On Jan. 18, hot on the heels of China’s leaked test flight of its new J-20 stealth fighter and just as Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) was in the US on a state visit, Taiwan’s military conducted joint surface-to-air and air-to-air missile tests at the Jiupeng military base in Pingtung County. During the test a total of 19 missiles were launched, six of which — among them the TC-1 Sky Sword (天劍), the MICA (雲母) short to medium-range air-to-air tactical missile, the RIM-7M Sparrow (麻雀) and the ground-launched Sparrow (陸射麻雀) — failed to hit their targets. That makes a success rate of only 68 percent, a fact the newspapers made sure we were aware of.
The next day the Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced on its official Web site that a preliminary expert assessment suggests the problems were the result of faulty detonators or thrusters. It added that success rates of 73 percent conformed more to the norm.
I doubt the problem lay with individual pieces of equipment. The usual way these live fire tests go is that roughly twice the amount of missiles expected to be launched are selected, each given the once over and tested for internal and external mechanical and functional integrity, for both stationary and moving parts. If no problems are discovered, they go through comprehensive simulated tests together with the launching systems, and if any issues arise with any link in the chain the simulations are repeated, from beginning to end. The equipment will only enter the official launch stage if it has passed all tests.
How, then, could the poor performance of the missiles during this last test have been because of individual pieces of faulty equipment? I’m sure that if they just picked missiles at random and put them straight into the tests without checking them out first the failure rate would have been startling.
However, these live fire tests cannot really be taken in isolation and need to be seen in the context of previous live fire tests and how they have evolved over an extended period of time. The crucial issues among all this are the more entrenched problems of the armed forces’ combat preparedness and mentality, as well as civil service reform.
So what have we learned from this latest test firing, in the context of previous tests? Well, we should be concentrating on reducing the failure rate of indigenous equipment, to a considerable degree. Of the various models of fighter planes currently in service with the air force, the majority of fighter pilots agree that the Ching-Kuo IDF (Indigenous Defense Fighter) is the most likely to be combat ready, and is the easiest to operate.
The crux of the matter is the degree to which the military can control subsequent technological developments and components for weapons and equipment bought from overseas after the original purchase. The electrical components, structural parts and fuel of even the most advanced current weapons and systems will go out of production and eventually run out, and many of these are integral to the others, and therefore indispensable to the functioning of the weapon or system in question.
Frequent testing is essential to keep tabs on which parts need replacing, either because they have passed their expiry date or are faulty for some reason, and naturally the risk of either of these problems being encountered increases as time passes. This problem is even more true in the case of previously used weapons or equipment that is either in the process of being decommissioned or that has already been decommissioned.
More than NT$986 billion (US$34 billion) was spent on purchasing weapons and military equipment from the US between 1990 and 2008 inclusive, an average of almost NT$52 billion per year, and this does not take into account the money to be spent on logistical support or maintenance over the following 20 to 30 years. By comparison, much less is spent on developing indigenous equipment. In the past few years, if the military has not been able to afford the advanced equipment it feels it needs — such as advanced fighter jets, Aegis class destroyers and submarines — it has been content to just wait. It has not entertained the idea of getting the next best thing and looking for viable alternatives, or taking the decision to develop equipment suited to its own needs.
By contrast, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has, over the past 20 years or so, been amassing the equipment and the weaponry it requires. It has done this by buying high-tech equipment, producing an impressive range of fighters either through technology transfer, emulating others’ technologies or reverse engineering. It has cherry-picked new technologies to suit its own needs and integrated them, finally developing technologies and versions to cater to its own requirements.
This approach has paid considerable dividends over the years, including the development of J-11 fighter jets, Song and Yuan class submarines, its own homemade Aegis destroyer and now the J-20 fifth generation stealth fighter.
Ministry announcements such as the one mentioned previously don’t do anyone any favors. This is just sweeping the dirt under the carpet. Ignoring a problem does not make it go away. If you block a mouse-hole the vermin will just come out of another breach elsewhere in the house.
It’s not that military reform over the last few years has been totally ineffectual, it’s just that it hasn’t been able to keep up with the relative decline and depreciation of our resources. This was articulated in an article entitled “Taiwan Arms: 2 Steps Back, 1 Step Forward” by Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, published in Defense News on Oct 27, 2008.
This is in stark contrast to the PLA’s exponential increase in military strength in real terms. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) famously advocated a “hide one’s strength and bide one’s time” policy. I think it possible to characterize the PLA’s rise as “hide our strength and bide our time until we are ready to draw our sword and shake the world.”
Time and circumstance are no longer on Taiwan’s side and we can no longer rely on outside help for our national defense. We should be thinking about instigating a far-sighted strategic defense program that all political parties in Taiwan would find acceptable, so that we can liberate ourselves from the current dire straits in which we find ourselves.
Wang Jyh-perng is an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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