Elevation and Transformation of US Arms Sales to Taiwan

After Trump administration announced selling 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks to Taiwan in July, another green light on the sale of 66 F-16V fighter jets is expected to ensue in September. It is unprecedented for Washington to approve selling such heavyweight military gears to Taiwan in succession, especially those with capabilities in par with the ones on active duty in the U.S. military. It appears that not only the specifications of the sold weapons have been upgraded, but also the US-Taiwan arms sales policy is transforming.

3 main factors historically influenced the decisions on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan: (1) The status of cross-strait military balance; (2) the competition in the global arms market; and (3) Taiwan's advancement on weapons development. Political dynamics such as Washington's resilience against China's pressure and the mutual trust and relations between the U.S. and Taiwan would always play a part in the process.

To keeping cross-Strait military balance, the U.S. has been providing Taiwan weapons that meet Taiwan's minimum requirement to deter China's military attack, but not enough to wage war. (or to "reclaim" the mainland from Taiwan's perspective). In the early days, when the naval and air prowess of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) was still in its primitive stage, the U. S. could maintain such a balance by selling Taiwan basic ground-based defense systems, retired aircraft, and naval vessels. However, since PLA acquired R-77 medium-range air-to-air missiles from Russia for purchasing Su Kai 27 fighter jets in 1999, the PLA has aggressively stepped up its military preparedness and capacity and was never shy to showcase its hard power through frequent massive military drills. In light of the growing disparity of military power between China and Taiwan, the U.S. has been continuously calibrating its arms sales packages to Taiwan to keep China at bay.

The international market competitions prompt U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as well. Whenever Taiwan managed to acquire weapons through other channels, the U.S. would match the offer. For example, after Taiwan secured the deal to purchase Mirage 2000 fighter jets from France in 1992, the old Bush administration immediately announced the sale of F-16A / B fighter jets to Taiwan within a month.

Taiwan's weapons development ability also had a say in the game. Whenever Taiwan had a breakthrough in developing certain types of weapons, the U.S. would immediately approve the arms sale of the same grade to Taiwan. Harpoon anti-ship missiles, AGM-88B anti-radiation missile, and AGM-154C Joint Direct Attack Munition were all acquired by Taiwan under such circumstances.

Before the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from ROC (Taiwan) to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, the US-Taiwan arms sales decisions used to be shaped mainly in the U.S.-Taiwan annual arms sales talks held in Aprils. Taiwan would submit a wish list to the Pentagon by the end of the previous year. The desired articles were usually packaged for review and announcement. Once approved, the items would be released in batches. The interval could last from one to several years. 

Quality-wise, the weapons sold to Taiwan were usually subpar items due to the restraint of the Taiwan Relations Act. The ones with offensive capacities were particularly difficult to come through. However, the restrictions seemed to have been relaxed since the announcement of the recent significant sales of M1A2T tanks and F-16V fighter jets.

The first notable change is the pattern of reviewing and approval process. Instead of "packaged" review, now Taiwan's request is taken "case-by-case," which is the same model the United States has adopted for other allies. Also, Washington has decided to respect Taiwan's actuarial requirement report this time. It has agreed upon Taiwan military's weapons procurement goals under reasonable arguments. Meanwhile, the two parties started to have sidebar meetings to exchange views on the purchases list during annual US-Taiwan high-level strategic dialogues, such as the Monterey Talks and the US-Taiwan Annual Defense Review Conference. As a result, Taiwan could have early access to U.S. assessment opinions, so that it could make necessary adjustments to reach consensus in time.

It is also worth noting that the quality of weapons that the U.S. sold Taiwan has marked improvement. It is an indication of a stronger mutual trust between the United States and Taiwan, and also an acknowledgment of PLA's rapid military growth. Besides M1A2T tanks and F-16V fighter jets that Taiwan procured this time, the AH-64E Apache helicopters, Patriot PAC-3 missiles, and the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that acquired between 2008 to 2010 were all of latest model or the same grade with the current U.S. military ones. In other words, what Taiwan pays for are no longer "used" or "junkies" that prone to raise criticisms and hurt feelings. Furthermore, the Mk-48 heavy torpedoes, AGM-88B anti-radiation missiles, and AGM-154C remote attack missiles that were acquired by Taiwan in 2017 were all once categorized by the U.S. as sensitive offensive operation weapons and taken out of the list. Judging from the contents of merchandise of recent sales, we can see the line is getting blurred.

Taiwan's procurement of F-16 Viper fighter jets along is a breakthrough. Since the Bush administration sold Taiwan 150 F-16A/B fighter jets 27 years ago, Taiwan has never acquired any weapons again that could launch attack beyond its territory until now. Even more significantly, the performance of F-16 Viper fighter jets is no longer discounted. From a political perspective, this is a reassurance from the Trump administration on U.S. commitment to Taiwan's security and is symbolic of never better US-Taiwan relations. The F-16 Viper fighter jets obtained in this batch are of the latest version of the F-16C / D block 70, the same class the U.S. military to be upgraded. With better performance in all aspects, this deal will remarkably increase the combat capabilities of the Taiwan Air Force. 

As for M1A2T tanks, the EPS is close to the current serving M1A2 SEPV3 in the U.S. Army. The penetrating power, accuracy, speed, and horsepower are all significantly upgraded, which will make it very difficult for PLA to penetrate.

Above all, the fact that the Taiwanese Army can obtain combat gears of the same class with the U.S. Army raises the morale, which correlates to stronger faith and resilience of the Taiwanese military. This shot in the arm is much needed when Taiwan's current battle vehicles average more than 20 years old. The predicament was only exacerbated by PLA's bombarding propaganda and disinformation warfare. Taiwan was helpless with the ever-growing disparity of military power with China. Now with the acquisition of M1A2T, which claims to be the strongest combat machine on earth, Taiwan might have what it needs to slow down the tide.

Last but not least, it is Taiwan's self-determination that counts. Taiwan has to make itself capable of purchasing and developing competent weapons for national defense so that it can have a say in its own game. Meanwhile, a well-devised military service system is indispensable to sustain a well-trained and adequate military workforce to exact the effectiveness of advanced weapons. But among all, the most critical factor remains the strong will of both Taiwanese military and citizens to fight. After all, no cutting-edge weapons or technology can save a divided and intimidated people from the fate of defeat.

Author Ming-jie, Wu used to be a military reporter, the vice chairman of political section of Liberty Times and now a freelancer military commentator.

Conclusions and recommendations of Taiwan Perspective articles are solely those of their authors, and do not reflect the views of INPR.

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