Air Defense: Taiwan Gets A Refresh

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August 2, 2020: Taiwan recently ordered $620 million worth of missiles and upgrades for its seven U.S. built Patriot SAM (Surface to Air) Missile batteries. Much of this upgrade is for refurbishing older PAC-3 missiles that are reaching the end of their shelf-life. Most military missiles are never fired and are built to retain their effectiveness for a decade or more. This is called shelf-life. Missiles are monitored electronically, and some are built to have a few components (batteries and some electronics) replaced regularly. But after 10-20 years the missiles require replacement or major refurbishments to “like-new” condition. Taiwan has the facilities and skilled personnel to do most of this work in Taiwan, using components and some technical services purchased from the United States.

Taiwan obtained its first Patriot three Patriot PAC-2 batteries in 1997 and these batteries were upgraded to add anti-missile capabilities using the PAC-2 missile. The more effective PAC-3 anti-missile missile entered service in 2003 and Taiwan eventually added that capability to its Patriot batteries. In 2009 Taiwan purchased four more Patriot batteries and hundreds of additional PAC-3 missiles. Taiwan uses Patriot mainly as an anti-missile system. Anti-aircraft duties are performed by a combination of recent Taiwan developed SAMs and upgrades of older American Hawk SAM batteries.

The Patriot has been in service since 1984 but did not shoot down its first manned aircraft until 2014, when an Israeli Patriot shot down a Russian made Su-24. Patriot didn’t get its first combat use until 1990, when it was used against Iraqi ballistic missiles. There the success rate was 70 percent against missiles fired at Saudi Arabia and 40 percent against those fired at Israel. The relatively low success rate here had to do with the crude modifications Iraq made to its SCUD missiles to give them more range. This caused them to come apart while making their descent to the target. This showed up as multiple incoming warheads. Another problem was that when a missile was intercepted over an urban area, the large bits of missile debris caused casualties. Do you count that as a successful intercept? Even against aircraft, if you destroy it the debris are going to come down in fatal velocities in dangerously large fragments. This is an issue that does not get much media attention even though it has been the reality since ground based antiaircraft weapons were first used to defend urban areas during World War I (1914-18).

Israeli Patriot batteries have had more combat experience than anyone else but have shot down more ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and UAVs than manned aircraft. Israel has six Patriot batteries, enough to cover all 1,280 kilometers of land and coastal borders. Patriot is not infallible but it is effective enough to be regularly used to intercept short-range ballistic missiles. Since 2015 Saudi Arabia has used its Patriot batteries to intercept over a hundred Iranian ballistic missiles fired from Yemen.

Each Patriot battery is manned by about a hundred troops, and each contains a radar and four launchers. A battery can fire two types of Patriot missile. The $7 million PAC 3 missile is smaller than the anti-aircraft version (PAC 2), thus a Patriot launcher can hold sixteen PAC 3 missiles, versus four PAC 2s. The less expensive PAC 2 missile weighs about a ton, about three times more than a PAC 3. A major difference with the PAC 2 is range. PAC 3 has a shorter range (about 30 kilometers) versus 160 kilometers for the PAC 2 anti-aircraft version, which is also used against UAVs.

The Patriot system was in development since the early 1960s and is expected to remain in service until the 2040s. Over 10,000 Patriot missiles (about 25 percent of them PAC-3) and over 1,500 launchers have been produced so far. Most of those missiles served for decades and then were refurbished or retired and scrapped unused. PAC-3 missiles are more likely to be refurbished. Many PAC-3 missiles are now approaching the end of their shelf-lives and most owners want them refurbished.

The island nation of Taiwan, which China has claimed as a rebellious province since the late 1940s, has been able to avoid Chinese conquest with its own well-armed military and a military alliance with the United States. Taiwan has one of the most advanced technology economies on the planet, despite having a relatively small (24 million) population compared to 1.4 billion in China. Despite enormous economic growth by China since the 1980s, per-capital GDP in Taiwan is still 2.5 times that of China. However. China has much larger armed forces and the second highest defense budget in the world. On paper China ought to be capable of quickly conquering Taiwan. The reality is different. Chinese military analysts often discuss openly the problems and risks of such an attack. The current Chinese strategy towards Taiwan is more threat than reality but that threat is backed by a lot of ballistic missiles, more than Taiwan can intercept.

Since the 1990s Taiwanese defense analysts and military planners have noted the growing number of Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles deployed in nearby China for use against Taiwan. China currently has over 2,700 of these missiles and about half are within range of Taiwan. The basic Chinese strategy appears to be the immediate use of over a thousand ballistic and cruise missiles against Taiwanese military targets. Most of these missiles are based on the coast opposite Taiwan (180 kilometers away across the Taiwan Straits). The Chinese missiles carry one ton or half ton conventional (high explosive or cluster bomb) warheads and are expected to be used to cripple Taiwanese air force and navy, as well as attacking headquarters and communications targets. Almost simultaneously, China would try to invade with airborne and amphibious forces. Without those missiles, Taiwan's air and naval forces would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the invasion force to cross the straits. Military analysts have examined various targeting strategies, and defensive moves the Taiwanese could take. In most cases, the Chinese succeed. The barrage of missiles can do serious damage to Taiwanese air and naval forces, giving Chinese air and naval forces an opportunity to get ground forces ashore. If Taiwan keeps improving its defenses, China remains unenthusiastic about attempting an invasion.

 


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