Distant Vision: Taiwan's sophisticated radar installation on Leshan Mountain can peer deep into China. (Federation of American Scientists)
TAIPEI — Taiwan’s early warning radar (EWR) on the island’s west coast has gained the respect of just about everyone in the region — except China. And for good reason, sources say. It is the most “powerful radar in the world,” said a Taiwan defense industry source.
“Even the Americans don’t have anything close,” he said.
Sources debate the potential power of the radar, based on Leshan Mountain near the city of Hsinchu, but all agree it is a multifaceted, ultra high frequency (UHF) radar capable of tracking air-breathing targets — including cruise missiles — and ballistic missiles at 3,000 kilometers, depending on the target.
“It’s more of an intelligence collection system than a ballistic missile defense warning system,” said one US defense industry source. “Taiwan can see almost all of China’s significant Air Force sorties and exercises from this radar.”
The requirement for such a powerful surveillance platform came about at China’s instigation. During the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, China launched 10 DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) into the waters north and south of the island. The intent was to discourage Taiwan from conducting its first democratic elections, but it failed.
The US responded by sending two aircraft carrier groups to the area as a show of support. At the time, China had approximately 350 DF-11/15 SRBMs, but today that number is about 1,100, according to Pentagon estimates.
Taiwan responded to the threat by procuring Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) ballistic missile defense systems with three fire units for $1.3 billion. The units were stationed around the capital city of Taipei, leaving much of the central and southern part of the island unprotected, except for an indigenous air defense missile system, the Tien Kung 2 (Sky Bow).
Elements in the Taiwan military and the Pentagon pushed Taiwan to proceed with the procurement of the PAC-3 system, but politics in Taiwan slowed progress on the deal until 2007, when the US released a “Patriot configuration 2 ground systems upgrade” for the older PAC-2s for $939 million.
In 2008, the US released 330 PAC-3 missiles, and in 2010, the US released an additional 114 PAC-3 missiles.
In 2000, the US government approved the sale of ballistic missile detection radar under the Surveillance Radar Program (SRP). Raytheon proposed an advanced UHF long-range EWR based on the AN/FPS-115 Pave Paws, and Lockheed offered the Medium Extended Air Defense System.
Raytheon won the $800 million contract in 2004 and began construction in 2009. Building delays due to landslides and technical issues forced Taiwan to agree to pay an additional $397 million in charges to finish the project.
Though there were loud complaints from Taiwan’s legislature and the Ministry of National Defense, the result was one of the “most unique radars ever built,” a Taiwan defense industry said.
Japan is attempting to catch up with the fielding of AN/TPY-2 long-range, X-Band air defense radars, which were originally designed as a ground-based mobile radar for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. A US defense industry source said the Japanese could be building an indigenous system similar to THAAD.
Also, Japan’s Mitsubishi and US-based Raytheon are jointly working a new Standard Missile for naval platforms, designated the SM-3 Block 2A.
Despite Japan’s best efforts, Taiwan’s EWR will continue to hold the prize for distance and azimuth for some time, sources said. The radar is capable of tracking 1,000 targets simultaneously.
In late 2012, shortly after going online, the radar managed to track the launch of a North Korean missile. The radar is visible on Google Earth at 24.499 North and 121.072 East. It is 170 kilometers from China’s coastline and directly across from China’s signal intelligence station at Dongjing Shan. This is significant because the radar reportedly has jamming capabilities.
During a war, China will do whatever it takes to destroy that radar.
“It’s not expected to last an hour during a war with China,” said one US defense industry source.
The question many are asking, of which no one can agree, is whether the US military, via the US Air Force’s Defense Security Program (DSP), has access to the data collected by the facility. DSP monitors ballistic missile launches and nuclear detonations.
One US defense industry analyst with close ties to Taiwan’s military said the DSP has access to it.
“The US gave Taiwan free access to DSP satellites for the last 10 years. So this is quid pro quo,” he said.
However, a former US government official said he was skeptical of any such arrangement.
“It’s unlikely that a formal arrangement between Taiwan and the US exists that involves Taiwan’s sharing of real-time radar data with the US,” he said. “The UHF radar system is much more than just ballistic missile early warning. And there are much better quid pro quos available. Main problem is US policy, which self-constrains substantive cooperation.”