It is never a good sign when the supplier of a nation’s defensive weaponry tells its military that it should avoid using those weapons in live-fire exercises to reduce training risks.
This does not send an encouraging message regarding weapons that could mean the difference between life or death.
However, the non-use of these weapons is exactly what the US requested of Taiwan and any other country that bought Sparrow missiles.
The US has been Taiwan’s principal supplier of weapons for as long as Taiwan has been ruled by the Republic of China, but has not always sold Taiwan the highest-quality goods. Indeed, at times it seems that Taiwan is a sort of recycling ground for old, unwanted and unreliable weapons.
The Sparrow, officially known as the AIM-7 Sparrow missile, has undergone a number of revisions in its long history. It was first developed and tested in the 1950s, when photographs of test firings were in black and white.
The missile was extensively used, with disappointing results for the US airmen firing it, during the Vietnam War. The main complaints were that the weapon could not stand up to the humidity in tropical Vietnam, was unreliable and often misfired.
Eventually, the US decided to phase out this missile and replace it with more advanced, and presumably more reliable, missiles. In addition, a number of US allies decided to phase out use of the Sparrow as well. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces decided to drop it in favor of the Mitsubishi AAM-4.
Given this missile’s highly questionable background, it is no wonder that most of those fired in a live-fire military exercise in front of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) last year failed to hit their targets. This exercise turned out to be a big embarrassment for Ma and the military, but it probably should have been expected, and could have been avoided — just do not fire them, as the US says.
So, what this means is that they look good attached to a jet fighter’s wings, but not once they are fired. That is not exactly the type of weapon you want when war breaks out.
How many other weapons that the US sold to Taiwan are actually rusting away in Taiwan’s humid environment? One of the main factors that affected the Sparrow in Vietnam was the climate, which is fairly similar to Taiwan’s. The military had better invest in some dehumidifiers before all of its weapons stop functioning. Otherwise, if it ever came to war, it looks like Taiwan’s military would not only be vastly outnumbered by China’s, but it would be shooting blanks as well.
Firecrackers and fancy duds are not enough to scare off the dragon — Taiwan needs to have weapons that really hurt if it wants to stand a chance of deterring aggression. That is what the whole premise of deterrence is based on — an adequate ability to defend oneself and strike back when attacked.
Missiles that do not hit what they are aimed at, submarines that do not submerge and jet fighters that tend to fall out of the air — unless Taiwan beefs up its arsenal soon with functional weapons, it will be a big fat fruit ripe for China’s picking.