December 3, 2003

December 3, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Taiwan Must Grasp on True Defense Needs

There was gastric distress in defense ministries in Taipei and Washington recently after Therese Shaheen, chairwoman of the congressionally chartered proto-embassy in Taipei, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), declared the Taiwan Navy's obsessive focus on the submarine contracts is "silly." Despite the outrage in Taipei and the raised eyebrows in Washington, Ms. Shaheen said something that needed saying.

She urged Taiwan and American defense officials to concentrate their minds on Taiwan's urgent defense needs, and stop using the submarine contract as an excuse to divert their attention.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that Ms. Shaheen gave a closed-door, off-the-record symposium at The Heritage Foundation in November. There she, Richard Lawless, U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary, and Randy Schriver, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, addressed questions about Taiwan's defense needs for Washington's China-hand community. What follows below may or may not be influenced by that meeting, but is purely my own analysis of Taiwan's defense mess.

In fact, to call the present Taiwan military procurement effort "silly" might be an understatement if one considers the foul-ups on both sides of the Pacific, including the Pentagon's exorbitant price tag of more than $12 billion for eight American-made diesel-electric submarines and $4 billion for 12 Lockheed-Martin P-3C anti-submarine aircraft.

This would make Taiwan's putative diesel subs as expensive as American nuclear attack boats and each lumbering propeller-driven P-3C aircraft nearly twice as costly as a Boeing 777.

Two major bidders on Taiwan's submarine, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, on the other hand, say they can build the subs for less than half of the cost Navy Sea Systems Command is quoting to Taiwan. The Navy says its price is a "worst case scenario" in which two submarines are built from scratch in the United States in newly constructed shipyards, and then the next six are built in stages by China Shipbuilding in Taiwan.

The U.S. Navy has ulterior motives for trying to scuttle the submarine deal. It is an open secret that Navy submariners are terrified at the prospect of opening a U.S. diesel-electric production line. As one expert said, "the Navy can build four very quiet diesel electric submarines for the cost of one new Virginia-class" attack boat.

But the Navy - for no particularly good reason - just doesn't want diesels. Dissuading the Taiwanese from ordering subs from a U.S. shipyard deprives Congress of the option of prodding the Navy in the same direction.

The story with the P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft is just as goofy. President George W. Bush committed to selling P-3Cs in April 2001, after Lockheed Martin had shut down its production line. When Taiwan finally requested pricing and availability information, Lockheed said it could re-open the production line, but the start-up costs would be included in the unit cost of the new aircraft - a cool third-of-a-billion each.

Taiwan's Defense Ministry had a "no-used-junk" policy, so no one in the Pentagon thought of offering what is now the current option - getting older, heavier P-3Bs from the Arizona boneyard and outfitting them with the latest ASW systems. This would cost Taiwan a more reasonable $60 million a plane.

As it is, it will still be three years between the time Taiwan writes a check and the initial operational capability of an overhauled P-3B with Taiwan's Navy.

But with the Navy preparing to award the Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) contract in early 2004, with an initial operational capability of 2009 for the U.S. Navy, Taiwan's defense budgeters will have a perfect excuse to delay their choice of an ASW aircraft until the MMA appears.

It is perfectly reasonable to say, as Ms. Shaheen did, that the amount of hand-wringing expended in the debate over Taiwan's submarines and ASW aircraft - both of which are six to 10 years away at the earliest - is silly when one considers Taiwan's real defense priorities.

* Missile defense: By July 2003, China had 450 short-range ballistic missiles targeted on Taiwan with another 75 rolling off the production lines each year at the Sanjiang Space Corp.'s factory at "066 Base" in Yuan'an, Hubei. All these missiles, and their transporter-erector-launchers, are headed for the Taiwan Strait.

For more than a year, the Pentagon has been haranguing Taiwan's leaders to face up to the threat and get serious about the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile. Taiwan, however, is still hesitant about the money. When President Chen Shui-bian was in New York in November, he reassured his hosts that once he is re-elected, he will make the PAC-3 his first priority.

The real culprit in preventing PAC-3 funding is Taiwan's opposition legislators who hope to deprive Chen of a defense budget victory before the presidential election on March 20, 2004.

Taiwan's proposed long-range phased-array radar system is an integral part of missile defense. Taiwan has pledged funds for this in its $15 billion defense budget authorization, but this money has yet to reach the legislature. It is beginning to look like the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) camp is digging in to oppose it.

* C4ISR: Taiwan's command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance must be integrated across the military services, across communications platforms and across weapon systems. In October, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense wrote out a check for $70 million to inaugurate Project Po-sheng and Pentagon officials are satisfied this essential element of Taiwan's defense is under construction.

* Infrastructure hardening: The Air Force runway quick-repair kits have been purchased, and Taiwan's air and naval forces have already moved to harden their command-and-control bunkers and vital facilities.

One factor in Washington's frustration with the phlegmatic pace of Taiwan's defense decision-making is Taiwan's democracy. Most American defense contractors long for the days of the KMT Party's monopoly in Taiwan's politics. Once the Ministry of National Defense made a decision, it whipped right through the Cabinet and the parliament.

It was much more efficient than the messy Japanese and European defense procurement processes. But not any more. With the emergence of vibrant democratic debate in the legislature, Taiwan's defense budget process is balled up with parliamentary hearings, procedural time lines and amendments, just like a real democracy.

Chen is deeply committed to a strong national defense, and his U.S. defense partnership is key to a strategy of keeping his island nation out of Chinese hands. But Chen should also keep an eye on his Defense Ministry to ensure it doesn't get balled up with a silly obsession on outyear projects, when urgent defense priorities are being ignored.

By John Tkacik, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, and retired officer in the U.S. Foreign Service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.

About the Author

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

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in Defense News