Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against Chinese aircraft and missile attacks is expected to receive a shot in the arm following the scheduled completion next year of an upgrade program for its “Skyguard” short-range air defense system.
As part of the three-year, NT$3.08 billion (US$101.6 million) “Tian Wu 7” (天武7) air defense upgrade program launched in 2009, Taiwan’s air force has been converting the GDF-003 Oerlikon 35mm twin cannons that are part of the Skyguard Air Defense System to a GDF-006 configuration, which will use Advanced Hit Efficiency And Destruction (AHEAD) munitions to shoot down manned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles, air-to-ground missiles and other targets.
Each AHEAD round consists of a shell filled with 152 tungsten pellets with a small programmable charge timed to detonate several meters in front of the target, sending an expanding cone of pellets forward to destroy the incoming projectile.
According to this month’s edition of the Chinese-language Asia-Pacific Defense Magazine, the air force has 24 “Sky Sentinel” radar units and 50 Oerlikon 35mm twin cannons. Each barrel can fire 550 rounds per minute at an altitude of about 4km and within a range of 8.5km.
The air force created 24 “Skyguard” artillery units in the 1980s, mostly to provide protection at its airports. With assistance from the US in 1975, the pedestal-mounted “Skyguard” system was also equipped with two pods, each with four AIM-7 “Sparrow” surface-to-air missiles, mounted on the back of a High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle.
Developments in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force and China’s growing arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles have made it evident that Taiwan’s current air defense capabilities have become insufficient, analysts say.
Based on various estimates, China is targeting between 1,500 and 1,700 short and medium-range ballistic missiles at Taiwan, as well as a number of cruise missiles.
A budget report by the legislature says the “Tian Wu 7” upgrade is scheduled for completion next year. The program also includes display and software upgrades for the “Sky Sentinel” fire control units.
Swiss manufacturer Oerlikon was renamed Rheinmetall Air Defence AG following the merger with German automotive and defense firm Rheinmetall in 2009.
Taiwan’s multilayer national air defense relies on a variety of systems, including the US-made PAC-2 and PAC-3 Patriot air defense systems, Hawk missiles, the Antelope, as well as the Tien Kung I and II “Sky Bow” missiles produced by the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology.
Military analysts generally agree that the opening phase of a Chinese attack against Taiwan would involve missile salvos against command-and-control centers, as well as airstrips and airbases to wipe out Taiwan’s ability to control the airspace in the Taiwan Strait — a key factor in determining the outcome of hostilities. As long-range defense systems could be overwhelmed by large numbers of incoming targets, second and third-line defenses, such as the “Skyguard,” are necessary components.
In recent years the PLA has developed and begun deploying missile warheads equipped with several sub-munitions specifically designed to render runways inoperable.
Contacted for comment on the upgrade, Rick Fisher, a defense specialist at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington said switching to AHEAD rounds was “a critical improvement for Taiwan’s anti-aircraft defenses.”
“The AHEAD round is capable of defeating not just aircraft, but a range of missiles and precision guided munitions (PGMs) as well,” he told the Taipei Times.
“The AHEAD round is now the best system in Taiwan for providing point defense against air-launched precision guided missiles and bombs. You need a large number of 35mm guns, but the AHEAD system can still be considered an ‘asymmetrical’ response to the PLA’s mounting superiority in PGMs,” Fisher said.
While an AHEAD round is much more expensive than a regular 35mm round, it is still far less expensive than a PGM, he said.
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