The US has approved a US$154 million contract to allow Raytheon Company to further upgrade Taiwan’s Patriot Air and Missile Defense System.
It is the first positive indication of how the administration of US President Barack Obama will handle military requests from Taipei.
There had been fears that the new president might neglect Taiwanese defense as he pushed for better relations with China.
But the new contract has won White House support in the wake of a major policy paper from Beijing that said blocking formal Taiwanese independence and stopping US arms sales to Taiwan were the chief concerns of the Chinese military.
The Patriot contract was issued by the US Army Aviation and Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, on Monday.
It is not part of the US$6.5 billion arms sale to Taiwan that was approved by former US president George Bush last October.
Rather, it is a totally separate deal that follows two other awards Raytheon received last year for Taiwan Patriot support, one in March for upgrades and another in April for technical services.
Under the new contract Raytheon will upgrade Taiwan’s Patriots from “Configuration-2” to “Configuration-3,” bringing them to the same state-of-the-art level as the US Army’s own Patriot system.
This means that Taiwan can use Lockheed’s PAC-3 missiles and allows missile launchers to be placed miles in front of the radar that controls the system.
“Upgrading Patriot fire units from Configuration-2 to Configuration-3 will provide Taiwan with enhanced system capabilities to meet current and emerging threats,” said Sanjay Kapoor, vice president for Patriot Programs at Raytheon.
The upgraded Patriots are believed to be capable of intercepting and destroying many — if not most — incoming missiles fired in an enemy attack.
But the Patriot is not foolproof and in the case of a large-scale attack involving dozens of enemy missiles all being fired at once at a variety of targets, some would be nearly certain to get through.
As part of the new contract Raytheon — the world’s largest missile maker — will provide upgrade kits for radar and command and control components, a radar refurbishment and related engineering and technical services.
Under last October’s arms sales agreement, Taiwan will get 330 of the Lockheed Martin built PAC-3 missiles valued at US$3.1 billion.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted earlier this month that cooperation between Beijing and Washington would not come at Taiwan’s expense.
“The US will seek to create an environment in which Taiwan feels secure. Arms sales will remain under consideration, especially new fighter jets. China’s military posture toward Taiwan will be the critical variable in any arms sale decision, along with Taiwan’s requests for defensive weapons to defend itself against a Chinese attack,” she said.
China has more than 1,400 missiles pointed at Taiwan and has said repeatedly that it would achieve unification by force if needed.
Indeed, China’s latest national defense White Paper indicates that Taiwan remains the focus of China’s current military buildup.
The Associated Press reported a few days ago that Beijing was keeping this year’s spending figures for its 2.3 million-strong armed forces secret. But last year China announced a military budget of US$59 billion, up nearly 18 percent over the previous year.