TAIPEI — China's steady acquisition of advanced weaponry has driven ambitious Taiwanese requirements, including plans to procure stealth fighters, advanced jet trainers, long-range unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and main battle tanks.
Some requirements are awaiting sale notification to the US Congress or are still working through the Ministry of National Defense's internal programming process. Those include:
• MH-60R naval helicopters.
• Aircraft-deployed mines, such as the Quickstrike series.
• Shipboard electronic warfare system upgrades, such as the SLQ-32.
• Phalanx close-in weapon systems.
• Tactical datalink systems as part of a follow-on to the Po Sheng C4ISR upgrade program, now more commonly referred to as "Shyun An" or "Xun An."
Among the Chinese programs spurring Taiwan's response are Su-35 fighter aircraft and long-range S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Chinese efforts in the South China Sea have also driven requirements for more ships and submarines, though these will be largely indigenous build programs.
Arguably the most important defense issue is what the US government decides to do about Taiwan's long-pending submarine requirement. First approved by the George W. Bush administration in 2001, the program has been stalled for 14 years by political, budgetary and technological woes. US support remains vital if Taiwan is to replace its fleet of obsolete World War II-era Guppy II boats and rapidly aging Dutch-built Zwaardvis Mk 2 boats acquired in the 1980s.
While Taiwan is still awaiting a US government decision to proceed with Phase 1, concept definition and source selection of the Taiwan submarine program, it has embarked on an effort to build new submarines in-country.
Called the Indigenous Defensive Submarine (IDS) program, the budget for the three-year contract design phase starts in 2016. The IDS program would heavily utilize Taiwanese industrial capabilities, including pressure hull fabrication, main motor, batteries and air-independent propulsion options, as well as foreign technical assistance, where available.
"The Obama administration is expected to render a decision on the submarine program as part of the upcoming congressional notification," said a Taiwan defense analyst. "Not only would US support greatly reduce risks, time and cost for any Taiwan submarine acquisition effort, it could also afford the US government a measure of control over the type and extent of submarine capability that Taiwan ultimately manages to acquire."
A credible Taiwan undersea warfare capability also could aid the US strategic rebalance in Asia by contributing to the deterrent against rapidly growing Chinese naval capabilities, he said.
As part of this notification, the US government could either authorize support for technical assistance by US defense firms for Taiwan's IDS project or approve the long-delayed US-led Taiwan submarine program, he said.
Taiwan also has the option of upgrading its two Dutch-built Hai Lung (Sea Dragon) diesel submarines acquired in the 1980s. Both Lockheed and Raytheon have expressed an interest in competing for the upgrade.
The Taiwan Army has a requirement for two to four battalions of surplus US Army M1A1/M1A2 main battle tanks, but this is still in programming stages. The M1s are needed to replace 50-ton M48/M60 Patton tanks, but tanks are not given a high priority with Taiwan's mountainous interior and low coastal wetlands. Bridges are also a problem as many in the rural areas are too weak after years of earthquakes to handle the 60-ton M1 tank.
In addition, the military continually gives up more land for commercial and civilian use. The Army has only one artillery range in operation and politicians are being pressured to shut it down. For these reason, the acquisition of M1s could face resistance in Taiwan's legislature.
Defense sources indicate Taiwan is interested in acquiring an additional AH-64E Apache attack helicopter, presumably as replacement for the unit lost in a training accident in 2014.
The Army also needs additional anti-tank munitions for ground forces, including BGM-71 tube-launched optically tracked wire-guided missiles and FGM-148 Javelins.
Taiwan's Marine Corps plans to procure additional surplus AAV-7A1 amphibious assault vehicles. Taiwan acquired 54 rebuilt AAV-7A1s in 2006 from the United States. United Defense LP Ground Systems won a $156 million contract in 2003 to supply the AAV-7s to Taiwan.
US Marines, dressed as civilians, were deployed to Kaohsiung to assist in training Taiwan Marines on operating the vehicles.
