By Jie Zhong, Initium special contributor
The US announced a $1.83-billion arms sale package for Taiwan on Dec. 16. The deal includes Perry-class frigates, Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, advanced Tactical Digital Information Link, AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles and other weapons systems. This could be the last US arms sale that takes place in Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou’s term of office, and the major parts of the sale would be implemented in the next president’s term.
Between the two front runners of the election, the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Eric Chu is believed to be going to continue the current administration’s defense policy, which is well-known and has been widely discussed in the past 8 years. Thus, we will focus on the defense policy of opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-Wen, with special attention to the defense industry policy that her campaign stresses.
According to Tsai, her defense industry policy emphasizes the development of Taiwan’s aviation, shipbuilding and information security industry. Specific projects include the production of: 1) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), 2) high-end trainer aircraft, 3) next generation fighter aircraft, 4) prototype submarines, and 5) developing an information security army. We will analyze each of the five projects.
1. UAV: a continuation of current policy
The DPP proposed several goals on UAVs. However, they are largely in line with the current policy of Taiwan’s Department of Defense (DOD). Since 2012, the DOD has mentioned UAVs in their reports to the Legislative Yuan on an annual basis. Some projects have been displayed and some have been put into production.
2. High-end trainer aircraft: being developed on practical basis, but the conditions of F-5E/F fleet are uncertain
The DPP decided to delay attaining new trainers (2 to 3 years) and make an extra investment of 45 billion Taiwan dollars. Except that the timing of the plan relies on best scenarios, the plan is rather practical. But the DPP ignored a potential risk, which is whether the F-5E/F can survive as a viable aircraft until the completion of the new trainer.
According to the US military’s evaluation of the F-5E/F in 2010, its efficiency would significantly fall and its risks would rise accordingly, unless large amounts of maintenance fees were included. Hence, the planned the substitution of high-end trainer aircraft between 2017 and 2022. Taiwan is expected to have 66 trainers starting from 2019.
3. Given that the F-5E/F was to be phased out after 2019, the investments in the F-5E/F in recent years have only been enough for basic pilot training, but not for extending its life-span and ameliorating its structure. If the timing of the substitution is delayed, the safety of F-5E/F would speedily decrease and the security risks to its pilots would proportionately rise.
4. The next generation fighter aircraft: Underestimation of the complexities and costs
This is an original plan by the DPP, but it represents its most groundless and problematic one. The proposal asserts that the possibilities of Taiwan procuring the US F-35B fighter is not high. Thus, the reasoning is that Taiwan should prioritize producing new indigenous fighters. The plan is to develop a new generation fighter by 2023, which would cost 80 to 100 billion Taiwan dollars. It would be produced in 2026, or even 2025 after only two years of test flying.
The biggest problem is that the plan is impractical, considering the capacities of Taiwan’s aviation industry. Take the (Euro fighter) EF-2000 fighter as an example. UK, Germany and Italy have been promoting it since 1985. But even with the collaboration of three major countries and their defense industries, the first prototype aircraft was built after 9 years in 1994. Mass production also had to wait until 2003. Thus, we can see how far the DPP’s plan is detached from reality.
On a cost basis, the R&D costs of advanced fighters built by various nations have largely increased. Even advanced industrial countries can hardly bear the costs. For instance, the R&D costs of the US F-35 has exceeded 100 billion dollars and prompted the participation of US allies like Japan.
Another problem is that the DPP plans to produce the new trainers and fighters simultaneously between 2017 and 2026. It is highly questionable whether Taiwan’s aviation industry has the manpower, resources and energy to deal with the R&D requirements of two different structures and generations of new aircraft, let alone upgrading its existing F-16A/B fighter which it got from the US.
5. Submarines: The DPP’s plan highly resembles the Taiwan navy’s current plan
On the part of shipbuilding industry, Tsai plans to initiate R&D for a prototype submarine in 2016. The plan aims at producing the sub within 10 years (2025). The proposal doesn’t vary much from the navy’s current plan.
The DPP also unfairly blames the KMT government for the country’s difficulties in building its own submarines. The KMT has actually been promoting a submarine building program for the last two years.
Tsai’s policy is more about easing voters’ concerns about an earlier DPP’s refusal to produce submarine in 2005.
6. Information security capacities: Wrong diagnosis of the problem
Tsai’s policy on information security includes establishing an information security army at the command level. However, given the manpower and energy of Taiwan’s national army, the best bet would be establishing a think tank to help R&D, so that the existent information security forces could focus on executing tasks.
Despite all the problems mentioned above, the party’s proposals to date indicate that the DPP has done deep research on Taiwan’s defense industries. The party has an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of these industries, though the DPP’s policy is essentially a campaign ad which sometimes suffers from exaggeration and inaccuracy. At the same time, the DPP has proposed some specific plans. Such plans have also been lacking in the policy statements made by other major Taiwan political parties.
The efforts that the DPP has put into its defense proposals might even have some impact on Taiwan’s defense industries in the coming presidential election and are well worth observing.
This article was first published in Chinese on Dec. 17, 2015 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.
Translated for Asia Times by Jiawen Guo