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Analysis: Making Sense of the Latest Taiwan Arms Deal

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Taiwan-watchers waited for long four years for new arms sales, but their patience was not met with large reward when the news about imminent arms sale to Taiwan emerged at the end of November.

The official announcement from this week confirmed that the package presents rather modest improvement of existing inventory. The largest difference against earlier speculations was the absence of a single AH-64E Guardian Apache meant to compensate for a loss of the same attack helicopter in 2014.

Another discussed and non-controversial item, 10 MH-60R helicopters, is not on the list either, which is in all likelihood a result of unfinished bureaucratic procedures after Taiwan submitted letter of request (LoR) at the end of October. Anyone who expected some remarkable boost of Taiwan’s defense will be disappointed.

For example, purchase of Stinger MANPADS or BGM-71 TOW 2B anti-tank guided missiles only adds to Taiwan’s existing inventory of the same systems. The most high-profile items on the list are two Oliver Hazard Perry-class (OHP) frigates, enlarging current fleet of Taiwan’s OHPs to total of eight. However, two refurbished frigates were designated for sale to Taiwan already two years ago. Purchase of 36 AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles, which U.S. Marine Corps plans to replace in coming years, might be considered by some as wasteful spending on out-of-date weapons.

However, even though this sale may not be very impressive, all the items provide meaningful contribution to Taiwan’s defense. For example, the AAV-7s will boost capabilities of Taiwan’s own Marine Corps (ROCMC). Marines requested additional AAV-7s (adding to existing 54 in ROCMC’s inventory) in order to increase unit mobility across the main island and maintain ability to reinforce units on offshore islands in the Taiwan Strait. For example, 66th Marine Brigade stationed in Linkou near the capital city Taipei would use its AAV-7 to cross river Danshui in case of rear attack on Taipei. The Marines in Linkou are the nearest military unit should People’s Liberation Army decide to use its airborne troops and Special Forces to seize the capital and greater number of AAV-7s will enhance unit’s mobility.

Perhaps the most interesting items on the current list are the ones that will receive less attention. Acquisition of 10 Link 11/Link 16 data links for 4 Lafayette and 6 OHP frigates will integrate them with Taiwan Advanced Tactical Data Link System (TATDLS). Likewise, follow-on support for MIDS/LVT-1 and JTIDS helps to integrate weapon systems with Taiwan’s command and control (C2) infrastructure. These upgrades will result in greater capability to conduct joint operations and allow to utilize new Tri-Service Hengshan Military Command Center or long-range early-warning radar at Leshan. Moreover, cost-free lease of a bilateral communications network between Taiwan and U.S. Pacific Command is significant and underscores vitality of U.S.-Taiwan mil-to-mil relations.

Missing: Fighter and Submarines

A 1980s vintage Hai-lang submarine, built in the Netherlands and operated by the Republic of China Navy. ROC Photo

A 1980s vintage Hai-lang submarine, built in the Netherlands and operated by the Republic of China Navy. ROC Photo

Granted, arms package of total value $1.83 billion still feels underwhelming compared to the last two sales in 2010 and 2011 with combined value of $12.3 billion, including multi-billion upgrade for Taiwan’s F-16A/B to F-16V standard and Patriot PAC-3 air and missile defense systems. However, it would not be quite realistic to expect DSCA notice on a major weapon systems like jet fighters out of the blue. In 2011, some move on fighter jet issue was expected even though upgrade of Taiwan’s existing F-16 fleet has been perceived as Obama’s effort to avoid Beijing’s displeasure should his administration approve sale of modern fighter jet. While Obama administration received fair share of criticism in the case of 66 F-16C/D requested by Taiwan, Taipei has not been very active on the case either, except occasional confirmation of standing interest, and the issue slipped from bilateral agenda.

Submarines are somewhat different story. When President Bush approved possible sale of eight diesel-electric submarines in 2001, he did it knowing that the U.S. has no in-houses capability to build diesel-electric submarines. Last year, after a decade and a half of fruitless efforts, Taiwan has decided to go ahead with domestic production. The U.S. assistance in this endeavour will be crucial. However, at this stage it would be premature to expect Taiwan side to request specific systems for sale. Instead, it is time for U.S. companies to take part in the indigenous defense submarine program (IDS).

