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Is Taiwan Going To Buy M1A2 Abrams Tanks?

August 5, 2018

The ROC Army still operates hundreds of M48 (pictured) and M60 tanks. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Since 2017 reports have surfaced in Taiwanese media of the defense ministry’s planned acquisition of US-made Abrams tanks. The M1A2 SEPv2 is the latest variant of the Cold War vintage MBT that has come to symbolize American military strength. Taiwan’s army has deployed US tanks for decades and choosing the Abrams comes at a time when China is once again menacing the island nation.

But the past 20 years of US arms sales to Taiwan have been problematic. Not only did these occasional deals fail to keep the ROC armed forces ahead of the rapidly modernizing PLA but the few that were approved are limited in scope.

The Taiwanese army have at least 500 M60/A3 Patton tanks in working condition together with several hundred M48/A3/CM-11 medium tanks. This armored fleet is based on models designed in the mid-20th century and even when upgraded, their main guns are too weak against the PLA’s third-generation tanks. But the urgency for newer tanks hasn’t driven procurement decisions because Taipei’s current military doctrine focuses on asymmetric and multilayered national defense rather than powerful ground forces. This means airpower, electronic warfare, and missiles have a greater role in any major clash over the Taiwan Strait.

Although Taiwan’s defense ministry wants to localize the production of a main battle tank, the prevailing reliance on US contractors means approving a technology transfer isn’t certain and there are few alternatives worth exploring. China’s diplomatic clout is another factor and there’s a long record of Beijing successfully discouraging Western European suppliers who tried selling arms and dual-use equipment to Taiwan. After previous deliveries of gunships and utility helicopters, the US’ only tangible commitment to Taiwan in its defense posture is helping local shipyards build new submarines.

Yet manufacturing a tank from scratch isn’t impossible. During the early 1980s Taiwan’s arms factories assembled copies of US light tanks such as the M18 Hellcat and M41 Bulldog. Considering how large Taiwan’s domestic military industries have grown, if the right suppliers are found to provide engines (Germany), fire control systems (France), and main guns (Israel), the vehicle itself can be assembled in a state-owned facility. The complicated supply chain needed for such an undertaking does make it vulnerable to Chinese interference.

If Taipei orders a batch of M1A2 SEPv2 Abrams tanks instead, or perhaps M1A2’s with specific upgrades, Beijing won’t hesitate using both propaganda and diplomacy to cancel the sale. When the ROC Army receive at least a hundred M1A2 tanks in the next handful of years, this will add a new layer to its shore-based defenses for thwarting an invasion by PLA airborne and marine brigades.

To think just 30 years ago, the worst the ROC military could expect from the PLA was a relentless air and sea bombardment of Taiwan’s coastal cities and light tanks accompanying ground forces in an amphibious assault. Today, however, the operational environment is far more dangerous. Both the PLAAF and PLAN have showed off their capability to encircle Taiwan, whose defenses won’t last against simultaneous cyber and kinetic attacks.

If the ROC Army must train for ground warfare outside urban areas they have at least a half dozen threats to contend with. Foremost is the prolific Type 96 tank whose “B” variant is covered in enough reactive armor to deflect handheld anti-tank weapons. There’s also the ZTQ-15 light tank that may soon enter service with the PLAN marines; its firepower is equal to an M60 Patton. Even the older Type 63A amphibious tank, which has a 105mm rifled main gun, is bound to be problematic.

Then there’s the dreaded combination of both tracked and wheeled “tank destroyers.” The PLAN marines use their ZTD-05 and ST1 amphibious assault vehicles in a supporting role for infantry. Either vehicle is armed with a 105mm rifled main gun and their earlier variants–the former a tracked IFV, the latter a wheeled APC–carry anti-tank missiles too. If the PLA’s own mechanized brigades join the invasion their ZBD-04/08 IFVs are just like Soviet medium tanks with 100mm guns married to 30mm cannons in a single turret.

Aside from enemy tanks, the PLA’s adoption of helicopter gunships and specialized vehicles armed with long-range NLOS missiles are terrible news for the beleaguered ROC Army. Whether or not the M1A2 Abrams arrives in Taiwan, the complexity of the island nation’s national defense requires a diverse arsenal to fight an overwhelming and sophisticated aggressor.

Anyone curious about the origins of Taiwan’s military industries are encouraged to read Taiwan’s Modest Defense Industries Program from 1985 that’s now declassified by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and is available as a free download.

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