At the request of the Pentagon, the US Senate has taken up a bill to allow the Bush administration to sell Taiwan two ships to augment its aging minesweeping fleet.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday approved and sent on to the full Senate a bill to authorize the sale of two Osprey-class minesweepers, the Oriole and the Falcon.
While the cost of the ships to be offered to Taiwan was not enumerated, the US Navy estimated that the bill, which would also include the sale of one minesweeper to Turkey and two amphibious dock ships to Mexico, would net US$84.5 million.
In letters to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Vice President Dick Cheney in May requesting that the sales be included in legislation, the Pentagon said the sales "would improve the United States' political and military relationships with close allies. They would support strategic engagement goals and regional security cooperation objectives."
The two vessels are among 12 Osprey-class minesweepers built between 1993 and 1999, and which are now being phased out by the US Navy. They are the world's largest glass-reinforced, plastic-hulled ships and the first US ships designed solely for minehunting. They are being replaced by multi-task vessels.
Most US military analysts, including those in the Pentagon, expect that any Chinese military actions against Taiwan would involve mining the Taiwan Strait.
In an attack or invasion attempt, mines would help keep US forces at bay, preventing them from effectively coming to Taiwan's aid. In a blockade, they would be used to prevent shipping from supplying Taiwan with goods.
China's arsenal includes more than 10,000 mines, according to defense expert Richard Fisher, a vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
As a result, Fisher wonders how effective the two new vessels would be in the event of a full-fledged Chinese mining operation.
Nevertheless, Fisher applauded the move to sell the ships to Taiwan in view of the potential Chinese military threat and the poor state of Taiwan's existing anti-mine capabilities.
Under the Senate bill, Taiwan would have two years after the bill were enacted into law to purchase the vessels, at which time the authorization would expire.
Taiwan would have to pay all of the costs involved in refitting the ships and bringing them to combat-readiness. All such work would have to be done in US shipyards.
The sale requires specific legislative action, the Pentagon said, because the vessels are less than 20 years old.