Taiwan is arming itself and the local industry is helping, and the US too

TAIPEI, (BM) – Taiwan is arming itself and local industry and the United States are helping. China’s increasingly aggressive policy, manifested not only in verbal but also in actions, is forcing small Taiwan to intensify the technical modernization of its armed forces. For Taiwan, which does not want to be devoured by Beijing, this is an existential matter.

Violation of the Taiwanese airspace, encroaching on Taiwanese territorial waters, demonstrations of power in the Taiwan Strait – this is more and more often the everyday life of the inhabitants of Taiwan, whose strategic independence and willingness to remain separate from the communist regime in Beijing forces to act. Firmness towards China is characterized by President Tsai Ing-wen, who was re-elected in 2020 [receiving 57.1% of the vote – the best result of the Democratic Progressive Party in its history].

Under her rule, Taiwan emphasizes its independence, although formal autonomy has not been declared – this could lead to Chinese aggression. According to a study by one of the Taiwanese centers, as many as 59.8% of the island’s inhabitants consider themselves not Chinese but only Taiwanese. However, even for those who have two identities [Taiwanese and Chinese], the vision of being part of the communist regime is unacceptable.

In the face of the growing Chinese threat, Taiwan is increasing its military spending, which is not an easy decision in times of a pandemic and economic crisis [including assumed lower tax revenues]. Accelerating the armed forces’ modernization is one of President Tsai’s priorities, who recently backed the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. As she said in 2020, “we will continue our efforts while continuing to be ready for dialogue with China and for building regional security.”

Tsai’s policies – firm but not provocative – saw Beijing stepping up its pressure from 2020. China breached the Taiwanese Air Traffic Identification Zone [ATIZ] 46 times over September’s nine days. The Taiwanese call on Beijing to “step back” and “return to civilized international standards.” The Chinese regime explains that there can be no question of any violation because the entire area – including the island – remains in the PRC’s hands.

In August, Taipei’s Government adopted a defense budget of $ 15.4 billion, increasing 10% in nominal terms [about 2.4% of Taiwanese GDP]. This step is quite a significant increase in such a small country but at the same time, a drop in the ocean of China’s spending. At the same time, government media reports that the authorities in Taipei plan to increase the frequency of appointments of reservists to increase the readiness of the armed forces in the event of an unexpected invasion. Instead of 5-7 days of biennial training, as is the case now, reserves would be set up every two years for two weeks.

According to the current regulations, after completing military service, persons transferred to the reserve may not be called to units – as close to their place of residence as possible – more often than twice in eight years. In 2023, the Reserve Command is to be disbanded and incorporated into the Land Forces Command. This action is to ensure better use of the reservists’ potential. However, this is only a project so far.

When it comes to human potential, experts point out critical issues. This conclusion is due to the previous president’s decision – Ma Ying-jeou – to opt for a volunteer army. In practice, conscription recruits are still appointed, but not for a year, but only for four months. Their training is symbolic and does not include field training. Taiwanese journalist Paul Huang wrote in “Foreign Policy” that “in theory, Taiwan has 215,000 jobs in all armed forces’ branches. One hundred eighty-eight thousand are soldiers, and the rest are civilians. In 2018, Taiwan filled only 153,000 jobs – this is 81% of the assumed staffing levels. Line units have between 60% and 80% full jobs. The numbers may not look particularly bad, but you have to realize that in a war, this means that a third of the tanks are useless – there are no crews for them. “

Taiwan’s defense doctrine [ODL – Overall Defense Concept] focuses entirely on the threat from mainland China, which sees – wrongly – Taiwan as a rebel province [which is a lie, because Taiwan, the Republic of China, has existed since 1912, while the People’s, PRC, from 1949]. Taiwan is aware that Singapore’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yewa in 1997 is still correct. As he said at the time, “no Chinese leader can be one if he loses Taiwan. I do not doubt that China will fight for Taiwan – regardless of the cost”.

These words are as relevant as they are for Taiwan. Since 1997, China’s military potential, including amphibious capabilities, has increased rapidly. This forces Taiwan to change its defense concepts, although the room for maneuver is diminishing. Taipei is aware of the worsening situation and the shift in the balance of power in favor of Beijing. Therefore, in recent years, the conviction has become dominant among Taipei staff that you should bet on smaller units, of which there will be more and which can be easier to hide.

The first goal of the ODL is to deter the enemy – he must be aware that the Taiwanese armed forces are ready to fight decisively, which will make aggression on the island costly and lengthy for the PRC. If deterrence fails, the ODL assumes the said fight. An essential element of the doctrine is the attempt to keep the enemy at bay – Taiwan is aware that it must stop the aggressor as far away from the beaches as possible, destroying landing ships and slowing the transfer of enemy units, also by air. Therefore, one of the most important priorities is anti-ship missiles and long-range air-to-ground missiles.

It also means relying on modern guided anti-tank missile systems, giving Taiwan a chance to destroy enemy armored formations – in those, if Beijing broke the first line of defense on the beach, China would have an advantage. Taiwan is aware that it cannot afford a war of destruction – Taiwan must destroy the landing party to prevent China from making another attempt.

