TAIPEI — Taiwan’s Air Force faces continued criticism among defense industry and Ministry of National Defense (MND) officials for procuring three Eurocopter EC225 helicopters in 2010 in a $111 million deal. Eurocopter beat out Sikorsky’s S-92 for a medium-lift helicopter for the search-and-rescue (SAR) requirement for an eventual planned procurement of 20 platforms.
The three SAR helicopters will go into service in July during a ceremony presided over by Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou. The procurement is the first European defense sale to Taiwan in two decades and sources in the MND complain that procuring the EC225 sends the wrong message to Washington, which has continued to provide arms to Taiwan despite threats by Beijing.
Europe has declined to sell weaponized platforms to Taiwan due to pressure from China. The EC225 SAR falls outside that restriction and Europe has shunned defense deals to Taiwan for fear of angering China, a far more potent market for European aerospace and non-offensive defense systems.
Savaged by economic problems, the European Union appears ready to lift the arms embargo placed on China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
In defense of the EC225 are capabilities issues, say defense industry sources. Taiwan is dominated by a rugged central mountain range from the northern to the southern tip of the island with three peaks over 11,000 feet. The S-92 has a service ceiling of 14,000 feet compared with 19,000 feet for the EC225. Both aircraft have suffered their fair share of crashes, including similar accidents in the North Atlantic servicing oil drilling platforms.
Since the late 1980s, Taiwan’s Air Force has operated 18 Sikorsky S-70C Blue Hawk SAR helicopters and the Taiwan Navy 10 S-70(M)-1 helicopters for anti-submarine warfare under the 701 and 702 ASW Thunderhawk squadrons. In 2010, the U.S. released 60 UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters for Taiwan’s Army.