Singapore Air Show

Despite politics, U.S. scores big deals in Taiwan

 - February 11, 2008, 10:38 AM

After a visit to China last month, the commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, Admiral Timothy Keating, suggested that Beijing’s growing military might was aimed specifically at Taiwan. China has threatened to invade Taiwan if it should declare independence. Ahead of Taiwanese presidential elections and a controversial referendum, political tension across the 90-mile Taiwan Straits that divide the two territories remains high.

The military balance is also precarious. China holds Taiwan’s key military bases–and by extension, much of the island’s population–at risk by stationing more than 1,000 surface-to-surface missiles within range. The U.S. is not formally committed to aiding Taiwan against any assault from the mainland, but it has sold Taiwan billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. arms to defend itself. In November, China blocked a U.S. naval carrier task force from docking in Hong Kong for the Thanksgiving holiday, in protest over the go-ahead for a proposed $940 million upgrade of Taiwan’s Raytheon Patriot air and missile defense system.

That sale, which includes eight diesel submarines and 12 refurbished P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, had been stalled for five years by internal political disputes in Taiwan. The P-3C deal is now going ahead, and is worth up to $1.9 billion. Lockheed Martin will refurbish and re-wing 12 former U.S. Navy aircraft, which will boost Taiwan’s antisubmarine capability by replacing obsolete S-2 Tracker aircraft.

Taiwan has also requested more Lockheed Martin F-16s, this time 66 F-16C/Ds worth $1.3 billion. The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) received 150 F-16A/Bs in the late 1990s, and they now equip two wings. The new batch would presumably re-equip the remaining F-5 wing, but the U.S. government has so far refused to approve the purchase.

Although Taiwan has yet to receive any high-profile weapons systems in this decade, it has pursued expensive, but less obvious, upgrades of defensive infrastructure supplied previously by the U.S. Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have been the main suppliers. For instance, Lockheed Martin Tactical Systems is the prime contractor for a significant C4ISR systems upgrade known in Taiwan as the Po Sheng (Broad Victory) project. It could eventually be worth more than $2 billion.

Raytheon is supplying phased- array radars and control centers for missile warning worth $752 million. The U.S. group is also replenishing the ROCAF’s stock of AIM-120C AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and AGM-65G air-to-surface missiles, both carried by the F-16s, in a sale worth $421 million.

European countries have marketed no significant defense equipment to Taiwan since the mid-1990s, when France sold 60 Mirage 2000-5 interceptors and the Dutch supplied two submarines. Taiwan would probably like to diversify its supply sources, but the Europeans are fearful of upsetting Beijing, even though they cannot sell weapons to mainland China because an EU arms embargo is still is in force.

Since the mid-1970s, Taiwan has developed some of its own weapons. The Aero-Industry Development Center (AIDC) produced the Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF, or Ching-Kuo) with semi-covert U.S. assistance. It halted production at 130 in the mid-1990s after the U.S. agreed to supply the F-16s.

The IDFs equip two wings of the ROCAF and AIDC has flown the prototype of a planned upgrade with new avionics, increased internal fuel and more weapons stations. The upgrade would cost $200 million; it has not yet been approved. The IDF has served in air defense duties, but ROCAF crews now also train for air-to-ground missions.

The secretive Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) has pursued indigenous missile development, including Tien Chien (Sky Sword) air-to-air missiles for the IDF, the Tien Kung (Sky Bow) surface-to-air missile, which can complement the Patriot, and Hsiung Feng (Brave Wind) anti-ship missiles.

Last year, Taiwan flight tested a new Mk 2E version of the Hsiung Feng. In reality, the Mk 2E is a long-range cruise missile that could be a deterrent to China’s ballistic missiles. The U.S. persuaded Taiwan not to display it during a military parade last October, and the country’s opposition Kuomintang party, which now controls the legislature in Taipei, opposes its production. The CSIST is also producing UAVs.

Despite these developments, it seems that only one country can assure a continuation of Taiwan’s de facto independence. The Taiwan defense minister told a visiting U.S. congressional commission last year that Taiwan’s armed forces lost every simulated war game with China. The commission noted that U.S. forces have been advising Taiwan military planners about how to conduct joint operations. “Ultimately, Taiwan’s entire defense strategy is rooted in U.S. military intervention,” the commission said.