On paper, the arms package announced on Wednesday is eye-catching, but even its more surprising elements fail to meet the special requirements for warfare in the Taiwan Strait
The US on Wednesday ended months of speculation after Congress was notified of a US$5.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, as I and several other defense analysts and journalists had been reporting for a while, the 66 F-16C/Ds that Taipei was hoping to acquire were not part of the package.
So how does the sale, which centers on upgrading Taiwan’s existing fleet of 145 F-16A/Bs, affect the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait? Does Taiwan get enough bang for the buck?
At first sight, the upgrade package is pretty impressive and includes some items that surprised quite a few analysts. It confirms, among other things, that Taiwan will be getting Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar — either Raytheon Corp’s Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR), or Northrop Grumman Corp’s Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR).
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) also for the first time released GBU-31 and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) laser-guided bombs, which the US had hitherto denied Taiwan, given their offensive nature. The GBU-54 laser-guided JDAM, the GBU-10 Enhanced PAVEWAY II and GBU-24 Enhanced PAVEWAY III are also reportedly options for Taiwan.
Added to CBU-105 Sensor Fused Weapons, AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, Embedded Global Positioning System Inertial Navigation Systems, the Terma ALQ-213 Electronic Warfare Management System and helmet-mounted cueing systems, the upgrade is pretty muscular.
But does it meet Taiwan’s defense needs?
In an op-ed published on Friday in the Taipei Times (above post), I address the issue of qualitative and quantitative imperatives for Taiwan’s air force and will not repeat this here. Suffice it to say that even if Taiwan had the most modern aircraft in the world, if that limited number of vehicles, as well as landing strips, cannot withstand the initial missile volley that China would likely commence military operations with, those would be of no use whatsoever.
That said, supporters of the deal could argue that the upgrade, which is to be implemented over a period of 12 years, provides the Taiwanese air force with offensive capabilities. With a range of about 500 miles, its F-16s, now equipped with 500-lb JDAMs, could attack targets inside China, including missile bases, command-and-control centers, as well as airstrips.
Two factors put that assertion into doubt, however. For one, Taiwan will not initiate military operations against China, meaning that the initiative will be with the People’s Liberation Army. As mentioned above, this would likely start with missile attacks against Taiwan’s C4I centers and airbases. In that opening shot alone, Taiwan can expect to lose a good deal of its air force, or to be unable to use it for lack of operational airstrips (China has been working on bomblets specifically designed to damage airstrips).
Secondly, China’s AAA and SAM architecture being what it is, any effort by Taiwanese aircraft to venture into Chinese airspace on a bombing run would be tantamount to suicide, as those aircraft would likely be shot down before they can unload their bombs against Chinese targets (the GBU-31 has a range of 28km).* In fact, some of China’s most advanced surface-to-air missiles already pose a threat to Taiwanese aircraft immediately after takeoff.
What this means, therefore, is that while the US for the first time agreed to release “offensive” weapons to Taiwan, those will only be usable in a defensive scenario — that is, against Chinese ground forces close to, or already on, Taiwan. Consequently, their deterrent value, if not their utility, is for all intents and purposes negated.
* A better option, still unavailable to Taiwan, would be the High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) , such as the AGM-88, which has a range of 106km. HARMs would allow Taiwanese aircraft to attack Chinese targets from a much safer distance.