Copyright The South China Morning Post – Friday, July 8, 2005
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Taiwanese soldiers guard a Patriot anti-missile battery at a base in Wanli, Taipei county. Agence France-Presse photo
Taiwan’s recent decision to fork out US$752 million on an early warning radar system will buy the island only about six minutes of extra reaction time to a mainland missile attack, according to defence analysts.
By the time it is confirmed that missiles are streaking across the 180km-wide Taiwan Strait, the defenders will have about enough time left to telephone the island’s president and warn him he is going to have a bad day.
Taiwan’s anti-missile defences will benefit from early warning radar, and could shoot down some of the incoming warheads. But they could stop only a small mainland attack.
Even if plans to buy six US-made Patriot Pac-3 anti-missile batteries were approved, only about two thirds of Taiwan would be covered. The anti-missile batteries would have to cope with hundreds of inbound missiles and aircraft, and could quite quickly be overwhelmed.
Many analysts believe the new radar system will be of little use in stopping – or even deterring – a mainland attack.
“To my mind, this radar system will not have a significant impact on the balance of power,” said Robert Karniol, Asia Pacific editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly. “This is another case where the US pressured Taiwan’s military to spend vast sums of money on defence items that they do not need and do not want.”
Taipei has mulled over the need for early warning radar since the 1996 missile crisis, when Beijing test-fired missiles near the island in a bid to intimidate Taiwanese into voting against pro-independence candidate Lee Teng-hui. Since then, the People’s Liberation Army has been adding more – and better – missiles to its arsenal.
Sale of the early warning radar technology was approved by the US in 2000, in a move seen as a consolation prize after the rejection of a request for four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with the Aegis battle-management system. But there have been ongoing reports of opposition to the deal in Taiwan. Defence officials were quoted in media reports recently as saying the radar is controversial due to the system’s vulnerability to attack, the short warning time it offers and its high price.
In February, Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that one of the two American defence contractors bidding on the programme had withdrawn due to concerns about the deal and that Taiwan’s military was seriously re-evaluating the need for an early warning radar of the type being offered by the US.
The system, to be operational by 2009, will be provided by the US firm Raytheon. It reportedly will be based on a modified version of the AN/FPS-115 Pave Paws radar that forms a defensive ring against ballistic missile attack around North America.
According to the US Air Force, the Pave Paws radar can detect targets more than 5,000km away and is powerful enough to monitor objects in outer space.
The US radar installations are housed in vulnerable, 30-metre concrete towers that analysts say would be pounded into rubble almost immediately during a mainland attack. Those who support the project say the radar would have served its purpose by detecting the initial attack, even if it was destroyed soon afterwards.
A spokesman for Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said that even with the system’s limitations, the early warning radar would play an important role in the island’s overall defence by boosting the effectiveness of its anti-missile weapons, especially the Patriot batteries.
The threat to Taiwan comes from more than 450 land attack missiles the mainland has deployed in coastal areas across the strait. During a war, the missiles would be used ahead of an invasion to destroy airfields, communications facilities and other infrastructure vital to Taiwan’s defence.
The missile threat is a keystone of Beijing’s strategy to deter moves towards independence. While Taiwan could defend itself against an invasion by troops, it does not have an effective way to keep the mainland from blasting it into submission with long-range missile strikes.
The PLA has already been in the market for anti-radar weapons to destroy systems like the planned Taiwanese radar network. One deal – for an upgraded version of the Israeli-made Harpy, an unmanned aerial vehicle specially designed to attack radar installations – was recently cancelled at the last minute due to intense pressure from the US.
Karniol said the most effective way for the US to help Taiwan defend itself would be the politically sensitive route of assisting the island with its own missile programme, so it could hit back at the mainland if it was attacked.
“Although it is useful for Taiwan to have a ground-based air defence network, what it really needs is counterstrike ability so it can attack China’s missile launchers to stop an attack,” he said.
“There are two ways to stop a missile attack: when the missiles have been launched and are in flight or when they are on the ground before launch. It is much easier to destroy them on the ground.”
Raytheon spokesman Guy Shields declined to comment on criticism of the deal, saying the company did not respond to comments from defence analysts and would “not get into politics”.
“This is a very capable system. It will give the Taiwan Air Force the capability to detect, track and assess ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as aircraft and surface ships,” Mr Shields said. “Specific capabilities are classified for obvious reasons.”
Some analysts believe the real motivation for purchasing the radar is the hope it will be integrated into a US-backed ballistic missile defence network. Legislators from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party have said they hope the radar purchase will draw Taiwan into a closer military alliance with the US and its regional allies.
As the PLA modernises and closes the qualitative gap with Taiwan’s military, many see the island’s best hope for deterring an invasion as being closer links to the US.
“There is a great potential for assisting the US with this radar system,” said Andrew Yang, a Taiwan-based defence expert. “This radar can easily be integrated into the US regional early warning system.”
Mr Yang said he was not aware of any plans for Taiwan to link into a US radar network, but acknowledged that the ability to do so would be a valuable card for Taiwan to play if tensions between Beijing and Washington heightened. Radar based in Taiwan could give more accurate information about missile launches in mainland China than existing US systems in the region.
If the Raytheon radar system does eventually plug Taiwan into a US defence network, the US$752 million price tag may seem like a bargain. If not, it may account for the most expensive six minutes of the island’s history.