwan in the event that conflict erupts.
The provision of military assistance to Ukraine highlights the importance of pre-positioned munitions stockpiles that can be accessed quickly. The U.S. and its allies were able to provide an unprecedented amount of military assistance to Ukraine in response to Russia’s aggression because of these stockpiles and a logistics network capable of quickly delivering materiel to the Ukrainian armed forces. TERA authorizations, and the Defense Department’s efforts to establish a regional logistics network in support of Taiwan’s defense, are directly informed by these lessons.
Providing support to the island of Taiwan will require much more forward planning prior to the outbreak of conflict, as the delivery through contested waters or airspace will present new operational challenges. To deter Chinese aggression and prepare for potential conflict, the Defense Department is already shaping the battlespace to prepare the logistical network needed to support Taiwan’s defense. The State Department, armed with congressional authorization in TERA, has what will likely be the first tranche of increased appropriated funds to provide military assistance and support to further develop the Taiwanese porcupine—potentially to a level sufficient to deter Chinese aggression.
All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official view of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Navy