Taiwan’s air defense problems might be the most “difficult in the world,” according to a report from the US think tank RAND Corp.
“Taiwan has gone from having a qualitative advantage over the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] in the air, to its current situation, which we assess to be grim indeed,” the 172-page report said.
Titled Air Defense Options for Taiwan and written by Michael Lostumbo, David Frelinger, James Williams and Barry Wilson, the report recommends gutting the fighter plane fleet and spending the savings on surface-to-air missiles (SAM).
Funded by the US Department of Defense, the report could affect future White House decisions on what weapon systems to sell to Taiwan.
“If a major conflict were initiated, China now has the capability to destroy all of Taiwan’s aircraft at their bases, except those that can be hidden in Taiwan’s two mountain shelters,” the report said.
“Taiwan needs to rethink how it can accomplish its air defense goals without heavy reliance on its fight aircraft,” it added.
The report said that Taiwan should use surface-to-air missiles against aircraft and incoming cruise missiles — and improve the survivability of launchers by constantly moving them around.
It said radar is the Achilles’ heel of SAMs, because they need radar to identify, track and attack air threats.
“But an emitting radar is like a bright neon sign and will quickly draw the attention of attack systems,” the report said.
According to the think tank, increasing SAM survivability is a vital component of Taiwan’s future air defense strategies.
In a future conflict, Taiwan would get more from its Patriot and Tien Kung-3 (TK3, “Sky Bow”) SAMs if it preserves them initially by not using them to defend fixed assets, and keeps them concealed until they can be used against landing forces.
RAND estimated that Taipei would spend US$22 billion in the next 20 years on the fighter aircraft currently in its fleet with no changes and another US$3.3 billion to retrofit its F-16 fleet.
“Taiwan is, unfortunately, situated very near a country that continues to make military threats and has invested extensively in a wide range of capabilities that will make it very difficult for Taiwan to fly fighter aircraft in combat,” the report said.
“Although it might be painful for leaders in Taiwan to think of a major divestment of its fighter force, the expectations about the efficacy of that force need to be curtailed,” it added.
RAND recommended that Taiwan spend most of its defense budget not on fighters, but on a SAM force that would keep the airspace above the nation clear to allow other critical military operations.
It said that the SAM force should be increased with a shorter-range system that could provide a more cost-effective layered air defense.
The combination of a short-range interceptor, such as a ground-launched AIM-9X Sidewinder, and a longer-range ground-launched AIM-120 would make a “formidable defense” when used with the existing Patriot/TK-3 defenses.
A force of 21 air defense platoons armed with 1,600 to 2,100 AIM-120 missiles would cost between US$8.1 billion and US$9.2 billion, and would protect large areas of the nation, the report said.
RAND said that, in addition, Taipei could buy five to 12 new batteries of Patriot/TK-3 systems and 300 PAC-3 missiles at a cost of about US$10.6 billion.