Notably, while in past Taiwan assumed operations far from the coast – hence the purchases of French LaFayette (six) frigates, American Oliver Hazard Perry [ten], and the Kidd [four] destroyer – now we are talking about concentration closer to the shore [up to 100 km] and avoiding blows. This means that the priority in the armed forces is the navy and the air force. The indicated areas where Taiwan plans to develop include electronic warfare, high-speed, low-reflection stealth ships – armed with water-to-water missiles – mine and demining vessels, and drones. A vital element of the current strategy, which Tsai calls “asymmetric warfare,” is constructing the submarines presented below. Taiwan sees them as very important if it is necessary to break the sea blockade of the island. Apart from the conventional ones, the asymmetric potential is one of Taiwan’s defense’s two pillars.

President Tsai announced that Taiwan would step up efforts to defend itself against “ICT threats”, but also what Taipei calls “cognitive warfare” under the Chinese doctrine of “unrestricted warfare.” This assumes that the war of the future is a war with little or no military use of the armed forces. According to this concept, military strategists should use the activities of ideological subversion [“strategic perception management”], thanks to which the enemy will take over the aggressor’s views without having to resort to violence. Taiwan wants to avoid this and is paying more and more attention to Chinese propaganda.

Domestic arms production

Due to its unique international position, Taiwan has developed its own arms industry. The leading role is played by the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, established in the 1960s. NIST is tasked with developing its technologies and [especially in the past] copying others. It’s also serving as a technology integrator and project leader. In addition to meeting internal needs, NCSIST offers its products to third countries, including Poland [for example, through the presence at MSPO]. The flagship projects are the Hsiung Feng 2 and Hsiung Feng 3 anti-ship missiles, which are the Taiwanese fleet’s primary weapons.

They are also deployed on land on wheeled platforms to ensure their survival after the first, initiating strike by the PRC. The latest variant was unveiled in 2011 and gained the propaganda reputation of a “carrier destroyer”. These are also two new types of mines that Taiwan plans to put into service in 2021. Four years later, Taipei wants to have unspecified self-propelled mines at its disposal.

Even a cursory listing of all of Taiwan’s armed forces modernization projects would undoubtedly exceed the scope of this article. Thus, it would help if you focused on the most important and exciting. Both criteria were met by the initiative to acquire new submarines. Incredibly, Taiwan still has two Hai Shih [Guppy] units in service, launched by the Americans in 1944. Due to their condition, they are currently used mainly for crew training. Taiwan also uses two Dutch Hai Lung [Zwaardvis] class ships, launched in 1986.

The acquisition of conventional submarines on the external market turned out to be difficult, resulting from Beijing’s pressure, which deterred potential partners. The supplier could have been the United States, if not for the fundamental problem – they do not produce submarines that meet Taiwanese requirements. After receiving two European projects, two American, Indian and Japanese, Taiwan initiated its program, implemented by CSBC Corporation. Works started at the end of 2020. In total, eight units are to be in service. The first is to be completed by the end of 2024 and placed on the line a year later. It is estimated that the unit price of a Taiwanese submarine is $ 1 billion, but it is likely – as is often the case in such situations – the costs will increase.

As mentioned earlier, the modernization priority is the navy, which includes both mining ships and high-speed units with water-water missile weapons. As for the first element, Taiwan is currently implementing an acquiring program – in the local Lungteh Shipbuilding shipyards – four miners. The keels for the third and fourth ships were laid in April 2020. With a displacement of 347 tons and a length of 41 meters, the first unit is to enter service in 2021. It was launched in March 2020. The ships will be armed with 100 mines, ejected by an automated, remotely controlled system.

Mobility and firepower are to be ensured by fast coastal combat ships of the Kuang Hua VI type with four Hsiung Feng 2 water-to-water missiles and multi-purpose Tuo Chiang type corvettes with With sixteen Hsiung Feng 2 and Hsiung Feng 3 missiles. Work is also underway on introducing small, 45-ton units with two water-water missiles into service. They are consistent with the asymmetric concept – they will be able to hide in bays, near beaches, or among civilian units.

Plans for the coming years include, in addition to completing submarines, miners, and Tuo Chiang-type corvettes, the introduction of the first Polish amphibious assault ship [LPD] into service. In June 2020, a keel-laying ceremony was held at the CSBC plant. The Taiwanese Navy is expected to receive it in April 2022. In total, Taiwan is to have two such ship-docks with a length of 153 meters and a displacement of 10.6 thousand tons.

As for the land forces, a critical modernization project is the acquisition of CM-34 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles, which are a development version of the CM-32 armored cars. In August 2020, Taipei ordered 21 more. Earlier, Taiwan ordered 284 such vehicles. The August party is to go to the military police. Production, a total of 305 vehicles [284 + 21] with 30mm Orbital ATK Mk 44 Bushmaster II cannons, is expected to end by 2023.