Defensive Weapons Only

Taiwan F-16

Taiwan F-16

The arms package also lacks significant offensive punch. Neither of the systems on the list enhances Taiwan’s military ability to engage the enemy at a distance. That said, sale of defensive articles is in line with stipulations of Taiwan Relations Act (Sec. 2). What exactly is a defensive weapon is subject to interpretation at given moment, which can be quite flexible given the sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) in 2011 as part of F-16 upgrade package.

Efforts of Taiwan’s domestic weapon industry, namely the state-owned National Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST), compensate for restrictions on offensive weapons imposed by Washington. NCSIST is behind Taiwan’s indigenous missile program that resulted in subsonic Hsiung Feng II and supersonic Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missiles, Hsiung Feng IIE land-attack cruise missile (LACM), Tien Chien IIA anti-radiation missile, and Wan Chien stand-off weapon.

This unspoken division of labor serves both sides well. Washington may claim that there is no policy change in terms of providing Taiwan with defensive weapons, while Taipei builds up its capacity to conduct counter-offensive operations. Washington has not always been sympathetic toward Taiwan’s missile program, but it has come to embrace it in all but explicit terms by supporting Taiwan’s effort to develop innovative and asymmetric defense capabilities.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are also about political posturing, military value of delivered weapons notwithstanding. In this sense the latest package can be subject of both criticism and praise. Criticism because it could be perceived as too little after the longest break between two sales since 1979. Praise because it still sends signal to Beijing about lasting U.S. commitment to Taiwan, and by extension to the region, value and delay of the sale aside. The ultimate value of this sale will be tested by the occurrence of the next one. Regular arms sales on annual basis, addressing Taiwan’s needs as they come, may serve both sides better and present Beijing with arms sales as a part of status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

  • GJohnson

    Informative background. Grammar could use some improvement, though it was clearly understandable.

    • Leatherstocking

      Yes, he needs an editor. The lack of articles (a, the, etc.) made reading very choppy. I taught ESL for a decade and this is a common problem in translating to English, which is a difficult language to master.

  • Curtis Conway

    The Taiwanese need ASW helicopters badly. That would have really helped.

    • Secundius

      @ Curtis Conway.

      Taiwan Aerospace Industry Association or TAIA, has License to build Sikorsky S-92’s. Order for Ten Sikorsky MH-60R has be places as well as Boeing AH-64E Longbow Apaches…

      • old guy

        I wonder what happened to 400,000 M-1s my company modified from 30-06 to .308 NATO in the early ’60s?

        • Secundius

          @ old guy.

          Most likely ITALY, they acquired a “SH|T LOAD” and converted them into their Beretta BM-59 Rifles/Para-Rifles. Some even found their way into Civilian Markets like CMP…

  • sferrin

    This is purely show. It makes it look like we’re supporting an allie without actually doing anything that makes a difference. If we were actual allies we’d be helping them acquire any weapon they might need, from SSKs to ATBMs to fighter aircraft.

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  • disqus_zommBwspv9

    Washington imposes restrictions on Taiwan’s developing offensive weapons, but will not assist with aircraft and AAW upgrades. That appears to me a two face strategy with our allies. So Taiwan developed a supersonic cruise missile. Articles have been appearing that the administration is either stepping lightly to either feel out the Chinese or a fear of offending the Chinese. What would China do if Taiwan, Vietnam, Philiphines, Indonesia Japan and ROK sign a mutual defense pact and share resources?

    • Secundius

      @ Sailboater.

      Other then “Manpower”, the Philippines resources are Virtually None-Existent…

    • life form

      Take it from a Taiwan resident and supporter: one reason cutting edge stuff is not sold to Taiwan is because of the security risk of these systems being leaked to the PRC.

