Fighters, Submarines, and Railguns

A Taiwan Air Force Mirage 2000 fighter jet land takes off from a closed section of highway during the annual Han Kuang military exercises, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, in Chiayi, central Taiwan. The exercise is to train pilots and ground crew to use a section of highway as an airstrip in the event of an attack from mainland China. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

With constrained budgets and few allies, Taiwan struggles to acquire the weapons it wants and needs for self-defense.

Matching – or even coming close to matching – China in defense spending is clearly not an option for Taiwan. But as noted in the paper “Taiwan’s Defense Spending: The Security Consequences of Choosing Butter Over Guns,” published jointly by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, simply maintaining a strong defense capability “can raise the cost and risk to the PRC of an attack, which would likely reduce the possibility that Beijing will opt to use military force to achieve its goals.” Critics, however, question whether Taiwan is doing enough to strengthen its armed forces to raise the deterrence level. Taiwan devotes slightly more than 2% of total GDP to the military; defense analysts urge that the level be brought closer to 3%.

Building Taiwan’s arsenal is not simply a matter of spending more money, however. Taiwan’s unique diplomatic circumstances mean that the only country that will sell it weapons is the United States. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is obligated to provide defensive weapons to Taiwan. But while the island is among the top five markets for U.S. weapons, the United States is generally cautious about such sales so as not to aggravate China, as evidenced by the usual time lag of more than a decade between the first request for a particular weapons system and the final contract. Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief of Defense News, notes that by the time weapons are actually delivered, they are “normally 10 to 15 years too late.” But he says that despite the lag, the weapons systems procurements are still significant as a signal of U.S. support for Taiwan.

The F-16 saga is a case in point. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) first requested new F-16 C/Ds to augment its fleet of fighters in 2007. Taiwan already has some 380 fighter jets, including 145 F-16 A/Bs acquired from the United States in the late 1990s, and the MND hoped that the more advanced version of the aircraft would give it fourth-generation capabilities to take on China’s growing fleet of advanced fighters. In addition, Taiwan’s air force hopes to retire its fleet of 60 costly Mirage 2000s and outdated F5s by the mid-2020s.

More than US$12 billion in arms sales to Taiwan have taken place since 2010.

The United States deferred the decision on sales of the C/Ds for years. As a compromise, the United States has undertaken to upgrade the F-16 A/Bs that Taiwan already owns to a level known as the F-16S variant, with performance and weapons systems equal to or exceeding the F-16 C/D. Unfortunately, these upgrades don’t address the issue of insufficient total numbers of fighters.

Nevertheless, Taiwan and the United States have managed to complete a number of defense deals over recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than US$12 billion in arms sales to Taiwan have taken place since 2010. Many of the acquisitions reflect the influence of William Murray of the U.S. Naval War College, who has advocated a more localized defensive strategy. The MND, for example, has procured Rapid Runway Repair kits, along with the associated training, in an effort to keep planes operational even after airfields are bombarded by Chinese ballistic missiles.

Last year the army took final delivery of 31 Boeing Apache AH-64 attack helicopters, the most advanced version of the Apache, costing some US$26 million each. Taiwan also began taking delivery of 60 UH-60M Blackhawk utility helicopters, the all-weather workhorse of militaries around the world. In line with President Ma Ying-jeou’s decision to expand the role of the military into disaster response in the wake of Typhoon Morakot in 2009, 15 of these Blackhawks will be diverted to the Ministry of Interior to be used purely for search and rescue. Taiwan has also made significant upgrades to its radar systems, including PAC-3 radar, has procured Stinger missiles, and taken delivery of the first three of an eventual 12 P-3C Orion antisubmarine surveillance aircraft.

These acquisitions will go a long way in bolstering Taiwan’s defense against an invasion, but many analysts say they need to be supplemented by other weapons systems, particularly submarines. A deal originally proposed by the Bush administration in 2001 fell through, and today Taiwan still has only four subs, basically obsolete relics of the Cold War and even World War II eras. Recently MND announced that Taiwan will proceed with its own program to build submarines. In support of the plan, President Ma was quoted in the media as saying “the submarine is the most significant weapon for a country in building its naval defense capabilities. The military absolutely needs to acquire (new) submarines,”

Today Taiwan still has only four submarines, basically obsolete relics of the Cold War and even World War II eras.

Skeptics question whether Taiwan actually has the technological capability to build its own submarine fleet. Although the island has one major shipbuilder – CSBC Corp., formerly the state-owned China Shipbuilding Corp. – and several yacht makers, building a submarine requires very specific technical capabilities. Australia’s problems building its Collins-class subs in the 1980s shows that even advanced nations struggle to successfully build submarines. As one defense specialist observed, a submarine fleet would provide Taiwan with an excellent deterrent – but a sub that sinks, killing all on board on its maiden voyage, would have the exact opposite effect.

On the other hand, many technologically backward nations have succeeded in building submarines, even Colombian drug lords. “Those who say it’s infeasible for Taiwan to develop indigenous submarines grossly underestimate the island’s engineering talent,” notes one Washington-based defense expert.

Taiwan has produced a number of its own weapon systems, mostly through MND’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, including the highly rated Tien Kung “Skybow” missile defense systems, Hsiung Feng-II anti-ship missiles, and BVR Tien Chien-II (Sky Sword-II) missiles. Some of the indigenous weapons systems were developed in close collaboration with U.S. defense contractors. Creation of the Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) fighter jet was the result of cooperation with General Dynamics and Westinghouse, for example, and the submarine program will also need the help of numerous contractors.

Among other priorities for Taiwan’s defense, military specialist Richard Fisher recommends advanced ISR (information, reconnaissance, and surveillance) capabilities. He sees Taiwan’s new UHF radar systems as a good start, but considers that this capability would be safer offshore. He also recommends “theater strike and theater combat” weapon systems that would give Taiwan the ability to destroy a gathering invasion force, and further suggests investing in railguns.

Railguns use electromagnetic energy rather than explosives to hurl projectiles as fast as seven times the speed of sound. The concept of railguns actually dates back nearly a century, but recent technological developments have allowed this concept to become a reality. The latest version of a railgun, unveiled by the U.S. Navy this past February, reportedly can fire a projectile every six seconds at a range of up to 350 kilometers. “With rail guns, it becomes feasible to consider that Taiwan could take out half of China’s incoming missiles,” says Fisher. “Such a capability by Taiwan could extend realistic military deterrence for a considerable period.”

He adds that Taiwan still needs greater “strategic depth” by expanding international military exchanges “via informal military cooperative arrangements,” and by “giving high firepower to police and militia forces” for a potential last-ditch effort to resist an actual invasion – the last stage of the “porcupine defense strategy.”

Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the Washington-based U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, adds THAAD missile defense systems to the list. THAAD stands for “terminal (formerly theatre) high-altitude area defense” and has the advantage of being able to knock out ballistic missiles at a range of 200 kilometers and altitude of up to 150 kilometers, 20 to 100 times higher than a PAC-3. Hammond-Chambers, a frequent commentator on Taiwan-related defense issues, says that THAAD “would broaden the U.S., Japan, and Korea umbrella presently being created” and is “the final main piece of Taiwan theater missile defense infrastructure.”