Airspace defense is an essential element of modernization based on proprietary technologies. The key design is the Tien Kung I / II / III family system, the latest version of improved anti-ballistic capabilities. The system is capable of hitting low and medium targets. It is slowly being withdrawn and replaced by the more modern Tien Kung II. The last variant in the operational state is the Tien Kung III, which in the coming years is to replace the MIM-23 I-HAWK system in the Phase III version [13 batteries in total]. It will be integrated with the PAWS early warning system and Patriot batteries. Taiwanese refer to it as an “advanced long-range system” [about 200 km range] that can intercept targets at different altitudes.

The rocket, using the modernized and improved technologies of Tien Kung II, has a fragmentation warhead. What distinguishes the new version is the enhanced ability to intercept targets with a low effective reflection area, i.e., tactical ballistic missiles. The radar, known as the Chang Shan, has also been improved. It is most likely Tien Kung III that was tested by the Taiwanese in June 2020. Taiwanese army then fired a series of missiles on the east and south coasts.

Shopping in the United States

The United States is an important partner, although the United States has maintained full diplomatic relations with the PRC since the late seventies. Cooperation with Taiwan is close, but there are no formal diplomatic contacts. During Barack Obama’s time, support for Taipei was lower, while ties have tightened only in recent years. This was due both to the will of Taiwan – i.e., President Tsai – and Donald Trump’s policy. Taking advantage of President Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric and the opportunity that arose, in 2019, Taiwan announced its intention to acquire 108 M1A2 tanks to replace structures such as the M60A3 and the locally produced CM11 [M48 variant].

Taipei also requested 1,240 BGM-71 TOW ATGMs and 409 FGM-148 Javelin ATGMs. Also, the Americans would sell 250 FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to their Taiwanese allies. According to American data, in fiscal 2020, Taiwan spent $ 11.8 billion on American weapons, which gave it first place globally. In December 2020, both sides agreed to sell M1A2T tanks and the TOW ATGM. The contract value is USD 1.5 billion. Deliveries are to end in June and October 2025, respectively.

In October 2020, the Americans announced the sale for $ 2.4 billion of 100 HCDS coastal anti-ship launchers (Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems) and up to 400 RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II to be delivered to Taiwanese ships. These are not the only planned deliveries of offensive weapons to Taiwan. The Americans also agreed to supply Taipei with 11 Lockheed Martin M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System [HIMARS] ground launchers, 64 ATACMS [Army Tactical Missile System] surface missiles, and 135 Boeing AGM-84H Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response missiles (SLAM-ER). These purchases are in line with the Taiwanese doctrine of keeping the enemy at bay and – if necessary – destroying him before he strengthens the footholds obtained by the landing force.

After the failure to acquire the F-35, Taiwan buys 66 F-16C / D Block 70 jets. This is the essential element of the modernization, which has lost its advantage in the Taiwan Strait years ago to the PRC. In mid-December, both parties signed the Letter of Offer and Acceptance [LOA]. A month earlier, the Taiwanese parliament secured USD 8.1 billion for the project. Deliveries are not expected to end until the end of 2028, making the modernization of the already existing F-16A / B crucial for Taiwan. US aid is key to a project to upgrade approximately 140 jets to Variant V. Work, led by Lockheed Martin and Taiwan’s AIDC [Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation], was launched in 2016. By 2020, 22 aircraft are planned to be modernized. There are no delays, and at the beginning of December, it was reported that the works were completed on 19 machines. In 2021, Taiwan will modernize another 35 aircraft. The end of the program is scheduled for 2023.

To better manage maintenance and upgrades, Taiwan opened its own MRO & U [Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul, and Upgrade] center in August. Thanks to it, the Government can do much of the work on-site instead of sending planes to the United States. Taiwan’s goal is to increase its ability to face the PRC’s air before the aggressor’s troops land on Taiwanese beaches. An essential element of this strategy is the early detection of threats, recognition, and offensive systems guidance. For this purpose, Taiwan acquires MALE MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones. The Americans announced their consent to sell four machines in November 2020. Currently, Taiwan is also in talks with the Americans about the acquisition of the MK62 Quickstrike air-dropped naval mines, which are crucial to blocking Chinese amphibious ships’ movement. In July, the State Department agreed to sell 18 MK-38 Mod 6 torpedoes for $ 180 million.

It is worth mentioning that American assistance is crucial for Taiwan to modernize its airspace defense. Although Taipei is developing its systems, discussed earlier, the Patriot system remains essential. In July, the State Department announced that it agreed to Taiwan’s request for so-called PAC-3 recertification, which involves replacing some rocket components with new ones, checking the missile’s capabilities, and supplying spare parts. This is not a final agreement, but only green light on a potential contract implemented on the American side by Lockheed Martin. Its value is USD 620 million.

At the same time, although this information is not confirmed, Taiwan is holding talks on the purchase of 300 additional PAC-3 MSE missiles. If we manage to realize this in 2027, Taiwan would have a stockpile of 650 rockets. Taipei plans to allocate 6 billion USD for this project. At the end of December 2020, Chief of Staff of the Taiwanese Air Force General Huang Chih-Wei stated that in 2021 there would be around USD 800 million for the purchase of American equipment available.


This post was published in Defence24. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


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