Skip to content

The US Is Selling Ballistic Missiles To Taiwan

July 21, 2021
Via US military.

As part of a huge arms deal put together by the Trump administration during its last months in office the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced several dozen ATACMS M57 ballistic missiles together with their HIMARS TELs are being sold to Taiwan for $436.1 million. The arms deal also included more than $3 billion worth of missiles such as the Harpoon Block II and the air-launched SLAM-ER. The significance of these munitions being transferred to Taiwan means Washington is actively fortifying the island and its borders against any attempt at an invasion by China.

The Army Tactical Missile System M57 is a short-range ballistic missile with a 500 pound unitary warhead. It can be loaded and fired from either the tracked M270 MLRS or the wheeled HIMARS.

The DSCA specified the order of 64 ATACMS M57 ballistic missiles are accompanied by 11 HIMARS launchers and 11 resupply vehicles. A small batch of seven Humvees along with defensive weapons (11 .50 heavy machine guns and 11 M240B light machine guns) and command and communications equipment complete the package. The ATACMS originated in the 1970s as a cost-effective replacement for the inadequate Lance SRBM (the US Army’s equivalent to the Soviet R17 missiles) and it finally proved itself during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The original large diameter ATACMS M39 had a maximum range of 165 kilometers and scattered 900 bomblets over its target. This wrought havoc on Iraqi formations already battered by the US-led coalitions air superiority.

The ATACMS’ manufacturer Lockheed Martin describes the M57, which it designated the Production Block 1A Unitary to indicate it isn’t armed with bomblets, as having “an upgraded guidance and control system, new software and an improved fuze.” The combat record of the ATACMS’ now goes back three decades and Lockheed Martin claims 540 have been launched in anger. The US Army began adopting the ATACMS M57 variant in large quantities from 2017 onward as a generational improvement over the ATACMS M39/M39A1. Only a single ATACMS can be loaded in a HIMARS launcher and the M57 missile is able to strike targets 300 kilometers away. To bolster its allies in the Middle East against Iran, whom the US sanctions for its ballistic missile program, Washington, DC approved sales of the ATACMS M57 for Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE.

With its colorful history the ATACMS ballistic missile has evolved across the decades in four variants. The early ATACMS M39 and M39A1 were armed with bomblets although the M39A1 had GPS guidance and almost twice the range of its sibling. The ATACMS M48 QRU was just as lethal as the M39A1 but had a unitary warhead instead that can hit a target 300 km away. The latest ATACMS M57/Block 1A Unitary supersedes the M48 QRU and is being stockpiled by the US Army and readied for different allies in Asia and Europe. The closest peers of the ATACMS M57 are the Indian-made Prithvi II, the Israeli-made Lora/LORA, the Russian-made Iskander-E (export variant), and South Korea’s Hyunmoo 2A.

The delivery of 64 ATACMS M57 ballistic missiles to Taiwan makes it the latest Asian country with a road mobile SRBM arsenal. Although the country’s military-industrial sector is considered advanced by regional standards its production output and inventory is minimal when compared to China’s. Remarkably, Taiwan’s state-owned military industries never developed a genuine ballistic missile despite its past success with artillery systems. The ROC Army fielded locally assembled 155mm howitzers on tracked carriages by the 1980s as well as the medium caliber Kung Feng rocket launcher. By the 2000s the army had a genuine multiple caliber rocket artillery system called the RT2000 that rivaled its older peers in Russia and the US. But it seems further development of the RT2000 is going to stall once the HIMARS and their ATACMS M57 ballistic missiles arrive.

The significance of Taiwan possessing the ATACMS M57 can’t be understated. These ensure, along with Taiwan’s fleet of missile corvettes and coastal defenses, that area denial can be imposed on the narrow strait separating it from mainland China. The PLA’s Eastern Theater, one of five regional commands established by President Xi Jinpings military reforms, is the main target for these US-made SRBMs should open hostilities commence. The ATACMS M57’s range ensures every type of usable infrastructure for the PLA located opposite the Taiwan Strait is vulnerable, including storage depots and power stations. Having the ATACMS M57 on road mobile launchers makes it harder to track and neutralize them. While current generation air defenses are the best countermeasure versus ballistic missiles these are often ineffective.

The PLA and the PLA Rocket Force have several weapon systems of either comparable or superior range to the ATACMS M57. Two years ago the PLA included its PHL-16 rocket artillery system in its annual parade that showcased so many new weapons. Each of the PHL-16’s accurized large diameter rockets have the flight trajectory and firepower of a ballistic missile. A closer analog of the ATACMS M57 is the DF-12, whose missiles are known as the M20-series, that are highly modular and tailored for road mobile launchers. There’s evidence of the M20 being exported to at least three countries including one in Europe. China’s state-owned Norinco developed its own analog of the ATACMS for export that it branded as the “King Dragon” to complement its SR5 rocket artillery system.

Comments are closed.