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TAIPEI — Taiwan faces tough choices over future defense decisions as China’s air defense network continues to grow beyond its shores.
At present, China’s land-based mobile air defense missile systems, HQ-9 and S-300, can reach only a small sliver of northwestern Taiwan. Though a clear advantage during a war over control of the middle line of the Taiwan Strait, it is not complete air dominance of the island itself.
However, with the planned purchase of the 400-kilometer-range Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, China will for the first time have complete air defense coverage of Taiwan.
Ongoing negotiations with the Chinese on S-400 were confirmed by Russian officials last year, said Vasily Kashin, a researcher with Moscow’s Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
“This may be one reason that Taiwan is no longer pushing hard for fourth-generation F-16 replacements,” said Ian Easton, China military specialist at the Project 2049 Institute. Taiwan knows that by 2023, it will need F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. If the US refuses to sell them to Taiwan, as it did with the F-16C/Ds, Taiwan’s “only other option is to engage in a sharp ramp-up of cruise missile production and deploy ballistic missiles as well.”
Taiwan does have other options that include improving its electronic warfare capabilities, he said. “Also, it’s important to remember that Taiwan’s territory extends right up to the Chinese coast. Taiwan has missile, rocket and other weapons systems capable of engaging SAM networks from the Dongyin, Matzu and Kinmen island groups right off the coast of Fujian province.”
Taiwan’s military could use these islands as staging grounds for the insertion of special operations forces, Easton said. These forces include the 101 Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion (“Army Frogmen”), Airborne Special Service Company and Special Forces Command, which consists of the 862 and 871 Airborne Groups. The Taiwan Marine Corps has the Amphibious Reconnaissance Patrol.
“As such, if the Chinese move the S-400s too close to the coast, they are going to be in peril,” he said.
“Militarily, the deployment of S-300 PMU2 at the opposite side of the strait already puts considerable stress on Taiwan fighter pilots, and now with introduction of the more modernized S-400 SAM, which sooner or later would follow the S-300 PMU2 pattern of deployment in Fujian province,” will make the situation even worse for Taiwan fighter pilots, said York Chen, a former member of Taiwan’s National Security Council.
“When S-400s work together with Chinese land- and sea-based fighters, the Chinese will have more confidence in sustaining airspace dominance over the Taiwan theater, thus depriving any organized resistance by the Taiwan Air Force and deterring the American intervention,” Chen said. It is time the US seriously rethinks Taiwan’s export request for the AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missile for its F-16s, he said.
A sale of the S-400 could go forward in 2017 at the earliest, but so far, there has been no news on any results, or about a memorandum of understanding signing, Kashin said. It is also unclear how many systems the Chinese want to buy.
“The key issue is that S-400 producer Almaz-Antey is overloaded with orders from the Russian military and some foreign customers,” Kashin said. “In the past, Russian officials have said that the SAMs’ delivery can take place only after Almaz-Antey fulfills the main contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense, sometime after 2017. Even if there is fast progress in negotiations, and the Russians agree to revise the 2017 deadline, the delivery will take some time because of production capacity shortages at Almaz-Antey.”
The S-400 has implications not just for Taiwan, but also for India, Japan and the US.
Recognizing that future wars will be missile-centric, China’s potential acquisition of S-400 SAMs would represent an important move because these systems allow for ballistic-missile defense capabilities that it lacks, Easton said. “For this reason, it could lead to an arms race with India, which relies upon ballistic missiles to deter China.”
The S-400 also will cover the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China also claims as the Diaoyu Islands.
For the US, the implications are less serious, Easton said. “We designed F-22s and F-35s with these types of air defense challengers in mind.”
Nonetheless, air superiority is eroding in the western Pacific due to a lack of hardened air bases on Okinawa, he said. “When you combine soft US air bases with hard Chinese air defense systems, the picture doesn’t look good.”
More broadly, assuming trends continue, the future air defense environment is going to be highly conducive to drone warfare, Easton said, noting the recent test flight of the X-47B unmanned combat aerial system concept demonstrator May 14 off the US aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush.
“Why send manned aircraft into threat environments so high that even elite pilots refer to their missions as one-way trips? And why spend the extra money and reduce endurance and payloads when you can pilot aerial vehicles remotely or allow them to run semi-autonomously for far greater effect?” Easton said.