On Sept. 24, the US Department of State, via the US Department of Defense’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, notified the US Congress about a new batch of arms sales to Taiwan.
Information released by the agency did not include a detailed list of the items to be sold; it only said that the US would provide Taiwan with spare parts and repairs for a range of US-built military aircraft, along with support systems and related elements.
The agency estimated the total cost to be US$330 million.
The Ministry of National Defense has said that this batch of arms sales is a continuation of existing programs and falls under the procurement budget quota for standard aircraft parts for the next five years. Consequently, there has not been much discussion about it, but it does raise a number of important issues.
US arms sales to Taiwan over the past few years have been quite beneficial to Taiwan’s armed forces in terms of ammunition and systems. However, what Taiwan really wants to buy are mainstay operational platforms, the sale of which would carry political implications.
Disappointingly, there have so far been no more than whispers with regard to such major items.
Platforms sold to Taiwan by the US during the terms of the three presidents before US President Donald Trump could be summarized as follows:
During the administration of former US president Bill Clinton, US arms sales to Taiwan included E-2T Hawkeye airborne early-warning aircraft, Knox-class frigates, M60A3 Patton main battle tanks, AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters, OH-58D Kiowa scout helicopters and amphibious landing craft.
During former US president George W. Bush’s administration, the US sold Taiwan a PAVE PAWS long-range early-warning radar system, Kidd-class destroyers, P-3C maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, as well as AH-64E Apache attack helicopters.
The Bush administration also planned to sell Taiwan submarines, but the deal has still not gone through.
During former US president Barack Obama’s administration, the US sold Taiwan UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, Osprey-class mine-hunting ships and Perry-class frigates, and it launched a program to upgrade Taiwan’s F-16A/B jets by retrofitting them to F-16V standards.
Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, the US supplied Taiwan with plenty of weapons that still serve Taiwan’s armed forces reliably. However, after Obama took office, arms sales took place less frequently and were subject to repeated delays.
There was even an unprecedented gap of more than four years during which the US did not sell Taiwan any arms.
Furthermore, the items sold gradually shifted to systems and ammunition, while major items were lacking.
In contrast, the US started delivering F-35 jets to Japan. After the US sold it key equipment, Japan started building its seventh and eighth destroyers equipped with the Aegis Combat System.
Last month, Japan received the most advanced E-2D version of the Hawkeye airborne early-warning aircraft.
The US has also started delivering F-35s to South Korea, and last month, Seoul obtained the US Departement of State’s approval to purchase six P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, which are capable of both anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.
Compared with Japan and South Korea, Taiwan is falling far behind.
In the past few years, large-scale plans have been proposed for Taiwan to develop a self-reliant defense industry. However, the country does not have sufficient technical capabilities or manufacturing capacity, so it must rely on the military and political synergistic effect that arms sales generate.
For example, all the mainstay destroyers of several other countries in the region, including the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia, and are now equipped with the Aegis Combat System. Taiwan should not go on being excluded from the Aegis club.
The US’ Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, which incorporate the Aegis system, have been in service for 27 years.
The US has exported the associated technology to many of its allies and it has repeatedly proved its maturity.
Taiwan’s navy has Kidd-class destroyers, which have strong combat capabilities, but the class is 38 years old.
Taiwan should try to not let this unfortunate situation drag on until its air defense destroyers with command-and-control capabilities are more than 50 years old. It should therefore aim to take advantage of the regional situation at a political level.
A secret budget already exists for purchasing M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, and the purchasing plan could be announced and put into action at any time.
On the other hand, F-35Bs are too sensitive and it is impossible to predict when or if Taiwan would be able to buy them.
Having excluded these two items, it could be concluded that between now and 2020 Taiwan should make Arleigh Burke-class destroyers its main target for military procurement.
Wang Yueh-nien is a former military officer and think tank staff member.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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