Wednesday, December 16, 2009

US arms package could be an expensive illusion

The “new” arms package recently touted by US officials has yet to be confirmed by US President Barack Obama. Nevertheless, supporters of Taiwan are already hailing the news as a great victory, of Obama “thumbing his nose at the Chinese,” as Foreign Policy recently put it. There are signs, however, that there is less to the news than meets the eye.

From what has been made public, the Obama administration could release PAC-3 interceptor missiles, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, as well as an operations deal for the “Po Sheng,” or Broad Victory, command and control program and design work on diesel-electric submarines.

Not only are the 66 F-16C/D fighter aircraft that Taiwan has sought for years missing from the list, however, there is also nothing new in the “new” arms package proposed by the administration.

“The real question,” Wendell Minnick, Asia Bureau Chief at Defense News, told the Taipei Times on Sunday, “is what is ‘new’ in the arms pipe that hasn’t been in there since 2001. And there is nothing, which is ominous.”

All these items were approved by former US president George W. Bush in 2001. Also problematic is the fact that the design work on the submarines would be both costly and may not even result in actual subs. Even if it did, it would only be many years from now and make an insignificant contribution to Taiwan’s current and mid-term defense requirements.


Furthermore, given the two-to-one ratio required for PAC-3 missiles to shoot down a target, even the addition of the 330 missiles included in the Bush package would be insufficient to ensure full coverage in case of a Chinese barrage.

China’s arsenal, which has been growing by about 100 missiles annually, is about 1,500. A barrage would easily overwhelm Taiwan’s defense capabilities and even a limited attack could quickly deplete its defense stocks.

“It’s simple math,” Minnick said. “Four fire units of PAC-2s procured 10 years ago are being upgraded, but even so, each unit has four missiles, so that’s 16 total missiles that can be fired.”

“It takes 30 minutes to reload one fire unit. So you are down to eight PAC-2 missiles per attack. The Chinese just upped the number of SRBMs [short-range ballistic missile] to overwhelm them. Now Taiwan is getting new PAC-3s. But even if they get the six fire units originally released by Bush, that’s only 24 missiles, plus 16 original PAC-2s — that’s 40 [altogether]. With two missiles dedicated to incoming SRBMs ... that’s really only 20.”

In addition, Beijing could use the announcement of the PAC-3 sale as an argument to continue building up its missile arsenal, which would offset the small advantage created by the purchase.

The price tag for 330 PAC-3 missiles and related equipment is estimated at US$3.1 billion, while each DF-15 missile deployed by China costs about US$450,000, excluding launchers and related equipment. To draw a comparison, 330 DF-15 would cost China US$148 million. By taking the two-to-one ratio into consideration, it would cost China US$74 million to deplete US$3.1 billion worth of PAC-3s — a cost disparity that makes a strong case against the advisability of the PAC-3s purchase in the first place.

Still, some US defense analysts see some benefits to the PAC-3s, as they would be “speed bumps” in a conventional Chinese military campaign and serve to undercut coercive use of force.

Symbolically, the PAC-3s also imply an operational linkage with the US, as US satellite warning is presumably part of the equation.


The Obama administration’s position on arms sales to Taiwan is increasingly looking like a half-hearted effort to “prove” that it remains committed to Taiwan, while limiting sales to systems that do not really tilt the balance in the Taiwan Strait, thus ensuring that Beijing’s “anger” will be minimal and likely not result in China cutting military-to-military ties with the US.

Asked for comment on the possible Obama deal, John Tkacik, a retired US foreign service officer and expert on China, said: “The Obama administration’s breath-taking concessions — not just on Taiwan, but on Tibet, human rights, Iran and North Korea — at the Obama-Hu [Jintao (胡錦濤)] meetings last month have generated pushback in Washington. So now Obama’s people are doing the least they can get away with, and now they are looking at anodyne moves that won’t really make a difference.”

“Of course, their intent — like Ma’s — is to avoid riling China. Any US arms sales, then, are likely to be of marginal use in redressing the already catastrophic imbalance in the Taiwan Strait,” Tkacik said.

“I suspect that if Obama approves a new arms package, Ma’s government and the [Chinese Nationalist Party, KMT]-dominated Legislative Yuan will, once again, go out of its way to temporize, shilly-shally and complain about the costs, utility, and political tensions with China of the sales — and use those factors as excuses to stall procurements. That way, Obama can say ‘it’s Taiwan’s fault’ and [President] Ma [Ying-jeou (馬英九)] will say ‘it’s the Americans’ fault.”

If Obama took Taiwan’s defense seriously, his administration would be releasing the types of weapons that would help Taiwan mount a credible deterrent force, not costly material whose utility and desirability is increasingly questionable.

The sale of 150 F-16A/Bs in 1992 by George H.W. Bush is an example of real commitment. In one swoop, the sale altered the balance of power in the strait and ensured that Beijing would have neither the numerical nor qualitative advantage that would make the use of force a viable option. A case could be made that this helped ensure there would be no war in the Taiwan Strait for a decade.

Taiwan now finds itself in a position where it has to beg for arms that would only have a marginal impact on the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. There is also evidence, Tkacik said, that Ma administration officials in Washington “refrained from pushing Bush or Obama on the F-16s and slow-balled just about everything else” or even “pointedly refused to raise the F-16s.”

The cost of the items set for release by Obama is prohibitively high and represents a substantial proportion of Taipei’s defense budget. In addition, because of Washington’s refusal to sell it advanced weapons, Taipei is now forced to spend large sums to upgrade its aging F-16 fleet, as well as its Lafayette-class destroyers, Ching-kuo Indigenous Defense Fighters and Dutch submarines as it retires some of its Mirage 2000s and F-5s. Added to the investment that will be required to turn the military into an all-volunteer force, as Ma has called for, it is becoming increasingly doubtful that Taiwan can afford all these items.

