Taiwan has embarked on a procurement drive to buy cutting-edge technology and assets from the US and France, while Chinese deputies and generals from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) up their rhetoric about defending their country’s territorial integrity.
Powerful torpedoes, missiles, coast defense systems and kits to upgrade existing frigates are among the items on the self-governing island’s shopping list announced in recent weeks. The Taiwanese military says talks with suppliers are ongoing and progressing.
Shortly after the PLA commissioned the second ship of the Type 075 amphibious assault vessel family at the end of April, the US Pentagon approved a potential sale of 18 MK-48 Mod 6 Advanced Technology Heavy Weight Torpedoes.
The Type 075 ships are dubbed “mini-aircraft carriers” as the largest of their kind among Asian navies. They are believed to be tailor-made for landing on Taiwan’s rocky shores.
But PLA engineers and staff will likely have to rejig their combat plans in light of the latest arms sale.
Significantly, the announcement was made a day after Taiwan’s independence-tilting president Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in for her second term on May 20.
Valued at US$180 million, the submarine-fired MK-48 torpedoes are manufactured by Honeywell and Westinghouse and designed to sink deep-diving nuclear-powered submarines and high-performance surface vessels.
The package will include spare parts, support, test equipment and other assorted materials to help the democratic island claimed by Beijing as a breakaway province maintain “credible deterrence.”
The torpedoes will be shipped to Taiwan straight from the US Navy’s inventory, meaning they will be quickly delivered.
Analysts say the US-made torpedoes would be particularly dangerous to the PLA’s Type 075 landing ships, as the weapons are designed to attack large vessels with a displacement of 10,000 tons or more.
The Type 075 ships’ design and construction did not factor in threats from these torpedoes, which typically dive beneath the keel of a target ship before detonation. That likely means the PLA will have to reinforce the structural integrity of future assault ships and fit them with more sensitive radars.
There are more than missiles in play. Another deal to procure a coastal defense missile system from the US is also now being assessed, according to reports.
Deputy Defense Minister Chang Che-ping said that Taiwan would need a coastal defense cruise missile system and a number of AGM-84 Harpoon missiles from the US to boost its naval capabilities within three years, according to Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency.
Harpoon missiles are all-weather, over-the-horizon, anti-ship missiles manufactured by Boeing. They are versatile enough to be launched from a plane, a surface ship, a submarine or coastal defense batteries. Chang assured that the torpedo deal will not fall through.
Taiwan’s defense cooperation with the US, and more broadly its ties with the unofficial ally, have arguably never been more amicable than under US President Donald Trump, whose administration has shrugged off Beijing’s ire over several high-profile arms sales in the past three plus years.
Between 2018 and 2019, Washington approved deals of F-16s spare parts, 108 M1A2T main battle tanks and 66 F-16C/D Block 70 fighters, among others. Taiwan may also urge the US to speed up the approval and delivery of arms now that the US has a reduced military presence in Asia.
Meanwhile, Taiwan seeks to contract French defense technology firm DCI-DESCO to upgrade its fleet of six Lafayette frigates bought in the early 1990s. The focus is to replace their missile interference systems including decoy launchers to deploy more advanced countermeasures against the PLA’s anti-ship missiles.
Reports said that the upgrade kits and ammunition, including new decoys, will be produced by French countermeasure specialist Lacroix, which supplied the original decoys for the frigates.
In 1992, France also sold Taiwan 60 Mirage 2000 fighters. The frigate upgrade deal may also raise the prospects of a new contract with Dassault Aviation to modernize these aging jets, particularly their avionics.
In Beijing, Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission, the PLA’s command and control, reiterated on Friday that China would reunite Taiwan by force and “smash” any separatists.
Li spoke at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on the 15th anniversary of China’s “anti-secession” law passed to deter Taiwan independence.
Li is one of China’s few senior officers with combat experience, having taken part in China’s ill-fated invasion of Vietnam in 1979. He has also commanded a number of drills targeting Taiwan.
Taiwan is taking the threat seriously. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party said in a special report submitted to Tsai that a war could be imminent and that the PLA might mount an attack within the year.
Taiwanese papers cited an anonymous military source saying that the armed forces are contingency planning for the PLA to down a Taiwanese jet or sink a warship to send a message to Tsai and test the waters for a wider conflict. That would include the US’ response at a time its carrier strike groups are docked faraway on US shores due to Covid-19.
Taiwan’s military fears that in the event of a full-blown conflict with China it would have to fend off PLA aggression on several fronts, in particular in the seas around the island. The Chinese military appears to have emerged relatively unscathed from the coronavirus pandemic and is apparently well-prepared for potential military action against the island.
The US Navy announced last month that at least six aircraft carriers have returned to action, including the Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Nimitz, Abraham Lincoln and Gerald R. Ford, though the vacuum in Asia may not be plugged instantly as it takes time for the ponderous flattop attack groups to be redeployed.