Taiwan's program to upgrade its 45 F-16A/B fighter aircraft with new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, avionics and mission modular computer is also proceeding,
Taiwan has yet to decide on the types and quantities of air-launched weapons to arm the F-16s, although the Air Force is generally expected to opt for models currently used by the US Air Force, a US defense industry source said.
Due to funding limitations, it was decided to split out these munitions from the F-16A/B upgrade budget and to fund their purchase under separate Foreign Military Sales programs. Choices include several versions of joint direct-attack munitions, Paveways and sensor-fuzed weapons.
Taiwan's Air Force also needs a variety of air-to-air, air-to-ground, anti-radiation and anti-ship missiles.
"The necessity of these munitions, as well as their justifiability as 'defensive in nature,' has become significantly more supportable in light of sustained, aggressive expansion of offensive Chinese capabilities," one industry source said. That includes the Chinese Navy's area anti-air warfare destroyers and the deployment of the ground-based S-300 PMU2/HQ-9, plus pending acquisition of the S-400 series of long-range SAM systems.
These could "seriously threaten even purely defensive operations by Taiwan's air assets over or near Taiwan," the source said.
The Air Force also has not yet decided on how to upgrade the ALQ-184(V) electronic warfare (EW) pods currently used on Taiwan's F-16A/B fighters. The decision has been complicated by significant cost differences between the available options and issues such as the uncertain availability of surplus US Air Force EW pods that would be required by some of the solutions being proposed.
Taiwan's Air Force wants the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing fighter, but they can't afford new F-16sC/D fighters so it is highly unlikely they will be able to pay for an advanced warplane like a stealth fighter, said Erich Shih, a Taiwan-based defense expert.
This is a common problem, Shih said. "If you can't afford $1 stuff and you keep asking the Americans for $5 stuff, in the end you just can't buy it." Everyone becomes frustrated, he said, especially the Americans.
Taiwan needs to start replacing its fighter trainers in the next few years, but the Air Force has not announced a selection process for new trainers to replace aging F-5 fighters and AT-3 attack trainers, though plans for a tentative budget have been announced by Air Force officials for 2017.
The Air Force uses its F-5E/F fighters and AT-3 jet trainers for training before moving forward to one of three fighters: F-16A/Bs, Mirage 2000-5s or indigenous defense fighters.
The AT-3s were built locally by state-run Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. in the 1980s and are based at the Kangshan Air Force Academy in Kaohsiung. The AT-3s make up the Fighter Training Group and the Thunder Tiger Demonstration Team.
The Air Force has said it wants to procure 68 advanced jet trainers for advanced training, lead-in and operations transitioning training, Shih said.
At present, there are three candidates: the US Air Force's T-X program, which is still under development; the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master; and the T-50 Golden Eagle built by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Lockheed Martin.
KAI officials told Defense News that since 2009 the Taiwan Air Force has approached them to discuss procuring the basic T-50, but political pressure from Beijing might block the sale.
The Philippines did procure 12 T-50PH aircraft in 2014, but KAI officials played down the offensive capabilities the aircraft could provide in an effort to placate China.
One KAI official did confirm that the T-50PH was an export variant of the FA-50 Fighting Eagle deployed with the South Korean Air Force and dubbed the "Mini F-16." The issue is sensitive due to intense territorial disputes in the South China Sea between Beijing and Manila.
Taiwan's Air Force also has a requirement to replace aging single-engine propeller-driven Beechcraft T-34C Turbo Mentor trainers procured from the US in the 1980s. The T-34 squadron has suffered numerous fatal accidents over the past several years. The Beechcraft AT-6 is the most likely candidate, Shih said, though no announcement to replace the T-34 has been made by the Air Force.
Taiwan defense industry sources indicate the Air Force also has long-standing requirements for an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft.
Taiwan's Air Force has a requirement for tactical UAVs to monitor sea lanes, coastal areas, disaster areas and to conduct battlefield reconnaissance. Military-run Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) has developed a variety of UAVs, but has been unable to fulfill an Air Force requirement for an advanced, extended-range, multipurpose UAV.