“The KMT legislature blocked Taiwan’s military procurements during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) years, and thus ensured Taiwan’s long-term defenselessness against China. And it seems now that neither Ma nor Obama intend substantively to reverse that,” Tkacik said.

This analysis piece was published today in the Taipei Times.

Errata: Contrary to what my story claims, it is not true that all the military items likely to be included in the Obama package had already been proposed by the Bush administration in 2001. The Taiwanese government only made a request for price and availability data on 60 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in April 2007. Bush, however, did not notify Congress on the UH-60s in October 2008.


Robert R. said...

Agreed on pretty much all of your points, however the cost disparity between the offensive & defensive missiles. Look at the relative cost of SCUD missiles vs. the Patriot missiles used to defend against them in GW1.

Or to take my argument to the extreme, a large catapult is cheap compared to the defense required to stop an incoming rock. said...

Anonymous said...

The patronizing "I know better than Taiwan" attitude that Americans often display never seems to go away.

So the Ministry of National Defense, and Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and Ma Ying-jeau administrations are all idiots for advocating investment in missile defenses? And the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations are supposedly unscrupulous for releasing missile defense systems and letting Taiwan's political leadership senior military officers waste taxpayer resources?

The answer is no. When senior officials in Taiwan make a decision, they have a different set of cost/benefit calculations than Americans do. It's Taiwan's game with China, and not ours. Americans have a tendency to misread complex cross-Strait political dynamics almost every day.

Arms sales are 75% political, and only 20% military (other five percent is supposed to be economic in terms of offsets). Anything that undercuts the coercive, psychological utility of China's ballistic missiles is good. Any arms sale is good, not so much because of the military value but because it signifies continued undetermined international political status of Taiwan. The more politically significant, the better. In this light, PAC-3 and submarines are valuable, but second only to F-16s.

But people want to debate relative military value. OK. So critics say missile defense is stupid because of the ballistic missile/interceptor cost ratio. Doesn't take a genius to figure out exhaustion/saturation rates for PAC-3, or SM-3 or THAAD for that matter. It's much harder for an American to determine the political value of PAC-3.

So instead of PAC-3, what should Taiwan buy? F-16s? Well, Bill Murray says they would be a waste of money because of the runway problem. Submarines? Those too -- waste of money. M1A2 tanks? Hmm, many have said that would be a waste. UH-60 Blackhawks? Critics have said that their too expensive, and more than what Taiwan needs. UH-1Y utilities would be better. UH-64 Apaches? Critics say they're too hard to maintain, and the Longbow doesn't operate well in misty, foggy maritime environments.

This list goes on and on. How Taiwan spends its money on defense should be up to it, based on the political, economic, and military judgment of the democratically elected leadership.

And if one insists on calling Taiwan's political and military leadership idiots for buying PAC-3, at least get the facts straight. PAC-3s have a different launcher from the four canister PAC-2. PAC-3 launchers can be loaded with 16 interceptors, a four-fold increase over the number of missiles a PAC-2 launcher can hold.

Secondly, the article makes an assertion that there's nothing new in this notification package. Not true. The ROC Army requested release of Blackhawks in 2007, and they were approved in 2007. Notification package has been sitting at State for almost two years. The UH-60 Blackhawks were not on the list of Taiwan's requests in 2001 and therefore not on the list of Bush's 2001 arms sales package. It is new.

J. Michael said...


Thanks for the enriching comments. I fully agree with you on the symbolic aspect of US arms sales to Taiwan, and that is why I made a point of including comments by a US defense expert (who requested anonymity) to that effect. However, despite those benefits, when push comes to shove and if China were to launch an invasion of Taiwan, that symbolism would be of little assistance, unless it were accompanied by a real commitment by US forces to come to Taiwan’s assistance. As Washington prefers to keep that commitment ambiguous — and some would say that it has been signaling lesser commitment — only a clear deterrent force, including such items as F-16s, would make China think twice.

My fear is that absent a meaningful deterrence in Taiwan, Beijing could conclude that its chances of prevailing in a conflict are good enough to justify military action. It could be a miscalculation, mind you—even more so if the US were to intervene—but that’s all it takes. If the bad guys think they can get away with something, they’re likelier to try than if there is the expectation that they will get a slap on the wrist.

You’re absolutely right about the Black Hawks — they’re not from 2001, but rather 2007. Which technically doesn’t make them new either, as they’re still a product of the Bush era.

Anyway, thanks again for the comments.

Thomas said...

It is already apparent that Taiwan will soon not have an air force if no new planes are procured. The Mirages can't go on much longer, the IDFs are not first-rate, and the F-16s that Taiwan has are not sufficiently numerous. I feel terribly pessimistic that Obama will be the president who has the most to do with the loss of Taiwan than any other simply through his zeal to play nice with China.

I do see an interesting parallel between Bush Sr. and Obama. As Nancy Tucker asserts in her book Strait Talk, which I like very much, Bush's decision to sell the F-16s to Taiwan had less to do with his love for Taiwan or care about the country's security than it did with his desire to look strong at a time when he was contemplating the possibility of a loss to Bill Clinton. If it is true that the big O is looking to burnish his credentials, he certainly does bring Bush, who had a bittersweet relationship with Taiwan to mind.

The bad thing: Taiwan under Bush had Lee Tung Hui. Taiwan under Obama has Ma -- sell you down the river -- Ying-jeou.