Tuesday, November 25, 2008

PAC-3: Costly, costlier and of marginal value

A major component of Taiwan’s planned US$6.5 billion arms acquisition from the US is 330 Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) interceptor missiles, as well as associated equipment and services. If all options are exercised,* the total value of the missile acquisition would be US$3.1 billion, nearly half of the total value of the arms package. Adding to this cost would be an as-yet unspecified “research and development” and “production line reinitiation” fee that, according to United Daily News, could reach as much as US$800 million, with possible sharing with other clients (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others, who have confirmed purchases this year).

Conservatively, this means that Taiwan’s acquisition of the 330 PAC-3s could amount to US$3.5 billion.

The problem with this purchase, however, is that is does not meet Taiwan’s defense needs against a growing arsenal of Chinese missiles. Given standard procedure of firing two PAC-3s for every missile to be intercepted and assuming an unlikely 100 percent kill ratio (the Pentagon estimates a nine-in-ten hit ratio against incoming Chinese short-range ballistic missiles), Taiwan could, at best, intercept but a fraction of a missile attack, perhaps not even enough to defend critical infrastructure such as command-and-control and airstrips. Analysts have argued that given China’s arsenal of about 1,400 SRBMs — which is growing at an estimated rate of 100 missiles annually — the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could easily overwhelm Taiwan’s PAC-3s, perhaps by using less-precise missiles to deplete the interceptors, followed by a second strike using more precise missiles.

Ironically, the acquisition of PAC-3s by Taiwan could prompt the PLA to increase the number of missiles it aims at the island and, if an attack were launched, to greatly augment the number of missiles used in a strike, to devastating effect for Taiwan.

Given the steep cost of acquiring PAC-3s versus the marginal defense advantage the system confers on Taiwan, it would be fair to caution against the purchase. At best, the PAC-3 should be used ONLY at critical infrastructure and in combination with other measures, such as hardening and redundancy. But even there, the financial cost is prohibitive, perhaps reflecting Washington’s strategy of tying weapons purchases by allies with diplomatic support and, in Taiwan’s case, of confusing “warmer ties” with defense acquisitions.

* Four AN/MPQ-65 Radar Sets, two Tactical Command Stations, two Information and Coordination Centrals, six Communication Replay Groups, four Engagement Control Stations, 24 Launching Stations, 12 Antenna Mast Groups, 282 Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) (115 AN/VRC-88E, 96 AN/VRC-90E, 13 AN/VRC-91E, and 58 AN/VRC-92E), 9 Electronic Power Plant III, 50 Multifunctional Information Distribution Systems, battery and battalion maintenance equipment, prime movers, generators, electrical power units, personnel training and equipment, trailers, communication equipment, tool and test sets, spare and repair parts, publications, supply support Quality Assurance Team support services, US Government and contractor engineering and logistics services, technical documentation, and other related elements of logistics support.


Anonymous said...

Hmm. Just noticed this post. Valid points made here. Add in Chinese technical countermeasures, multiaxis attacks, integrated use of airbreathers and ballistics, the PAC-3 radar and fire control system's ability to only handle a max of seven-nine missiles at one time, and an even stronger operational case could be made against PAC-3.

But why have Chinese authorities viewed PAC-3 as one of the most horrendous sales the US could ever make to Taiwan? It's not just the usual rhetoric about a so-called "violation" of the 1982 Communique. Senior officials have threatened horrible consequences should a sale actually take place. What is it about PAC-3 that makes former Chinese intelligence czar Xiong Guangkai's head spin that reminds one of The Exorcist? The PLA certainly shouldn't be concerned from an operational perspective since the system is such a speed bump.

The answer lies in the strategic realm. From China's perspective, PAC-3 requires access to United States' Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites on a real time basis. This connectivity or operational linkage, at least from China's view, is tantamount to a virtual alliance. Therefore, the sale of PAC-3 would not only "violate" the 1982 Communique, but also the 1979 Communique that abrogated the US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty.

In my view, having operational linkages between the United States and Taiwan is a good thing. More the better.

But...why not just upgrade the three fire units around Taipei to the PAC-3 configuration, and buy a minimal load out for limited coverage? No need for four-six new fire units to cover Taichung and Kaohsiung. Unless it's political...

MikeinTaipei said...

Anonymous (m.s.?):

Excellent points that would seem to explain why, indeed, Beijing has been so strident in its opposition to the weapons system. I believe you are bang on when you write that the answer lies in the strategic realm — not the weapons system itself, but rather the symbolism attached to the sale.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in the not-so-distant-future, Beijing attempted to “block” the sale of PAC-3s to Taiwan by promising, as it hinted at last week, to remove “some” of the missiles it aims at Taiwan, whereupon it could argue that absent a missile threat, Taiwan would no longer need missile defense systems — ultramodern ones at that. (Of course, we all know how easy it would be to rearm or redeploy the launchers, given their mobility.)