January 31, 2003

January 31, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Taiwan Must Get Serious About Defense

Taiwan has battalions of friends in Washington, but sympathy is waning. Recently, several current and past defense officials, all supporters of strong United States - Taiwan ties, have told me they are surprised, disappointed and a tad annoyed that Taiwan seems to regard itself as an innocent onlooker in any coming conflict between America and China. To be sure, Taiwan's economy is in straitened circumstances and its defense budget is stressed. But Taiwan's civilian leadership must pressure the generals and admirals to review their strategic priorities in the face of a quiet, rapid expansion of China's threat.

Last year, Beijing announced defense spending increases which, by 2005, double the People's Liberation Army budget over 2000 levels. By 2005, China will have 600 ballistic missiles within range of Taiwan. The Chinese Navy now has two advanced Russian-made Sovremennyy destroyers with supersonic, carrier-busting "Moskit" (SUNBURN) missiles. The PLA Navy also has four Russian KILO Class attack submarines, including two 636 models, among the quietest subs in the world. Last year, Beijing ordered two new Sovremennyys and eight new 636 KILOs -- four entering service by 2007. And in August, China took delivery of the first 10 of 40 long-range Sukhoi Su-30MKK jet fighters capable of circumnavigating Taiwan and striking poorly defended targets on the Island's east coast.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's qualitative defense edge erodes. Its leaders -- civilian and military, legislative and executive -- are in the grip of indecision. Taiwan's 2004 presidential campaign ramps up this summer, leaving President Chen Shui-bian barely six months left to make key national choices decisions before becoming ensnared in the inevitable partisan wrangling that will eclipse mature discussion of the country's security.

Those choices must include:

Missile defense: If Taiwan is to defend against China's burgeoning missile threat, it should place its order to buy Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC) 3 immediately, buying just enough now to cover high-value urban locations. Later, Taiwan can piggy-back on the huge future US Army purchase that will offer the best price for their remaining requirements. At secret Pentagon meetings in September, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told his Taiwan counterpart that PAC-3 should be his highest priority and urged Taiwan's immediate action. Taiwan's Army is disinterested, preferring to procure traditional weaponry like field artillery, anti-tank missiles, tanks and costly Apache helicopters. Taiwan's president, faced with such green-suited foot-dragging, should either order the army to develop an interest in real solutions to real threats, or move to create a separate Missile Force outside the Army to meet the threat facing Taiwan.

The Taiwan Army's main excuse for shilly-shallying is that the US Army is still conducting PAC-3 tests. But they purposefully ignore the fact that the US Army is procuring and fielding the PAC 3 while operational testing continues. In the US Army, this is the new way of doing things when faced with an immediate threat. Taiwan's Army, however, plans to start buying PAC 3s in 2009.

Also in the Missile Defense category is the ship-borne AEGIS system. Pentagon and State Department sources say this system is certain to be released to Taiwan sometime in mid-2003. But if Taiwan hopes to deploy quickly, Taiwan's Navy must be prepared to take AEGIS when it is offered. Industry sources confirm that if they can have the contracts ready to go when the release is finalized, and the first Taiwan AEGIS can be commissioned by 2008. Meanwhile, reviving Taiwan's "Advanced Combat System" (the so-called "mini-AEGIS" on smaller Taiwan-built warships) makes operational sense -- and would be a boon to Taiwan's shipbuilding industry.

C4ISR: Taiwan's next priority must be to upgrade Taiwan's combat telecommunications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- the so-called "C4ISR" capabilities and infrastructure. It is a complex program, but the Pentagon is eager to help. US naval and air forces will benefit as well, but the project will still need some Taiwan funding for DOD's work on this. Taiwan must get the money and move ahead smartly.

ASW: The third priority is anti-submarine warfare. In addition to diesel submarines, already at the top procurement priority, Taiwan needs the comprehensive anti-submarine warfare package of ASW aircraft and undersea surveillance systems that President Bush released in April 2001. The subs will take time, but the other two can be ordered any time. Unfortunately, the decades-old P-3C Orion ASW planes are no longer in production and Lockheed-Martin wants about US$330 million per plane to re-open the line. Surely, the Pentagon -- which will benefit from Taiwan's submarine coverage of seas around the Island -- can come up with an affordable alternative until the next generation of ASW aircraft emerges.

Air Superiority: Also on Taiwan's list must be a survivable fighter fleet: The first targets of a Chinese missile strike will be airfields, and after a first strike Taiwan's advanced fighter fleet will be forced to land on its autobahns. The Pentagon has told Taiwan the ideal aircraft for this threat is the vertical-takeoff F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and has suggested Taiwan sign up as a JSF Security Cooperative Partner (Taiwan is too late for industrial participation) to get a seat at the table and be kept in the loop on the program's progress. This also guarantees Taiwan access to a replacement fighter when they need it. The price of admission to the exclusive JSF club is about $75 million and it comes with the political benefit of being on the JSF roster with several NATO allies and Australia, among others. That alone should be worth it to the diplomatically isolated Island.

A final cautionary note. Taiwan's Defense Ministry has tiny study-budgets for all these projects. This gives the impression that the Ministry has started major programs when, in fact, they are being put off to the distant future. This has the twofold consequence of misleading the Taiwan's civilian leadership and its people, and it puzzles the Americans who wonder how serious Taiwan is about its own defense.

By John J. Tkacik, Jr.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in Defense News Daily