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 is looking for surplus US Army M1A1/M1A2 main battle tanks to replace its Patton tanks. Above is an M48 Patton tank.
Photo Credit: Wendell Minnick/Staff
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.
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.
US Marines, dressed as civilians, were deployed to Kaohsiung to assist in training Taiwan Marines on operating the vehicles.
Two AT-3 aircraft perform stunts during at a Taiwan airbase in Pingtung in 2006. Taiwan needs to start replacing its AT-3 and F-5E/F fighter trainers.
Photo Credit: PATRICK LIN/AFP
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'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.
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.
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.
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.
Tangled Web of Requirements
According to various Taipei defense sources, Taiwan's arms procurement system is motivated by eight conflicting factors:
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.
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.