Taiwan also has been pursuing a procurement for six C27J Spartan medium-transport aircraft, along with an indigenous training and maintenance package, to replace the Air Force's Fokker 50 VIP aircraft. The US government has released the C-27J for Taiwan, but the Air Force is awaiting financing, which has been hampered by the cost of recent upgrades to its indigenous defense fighters and upcoming upgrades to its F-16A/B fighter fleet.
Tangled Web of Requirements
Taiwan's defense requirements can be confusing and political. For many reasons, most arms procurements are intended not to build a genuine defense against China but to buy insurance from the US to protect them when that day arrives, defense analysts and industry sources say.
According to various Taipei defense sources, Taiwan's arms procurement system is motivated by eight conflicting factors:
• There are things they want, but cannot afford. This would include the F-35 stealth fighter and Aegis-equipped Arleigh Burke destroyers.
• There is equipment they do not want but the US wants to sell to them, such as the Kidd-class destroyers. "We did not want it. It was a white elephant. It could not even fit into our harbor," said a former Taiwan navy official.
• There are things they can afford, but the US refuses to sell, such as F-16C/D fighter aircraft.
• There are weapon systems they can afford but it would take two decades or more to acquire, such as submarines.
• There are things they can afford, but cannot operate, such as the early warning radar on Leshan Mountain on Taiwan's west coast facing China. Sources indicate it is the most powerful phased array radar in the world, but US personnel under contract operate and maintain the facility. Taiwanese personnel are unable to operate the complex system.
• There are things Taiwan can get quickly, such as the recent transfer of two US Navy Perry-class frigates, that are procured only to make certain politicians look good during ribbon cutting ceremonies.
• Corruption is a factor in all arms sales, said a US defense analyst. Members of the legislature's defense committee get the lion share of kickbacks. This applies even to legislative defense committee members who have business interests in China. It is not unusual for legislative aides to also serve as local agents for US defense companies, sub rosa. Foreign arms deals provide more cash than domestic build programs, and this has stunted Taiwan's defense industrial capabilities.
• Pressure from Washington is a serious factor. Taiwan's procurement of Patriot PAC-3 air defense missile systems lowered the price for the US military's later procurement. This is also true for the sale of the AH-64E Apache Longbow attack helicopters to Taiwan. The midlife upgrade for Taiwan's F-16A/B fighter aircraft will lower the price for the US Air Force's now stalled Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite program after Taiwan pays for the non-recurring engineering costs.
When the US government or a US think tank complains that the Taiwanese are not spending enough on defense, they are talking about dollar value, not quality, said Ching Chang, research fellow for the conservative ROC Society for Strategic Studies.
"Value is subjective," he said. "How can you decide what kind of weapons you need when you do not know what size of military force you will have in 10 years? Do you prepare to fight China based on force levels of the past, with 300,000 troops? This would be very different from the current 170,000 troops. What about a reduced force of 100,000? How can the US define the value of Taiwan's budget numbers based solely on how much US weapons they procure?"
When the American Institute in Taiwan (the de facto US Embassy in Taipei) complains about Taiwan's level of defense spending it is making a subjective statement, he said. Arms procurement for Taiwan has a value that is not the same as a price tag.
"Buying US weapons is the same as buying insurance. It is a political decision. That is why Taiwan does not complain about spending more than other countries for the same weapons," he said. "Nor does it complain about being pushed to buy things it does not need, such as the Kidd-class destroyers. Taiwan expects the US to protect them in a war with China."
Other defense analysts and sources have compared it to paying protection money to the mafia. Taiwan is buying US protection, not arms, they say. Taiwan also provides money to US think tanks in Washington with a focus on helping individuals who will be in the next White House administration.
This is a bit of a guessing game, but the Taiwanese believe this gives them additional protection after their person gets inside, these sources said. Then when they get out, Taiwan provides contracts for them if they go into the consultancy business or grants if they go into a think tank.