As reported by The Diplomat last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing the sale of four decommissioned U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates under an excess defense article (EDA) reallocation program. Although the expected decision was hailed in some corners as a sign of healthy U.S.-Taiwan relations, the sale of — let’s be honest here — mothballed military equipment makes little sense from a military and economic standpoint. In fact, no sooner had the announcement been made than Taipei, which faces serious budgetary constraints, said it was only interested in acquiring two. This is probably the right decision. A better one yet would be to not buy a single one.
Plans to pass on the USS Taylor, USS Gary, USS Carr, and USS Elrod to the Taiwan Navy go back a few years. Although the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs agreed to introduce legislation that would authorize the sale of all four frigates in November 2013, Taipei had already decided in late 2011 that it would only seek to acquire two platforms. Reports at the time cited cost and technical considerations, as well as the need for the Taiwanese military to repay nearly US$18 billion in arms purchases from the U.S. since 2008.
Cost indeed matters, especially when it has become clear that Taiwan cannot afford to engage in a ton-for-ton arms race with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). If the sale proceeds as planned, with plans for delivery in 2015, the two decommissioned frigates, which are to be stripped of all weapons and electronics, will cost Taiwan approximately NT$5.6 billion (US$185 million). To put things in perspective, the acquisition of the two empty hulls, which entered service in 1984-85, will cost Taiwan about 1/57th of its entire annual defense budget, and that does not include the millions more that will be necessary to outfit the vessels with electronics, warfare suites, and weapons systems (presumably Hsiung Feng II and III anti-ship missiles, among others).
Moreover, though the two frigates are intended to replace two even older Knox-class frigates that are still in service in the Taiwan navy, it makes little sense for the navy to procure large-displacement vessels that would be almost immediately wiped out by Chinese ballistic and/or cruise missiles during the opening phase of a large-scale attack against Taiwan (the same argument has often been made with regards to the multi-billion-dollar purchases of advanced combat aircraft, given the vulnerability of airstrips to missile attacks).
If Taiwan didn’t face the threat of 1,600 ballistic missiles from China’s Second Artillery Corps plus sea- and air-launched attacks, the procurement of heavy-tonnage vessels would perhaps make sense, but even then, the island’s geographical characteristics and near-sea defense requirements could be used to make a case against such an investment. Instead of spending precious capital on large sea platforms, Taiwan would be better served by procuring — or even better, developing — a smaller, faster, stealthier, and more dispersible force. For the amount it will pay for the two retired 3,600-tonne hulls from the U.S., the Taiwanese Navy could procure as many as 14 fully armed 170-tonne Kuang Hua VI fast-attack boats, or several smaller surface combatants in the 500-tonne category, including the “carrier killer” being developed under the Hsun Hai, or “Swift Sea” program.
Although small size and dispersibility cannot fully ensure survivability against missile attacks by the PLA, there is a chance that a sufficient number of small surface combatants would survive an initial onslaught to fight another day, something that cannot be said of the 18 3,800-tonne-plus warships that currently form the core of Taiwan’s Navy (four Kidd-class destroyers, eight Perry-class frigates and six La Fayette-class frigates).
Of course, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are never solely about their defense value. The political signaling that accompanies arms deals with the island is always a factor in Washington and Taipei’s calculations. But in the present case, the transfer of two (or perhaps four) mothballed hulls hardly signals a continued commitment of the U.S. government to ensuring that Taiwan retains the ability to defend itself. It should furthermore be regarded in the context of a U.S. administration that has not signed a single notification to Congress on arms sales to Taiwan since September 2011, the longest period of inactivity since 1990. The sale may be symbolic, but the symbol itself has little bite and is hardly sufficient to reaffirm U.S. support for a strong Taiwanese military. If Taiwan is to throw money at mostly symbolic acquisitions, it could do a lot better.
Interestingly, as The Diplomat reported a few days ago, Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense Yen Ming surprised everybody when he seemed to confirm to the Legislative Yuan on April 14 that the U.S. had agreed to assist Taiwan with the domestic development of diesel-electric submarines. After 10 years of failed efforts to procure diesel-electric submarines from the U.S., Taiwan’s military all but announced in early 2011 that it had given up on Washington and would launch an indigenous program, possibly with the assistance of other countries. (The U.S. stopped producing diesel-electric submarines in the 1950s, which has forced the U.S. Navy to rent those from other countries for exercises simulating the use of such forces by an adversary.)
Neither the Pentagon nor Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has confirmed, let alone provided details about, the assistance mentioned by Minister Yen. A decision by Washington to help Taiwan’s Navy develop a shallow-water conventional submarine would constitute a major shift in policy, possibly reflecting a reassessment of Taiwan’s military value amid rising fears of Chinese expansionism.
Instead of wasting precious defense budgets on rather useless and highly vulnerable surface combatants, Taiwan’s military should focus on smaller items that will make the PLA’s life difficult. Submarines, though highly expensive, are a good start, as are smaller, swift warships, dispersal, and the hardening of harbors and other military infrastructure. Part of that strategy involves Taipei being able to say no to some of the defense articles that Washington throws at it.