Taiwan confirmed it is negotiating with the U.S. to buy M1A1 Abrams tanks used by U.S. troops, such as the one seen here in Afghanistan. (Cpl. Mark Stroud / U.S. Marine Corps)
TAIPEI — Debate over the practicality of procuring more main battle tanks (MBTs) for Taiwan has intensified since the Ministry of National Defense confirmed last week it was negotiating with the U.S. for surplus M1A1 Abrams MBTs left over from the Iraq War.
The announcement renewed debate over the need for a heavy MBT, said a Defense Ministry source, “but they are cheap and available now.” The deal would include refurbishment, but not an upgrade, he said. In 2011, Vice Defense Minister Chao Shih-chang was quoted by the local media saying the Army needed 200 new MBTs.
Since the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, Taiwan has focused on improving air-sea battle capabilities, and the Army has watched its grip on power and influence slip since the end of the Cold War. The Army maintained a large invasion force to retake mainland China during the Cold War.
Local defense analysts argue there are other pragmatic reasons for not procuring bigger and heavier MBTs. The island is composed of rugged interior mountains notorious for landslides. The coasts are either rice paddies, fish farms or are urbanized. Coupled with narrow roadways and anemic bridges, the island seems an unlikely home for a 60-ton tank 12 feet wide.
“The bridge piece of it is a real key, since you only have one shot to get a 60-ton tank across a 35-ton bridge, and then you have no bridge,” a U.S. defense analyst said. The M1A1 limits the choice of routes, but so does the “speed aspect,” he said.
“It is different than planning a route march by M60 [tanks], since the M113 [infantry carriers] cannot keep up with the M1A1s if going 40 mph,” he said. “It is one of those items that causes a revolution in military thought in planning, because you get a capability that is a generation above what you have.”
Also, Taiwan’s MBTs use a locally manufactured 105mm round, not the 120mm round used by the M1A1. Having a standard round for all MBTs is cost-efficient, said a former U.S. military officer who served at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. Embassy here.
Taiwan operates five types of tanks in the 76mm and 105mm main gun range: the 25-ton M41D Bulldog light tank; the 44-ton M48A3 Patton MBT; the 47-ton M60A3 MBT; the locally produced 54-ton CM11 Brave Tiger (M48H turret/M60A3 hull); and the 44-ton CM12 (M48H). The number of operational MBTs is unknown, but analysts put the number between 600 and 800.
“Taiwan does not need more main battle tanks,” the former AIT official said. “The current inventory of M48s and M60s [is] sufficient for Taiwan’s needs.”
The chance of a tank battle between China and Taiwan on the island is remote, if not “ridiculous,” he said.
The Defense Ministry official countered by arguing the M1A1s could be used as “mobile artillery,” but Taiwan has not gone forward with the procurement of 144 M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers released as part of the 2001 U.S. arms deal with Taiwan. The Paladin is a tracked armored vehicle.
The Army still needs a light or medium tank to replace the M41s and M48s.
In 2005, the Ordnance Readiness Development Center unveiled the eight-wheeled CM32 Yunpao (Clouded Leopard) armored personnel carrier (APC) prototype. Five other variants are being considered, including one with a 105mm M68A1 main gun with a 32-round load. A gun turret with a 105mm gun has been produced and displayed at local defense exhibitions, but it is unclear if earlier problems with recoil have been solved.
Production has begun, and the aging M113 and CM21 tracked APCs and LAV-150 four-wheeled APCs will be replaced. Other variants include a small turret armed with an ATK M242 25mm cannon; an anti-aircraft vehicle armed with the Tien Chien 1 (Sky Sword) missile; and command and control, ambulance and mortar carrier variants.