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The One Arms Deal That Will Change Taiwanese History

July 20, 2021
Via Wikimedia Commons.

In late 2020 the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), which facilitates sales and transfers of US-made military products all over the world, published an announcement for an impending $2.37 billion acquisition by Taiwan of RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II missiles. The size of the order was historic–400 missiles and 100 transporters equipped with launchers. This meant each transporter carried four missiles each. The DSCA also specified 25 radar trucks (meant for target acquisition) and unspecified spare parts together with four “exercise missiles” Taiwan’s military can use for training.

While the timetable for the delivery of these Harpoons is vague their arrival is a clear message to China that it can’t invade the island nation.

The Harpoon Block II is an anti-ship missile manufactured by Boeing since the 1970s. It’s considered the most successful naval weapon system of the Cold War with the French-made Exocet coming in a close second. The almost 50 year old Harpoon’s reputation was earned by its availability to allies, impressive range, and striking power thanks to a 500 pound warhead. The Harpoon Block II’s due for Taiwan are able to reach targets 150 kilometers away at “high subsonic” speeds. When employed for coastal defense, the Harpoons are loaded into the same tubular canister-launchers as their naval variant but are carried by trucks, usually an 8×8 trailer. It’s possible to strike land targets with Harpoons as well.

The DSCA announcement of selling Harpoon Block II’s to Taiwan on October 21 came with separate announcements for 135 AGM-84H SLAM-ER cruise missiles worth $1 billion and 11 HIMARS rocket artillery systems along with their munitions worth $436.1 million. (The SLAM-ER, by the way, is an air-launched variant of the Harpoon missile.) Of course, since the DSCA’s activities aren’t classified China reacted poorly to the news and its state-owned media dismissed the weapon systems as inadequate against the PLA’s newfound technological might. Hyperbole aside, the transfer of Harpoon Block II’s are very significant since they not only add to the Taiwanese military’s existing arsenal but are meant for road mobile platforms in a coastal defense role.

The threat of a full-scale invasion by the PLA can’t be downplayed anymore. The rate of the PLAN’s naval expansion and the enormous leaps in range and firepower enjoyed by Chinese strike aircraft means besieging Taiwan is now possible. Having a large inventory of Harpoon Block II’s–a total of 400 missiles according to the DSCA–means the PLAN’s warships are deterred from imposing a blockade on the island. The size of the inventory is just as telling because 400 missiles are enough to hold back the PLAN’s full might in an actual war scenario. After all, with nearly 400 surface vessels in service by 2025 the PLAN’s size will surpass the combined strength of the US Navy and ROC Navy by that time. Having the means to roll back at least one or two PLAN fleets in a matter of days and stalling a ground invasion gives the Quad Alliance a good enough window for positioning its forces against China.

The delivery of 400 Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles can have a very specific negative effect, however. In the 2010s a locally developed supersonic anti-ship missile enhanced with solid fuel boosters was introduced as a deterrent versus the PLAN’s upcoming aircraft carriers. (A well-founded policy in hindsight.) The Hsiung Feng III was indeed impressive to look at but its actual introduction proved slow and limited. A full decade since it was unveiled to the public Hsiung Feng III‘s are only deployed as the main armament for the ROC Navy’s few missile corvettes. Why the ROC armed forces didn’t adopt the missile for air-launched and surface-to-surface roles is perplexing when this could have boosted local production and advanced the state-owned military-industrial sector‘s technological prowess.

In fairness, the ROC Air Force does have an arsenal of cruise missiles tailored for its strike aircraft. Meanwhile, Hsiung Feng III missiles adaptable to their own road mobile launcher although how many of these are in service is speculative. Perhaps it’s useful to point out how Taiwan’s local mass-production of weapon systems is sufficient for its needs if US arms sales are absent. With its military budget on track to reach $15.5 billion this year Taiwan can certainly afford more foreign weapon systems–France and Israel are known suppliers too–and Asian allies such as India and Japan are waiting in the sidelines.

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