Controversy continues over the search-and-rescue Black Hawk helicopters scheduled to enter service next month, reflecting broader divisions over Taiwan’s procurement of arms from the US.
Fifteen of the 60 UH-60M Black Hawks ordered from the US in 2010 are scheduled to be “lent” to the Ministry of the Interior’s National Airborne Service Corps (NASC) by the military.
Speaking at a Taichung airbase exhibit showcasing the first three helicopters to arrive from the US, Minister of the Interior Chen Wei-zen (陳威仁) praised the aircraft for having the power to push the nation’s search-and-rescue boundaries to the peaks of its highest mountains and to the farthest reaches of its territorial waters.
“Jade Mountain [玉山] is more than 3,900m high, but we will be able to fly up to 5,000m,” he said, referring to the nation’s highest mountain. “Our rescue diameter will encompass all of our territorial air space, providing protection to the outlying islands and fishing boats within our waters.”
He said that the Black Hawks’ powerful engines would also enable them to carry four times the number of passengers as the air force’s AS-365 Dauphins, while advanced night vision equipment would enable the new helicopters to conduct sea operations day and night.
The Black Hawks’ shaft horsepower of 4,000 is more than double that of the Dauphins, which were previously the most technically advanced wing of the NASC fleet.
Chen brushed off questions over the corps’ ability to maintain the new helicopters, saying that the ministry would maintain internal capacity while contracting out most maintenance work.
“Any piece of equipment will eventually have malfunctions, but these can be minimized if we have a complete system in place,” he said.
That Chen being questioned on helicopter maintenance reflects the controversial nature of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) purchase of US military helicopters, which also included 30 AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters.
The combined Black Hawk and Apache helicopter purchase has cost more than any other arms purchase during Ma’s administration, with the US$5.6 billion price tag for the helicopters and their missiles surpassing the refitting costs for the nation’s fleet of F-16 jets.
That hefty price tag has sparked criticism domestically, with high operation and maintenance costs brought into the spotlight in October last year when the majority of the nation’s Apache fleet was grounded because of corrosion. The grounding was the second in the fleet’s short history and followed a 2014 crash.
Critics have also said that search-and-rescue operations are a wasteful use of Black Hawk helicopters, which were reallocated to the NASC following a crash of one of the force’s Vietnam War-era UH-1H Iroquois helicopters during Typhoon Morakot rescue operations in 2009.
That crash, combined with broad public criticism of the Ma administration’s disaster response, eventually led to the plans to replace NASC’s Iroquois and other aging helicopters with Black Hawks “borrowed” from the military.
Former minister of the interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) criticized the decision in a recent interview, saying that because Black Hawk helicopters are cutting-edge pieces of military equipment, dedicating them to search-and-rescue operations was like using an expensive sports car as a taxi.
“If you buy a Ferrari, you can use it as a taxi, but what is the point?” he said. “No one will doubt the value of a Ferrari, but you have to look at the whole package: maintenance, spare parts and training are all problems.”
He singled out the Black Hawks’ complicated digital instruments as being particularly difficult to maintain given that Taiwan is at the “bottom of the food chain” when it comes to acquiring spare parts from the US.
“The Black Hawk is a sophisticated piece of military equipment, and the US prioritizes sales of military equipment,” he said. “US military forces come first, followed by the US coast guard and reserves, and only then the various US allies. Taiwan trails other US allies, and domestically, the Ministry of the Interior comes after the Ministry of National Defense — so we are really at the bottom of the food chain. Unless you have an excellent maintenance plan, acquiring spare parts will almost certainly be a problem in the future.”
He said that during his tenure, the NASC was already having trouble servicing its decade-old Dauphins, which are civilian helicopters.
While it was already “too late” to reverse the administration’s decision because of sunk training costs, a better decision at the time would have been to transfer the army’s fleet of S-70 “Seagulls” — an earlier search-and-rescue Black Hawk variant — to the NASC, he said.
While the Seagulls, which were acquired in the 1980s, lack the sophisticated digital equipment of Black Hawk helicopters, their operation, integration and maintenance would have been much simpler than the new models, while still representing a huge step up from the NASC’s Vietnam war-era helicopters, he said, adding that consolidating NASC and the defense ministry search-and-rescue teams would reduce redundancy and cut costs.
Following the example of many Southeast Asian nations that outsource search-and-rescue operations to private companies would be even more efficient, he said, adding that estimates provided to him while in office put the cost of outsourcing at about half that of maintaining a fleet.
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