The “new” arms package recently touted by US officials has yet to be confirmed by US President Barack Obama. Nevertheless, supporters of Taiwan are already hailing the news as a great victory, of Obama “thumbing his nose at the Chinese,” as Foreign Policy recently put it.
There are signs, however, that there is less to the news than meets the eye.
From what has been made public, the Obama administration could release PAC-3 interceptor missiles, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, as well as an operations deal for the “Po Sheng,” or Broad Victory, command and control program and design work on diesel-electric submarines.
Not only are the 66 F-16C/D fighter aircraft that Taiwan has sought for years missing from the list, however, there is also nothing new in the “new” arms package proposed by the administration.
“The real question,” Wendell Minnick, Asia Bureau Chief at Defense News, told the Taipei Times on Sunday, “is what is ‘new’ in the arms pipe that hasn’t been in there since 2001. And there is nothing, which is ominous.”
All these items were approved by former US president George W. Bush in 2001. Also problematic is the fact that the design work on the submarines would be both costly and may not even result in actual subs. Even if it did, it would only be many years from now and make an insignificant contribution to Taiwan’s current and mid-term defense requirements.
Furthermore, given the two-to-one ratio required for PAC-3 missiles to shoot down a target, even the addition of the 330 missiles included in the Bush package would be insufficient to ensure full coverage in case of a Chinese barrage.
China’s arsenal, which has been growing by about 100 missiles annually, is about 1,500. A barrage would easily overwhelm Taiwan’s defense capabilities and even a limited attack could quickly deplete its defense stocks.
“It’s simple math,” Minnick said. “Four fire units of PAC-2s procured 10 years ago are being upgraded, but even so, each unit has four missiles, so that’s 16 total missiles that can be fired.”
“It takes 30 minutes to reload one fire unit. So you are down to eight PAC-2 missiles per attack. The Chinese just upped the number of SRBMs [short-range ballistic missile] to overwhelm them. Now Taiwan is getting new PAC-3s. But even if they get the six fire units originally released by Bush, that’s only 24 missiles, plus 16 original PAC-2s — that’s 40 [altogether]. With two missiles dedicated to incoming SRBMs ... that’s really only 20.”
In addition, Beijing could use the announcement of the PAC-3 sale as an argument to continue building up its missile arsenal, which would offset the small advantage created by the purchase.
The price tag for 330 PAC-3 missiles and related equipment is estimated at US$3.1 billion, while each DF-15 missile deployed by China costs about US$450,000, excluding launchers and related equipment. To draw a comparison, 330 DF-15 would cost China US$148 million. By taking the two-to-one ratio into consideration, it would cost China US$74 million to deplete US$3.1 billion worth of PAC-3s — a cost disparity that makes a strong case against the advisability of the PAC-3s purchase in the first place.
Still, some US defense analysts see some benefits to the PAC-3s, as they would be “speed bumps” in a conventional Chinese military campaign and serve to undercut coercive use of force.