  • Michael Nunez

    If Taiwan Mass produces the ” HF-3 ” to say even 1000 , in 5 years an attack on Taiwan would mean incredible loses for the CCP . Taiwan’s Missile program should go into Overdrive . Area denial looks to be Taiwan’s Best option for it’s Survival . Area Denial would also benefit all Asean in dealing with the CCP Invasion of the SCS , A ” Log-Jam of Missiles would Force China’s CCP to rethink Their use of Force against it’s Weaker Neighbors . The U.S. should stay in the Back Drop and Incurage a Collective Alliance of Asean Countries to confront the Monster that wants to Control them or Destroy them…… .

  • gunnerv1

    “Defensive Weapons Only” as if Taiwan is going to attack China (Really!?) PRC vs ROC, it would be over before it started. We do have a Defensive Treaty with ROC, but I doubt that the Current Administration would honor it.

    • Secundius

      @ gunnerv1.

      The PRC, has been threatening the ROC since at least 1945 and by Imperial China since 1911. If the Mainland Could have Done It, They Would Have All-Ready. The PRC is “Hedging It’s Bet’s”, with the Realization that the ROC could have Nuclear Weapons. Technically they Don’t, but Technically Neither do Japan, South Korea, and Israel…

      • Imperial China threatening who? Formosa then was not under the Nationalists.

        • Secundius

          @ Jiesheng Li.

          My parent’s were US. Foreign Service Diplomats in Taiwan in the 1950’s. One of MOS-09L Foreign Language Ratings was “Hoklo”, Taiwan’s Local Speak. There at LEAST 16 “Indigenous” Tribes living on Taiwan before the Nationalist Chinese got their…

  • Secundius

    According to War Is Boring, Taiwan plans to have a Indigenous SSK of ~2,000-tons and Diesel-Electric/AIP Boat built by 2019…

  • R’ Yitzchak M

    Taiwan is by far the most critical US ally PERIOD !!! Japan is extremely important but PRChina is the only real and growing existential threat to the US, NATo and the rest of the globe. BUT! China is by far the SMARTEST political entity on the globe as well. They are growing very rapidly from the tyrannical dogma’s into an competitive and viable economic superpower. In WWII it was not the Leopard, or the king Tiger or the ME-262 but the PRODUCTION LEVELS that were making the difference on the battlefields 5,7 or even 9 Shermans or T-34’s against the one Tiger. Jan Pier Closterman RAF Ace (Free France’s pilot) once flew operation with his Tempest and knocking out a Tiger tank so just day later he came to see his “victim” at close.. yes there were an ingression hole from his “Hvar” misile to his surprise it did quite impact on the well being of the remins of the crew.. BUT then he looked around and there were 7 Shermans around which Tiger finished off before being knocked from the air. So kill ratio’s were abysmal but in overwhelming numbers there was no context. It is extremely important to understand the share magnitude to the global threat and perhaps the opportunity as well. China does not NEED to go to the war a simple calculus of utilizing Hong Kong’s free market’s economical wisdom and with growth at hand it will grow beyond the need to be aggressive it can do a MARSHAL PLAN approach the way the NATO was formed without fiering the bullet in process. Sun Tsu is just a shiny example of the Chinese wisdom. Taiwan is the critical point of the DECISSION are the primitive – peasant Communists to reassert their “power” by creating the war in order to PUSH themselves into a rulership or to SERVE China’s best interests to let it grow until it WILL eventually swallow the whole globe.. by eventually providing the jobs for the resedues of the failed policies. China is not borrowing it is landing moneys.
    So what the “poet” want to say? Taiwan is assurance that the China is choosing the PEACEFUL line of growth that WILL MATTER as opposed to succumb to the “peasant Comrades” desperate to reassert its tyrannical power against the core interests of the Chinese people.. Sun Tsu or “cultural revolution” take 2. For china the best ally is the TIME, for Taiwan and rest of the PLANET is just a matter of time.. so China MATTER and Taiwan is the only one that will materialize that time for a peacefull and inevitable ECONOMICAL transition to take place or the inevitable “Moonscape” for the planet. Taiwan is the critical threshold between those two.. and nothing else is could eclipse that. If US is smart it should INCORPORATE Taiwan and LEARN from them because they were by far the most sophisticated fre marketiers

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