Taiwan's military will fire blanks

By Wendell Minnick  / 

Wed, May 25, 2005 - Page 8

What kind of military buys 150 guns and only 120 bullets? Taiwan's military, of course.

Taiwan's air force has enough munitions to last only two days in a war with China.

At present, Taiwan has a limited number of air-to-air missiles: 120 AIM-120 AMRAAMs, 600 AIM-7 Sparrows and 900 AIM-9 Sidewinders for its 150 F-16 Falcon and 60-plus F-5 Tiger fighter aircraft.

Also, Taiwan only has 40 AGM-65 Mavericks and 58 AGM-84 Harpoons for ground targets. Taiwan's supply of missiles for its French-made Mirage 2000s and domestically produced Indigenous Defense Fighters face similar deficiencies.

US military sources say Taiwan needs a minimum of 350 AMRAAMs, 160 Harpoons, 75 Mavericks, and 3,000 Sidewinders to sustain it long enough for US military forces to arrive to help defend Taiwan.

The minimum amount of time it would take the US to respond is five days, but some estimates predict that Washington would debate the issue for as long as two weeks before committing forces to Taiwan's defense.

Taiwan originally requested 200 AMRAAMs for its F-16s, which was widely misreported in the media as the actual number purchased. But Taiwan finally opted for less.

"Why buy only 120? How long will those last in a war? Less than a day! That quantity is not operationally useful. Taiwan has to take their defense seriously, instead of just buying hi-tech weapons for their leaders' prestige. They purchase a fire truck and don't buy hoses," one discouraged US defense official said.

There are many theories why Taiwan does not buy a sufficient number of munitions.

One common belief is that the Ministry of National Defense prioritizes the procurement of platforms, such as aircraft, with minimal purchases of logistics support and munitions in order to save money.

So when a crisis flares, the ministry would simply place emergency orders for the missiles it needed.

This theory is probably much closer to the truth than one would like to believe.

Taiwan placed an emergency order for munitions with the US during the Taiwan Strait missile crisis in March 1996. The order was canceled after the crisis abated.

Another theory suggests that when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was still in power, its policy was to put up a fight just long enough to force China to the negotiating table on terms more favorable to Taiwan.

Taiwan and China would be unified, but Taiwan's military and the political "powers that be" would not lose face.

The most popular theory is that Taiwan's military only buys weapons -- such as fighter jets -- that serve as a political or symbolic tool.

Munitions are not sexy in a political or symbolic way. Additionally, given the belief that China would only attack if Taiwan declared independence, when the KMT was in power there was no chance of that happening. The government "bought a fire truck without hoses" because it did not believe there would be a fire.

Today the situation has changed dramatically. The KMT is no longer in power. The military no longer has the luxury of fighting a limited war. And China's military is no longer the weaker sex.

Now China's strategy is to force a quick military and political capitulation during timelines that have shortened over the past five years. Taiwan needs a viable "force in being." There will be no time for an emergency delivery of AMRAAMS or Sidewinders. It would be a "come as you are" war.

What does this mean for a Taiwanese air-force pilot engaged in a dogfight with Chinese fighters? It means a lot of "yankin' and bankin.'"

Taiwanese pilots already have a lot of cynicism about their jobs. Air combat missions against Chinese targets are referred to as "one-way tickets."

Entering China's air-defense network would be like being sucked into a black hole.

This is why Taiwan also needs additional ALE-50 towed radar decoys. Taiwan has refused to procure an operationally useful number of these decoys. To date they have ordered less decoys than would last one full day if a war started.

Taiwan needs two launcher controllers per 150 F-16s (300 in total). The decoys are not reusable, so in a shooting war, assume there are 1.5 decoys per sortie, multiply that by 100 aircraft flying two sorties per day, then multiply that again by 10 days of fighting, and you have 3,000 decoys.

Taiwan has purchased less than 5 percent of that number of decoys, and only 56 of the launcher controllers. The ALE-50 goes a long way in ensuring the survivability of the F-16 against China's missiles. A ministry report released last year concluded that Taiwan's air force would be "destroyed in a few days."

Still, Taiwan's air force has fought off US pressure to fortify its aircraft shelters with additional cement. A simple low-cost measure is ignored because it is not sexy.

US defense sources have also been discouraged by Taiwan's decision to withdraw its F-16s from the Luke Air Force Base air-combat training program last year. One US defense source described the decision as a "disaster."

Taiwan's participation in the program gave pilots a first-class education in aerial combat, beginning in 1997.

Taiwanese pilots learned long-range low-altitude penetration, air-to-air combat, air combat maneuvering, instrumentation, night attacks and maritime interdiction. Taiwanese pilots have been recurrent winners of the Turkey Shoot competition and the Frank Luke Award for flying.

China's force modernization has resulted in a deployment of 800 fighter aircraft, including new Russian-made Su-27 and Su-30 fighters, within 1,100km of Taiwan. In addition, Taiwan is now facing 700 Dong Feng-11 (M-11) and DF-15 (M-9) tactical ballistic missiles.

What does all of this mean in a war with China? China will rape Taiwan.

Wendell Minnick is the Jane's Defence Weekly correspondent for Taiwan.