New York Times

Secret U.S. Study Concludes Taiwan Needs New Arms

April 1, 2001

By Michael R. Gordon

TAIPEI, Taiwan, March 31 — A confidential review by United States naval officers has concluded that Taiwan needs a significant infusion of new weapons, including a sophisticated ship-borne radar system that China has put at the top of the list of arms it does not want Taiwan to have.

The assessment was carried out by officers from the United States Pacific Fleet, who visited Taiwan to assess its naval requirements in light of China's military buildup. While military factors are not the only consideration, the still secret review is an important element of the deliberations about whether to sell Taiwan the radar system, known as Aegis, and other naval weapons.

The decision on whether to sell naval, air force and army weapons, which President Bush is expected to make in the next few weeks, is one of the first major foreign policy tests for his administration and could set the tone of United States-Chinese relations for years to come.

China has bitterly opposed the sale of sophisticated weapons, which it fears will lead to a new degree of cooperation between Taiwan and the United States and buttress pro-independence sentiment on the island.

Beijing has singled out as particularly objectionable potential sales of three types of weapons: the Navy's Aegis, which China fears may provide the basis for an eventual antimissile defense and blunt China's missile threat to the island; the Army's advanced Patriot antimissile system known as PAC-3; and submarines, which China maintains are offensive weapons and which the United States has never before sold to Taiwan. Taiwan has sought to buy submarines as well as the Aegis and has also been in discussions about the new Patriot system.

In addition to citing a need for the Aegis system by 2010, the American naval officers who conducted the review concluded that Taiwan also needed the Kidd-class destroyer as a stopgap. And they cited the need for new submarines as well as an underwater sonar array to detect Chinese subs. Besides the naval review, similar studies have been carried out concerning other parts of Taiwan's military.

The pending decision on arms sales has split American China hands, including those in the Republican Party, putting pressure on Mr. Bush from both sides.

On one side are policy experts who say it would be foolish to pick a diplomatic fight with Beijing before the Bush administration has a chance to begin a dialogue with the leadership there. Washington's long- term interests, those experts say, are best served by finding a way to engage China, a nation of 1.3 billion people and a nuclear power with a growing economy.

On the other side are pro-Taiwan conservatives who insist that the United States has a moral obligation to safeguard Taiwan, a democratic nation of 22 million, from threats from the Communist government in Beijing. The conservatives also say that Washington should contain China's growing military power in Asia.

While there has been much discussion about China's growing force of short-range ballistic missiles, Beijing has also deployed new warplanes, destroyers, submarines, anti- ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles, many of which it bought from Russia. That has created a growing threat to Taiwan's aging fleet, whose role is to protect the island from attack and prevent a Chinese blockade.

The review of Taiwan's naval needs was begun during the Clinton administration. After Taiwan sought to buy four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with the Aegis system, the Clinton administration deferred a decision and asked for a Pentagon assessment.

A team of officers from the United States' Pacific Fleet inspected Taiwan's navy. Their conclusions have circulated among officials in Washington and Taiwan and have served as the basis for a Pentagon report on "Taiwan naval modernization."

Experts familiar with the officers' review say it concludes that by 2010 Taiwan will need vessels equipped with long-range surface-to-air missiles, a sophisticated battle management system and a phased-array radar, which is the hallmark of the Aegis system.

The year 2010 is significant since it may take eight years or more to agree on a configuration of the Aegis system for Taiwan's navy, build the ship and integrate it into Taiwan's fleet, according to American military specialists.

As an interim step, the review suggests that Taiwan buy four Kidd- class destroyers, which had most elements of the top advanced air defense systems before the Aegis was developed. The United States developed the destroyers for the shah of Iran, but the sale was thwarted after the shah fell from power. The ships were later used by the United States Navy and were nicknamed "Ayatollah-class" destroyers, but they have since been retired.

In a recommendation that is certain to prove contentious, the United States officers concluded that Taiwan needed new submarines. Currently, Taiwan has only four, including two Guppies of World War II vintage which it uses for training and which cannot descend more than 150 feet.

The review found that Taiwan needed an underwater sonar array to alert it to the presence of Chinese submarines near its ports and coasts. It also describes a need for a new maritime aircraft to hunt for enemy submarines and conduct patrols, alluding to the American P-3, which Taiwan also wants to buy.

The Aegis has been the center of much of the public debate, which has not always been well informed. Unlike a rotating radar antenna, the Aegis's four stationary arrays search the sky electronically. The Aegis is designed to track more than 200 targets, including sea-skimming missiles, and to direct ship-fired missiles at them.

While much of the discussion concerns the Aegis's potential as an antimissile platform, the United States Navy has yet to develop a sea- based theater antimissile system. And even if it does develop such a missile defense, the type of Aegis being considered for sale to Taiwan would not be equipped with an interceptor able to counter the Chinese ballistic missiles directed at Taiwan.

The primary reason to sell the Aegis is to protect Taiwan's fleet, and upgrading the Aegis to serve as a theater missile defense would require a future decision in Washington. "There is a fantastic mythology about the Aegis," said Kurt Campbell, who led the Pentagon effort to improve Taiwan's defense ability during the Clinton administration.

Some liberal critics have complained that the Aegis would have an offensive capability because it would be armed with Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles. But the variant that the Pentagon is considering selling to Taiwan would not be equipped with those weapons.

There is something of a precedent for an Aegis sale. In an little known episode, the United States offered to sell a scaled-back version of the Aegis radar and command and control system in 1992 and install it on Taiwan's Perry-class frigates. Taiwan decided not to buy the system. That was before China continued its buildup in the Taiwan Strait and sought to pressure Taiwan by test-firing its ballistic missiles close to the island in 1995 and 1996.

This is not to say that there is unanimous agreement among military experts, including those in Taiwan, about the Aegis. Advocates of the system say it would provide Taiwan's fleet with the best possible protection against Chinese antiship missiles as well as a top-notch battle- management system. They say it could even serve as a backup command post in the event that Taiwan's land-based command posts were destroyed in missile strikes from China.

Critics cite its cost, $1 billion a ship, and the almost decade-long delivery time. And they question whether the Taiwanese Navy would be able to operate and maintain such a sophisticated weapons platform.

As the political debate over the Aegis has heated up, some analysts have speculated that the Kidd destroyers could be the basis of a compromise that would enable the White House to appear resolute while avoiding a rupture with Beijing.

By selling the destroyers, the Bush administration could argue that it was acting quickly to improve Taiwan's ability to defend its fleet. The administration could then put Beijing on notice that Washington would go ahead with the Aegis sale next year unless China curtailed its military buildup near Taiwan.

Trumpeting the value of the Kidds, Adm. Dennis Blair, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Congress this week that the Kidd had an effective air defense ability and could be delivered in only two years, a time frame some experts say is somewhat optimistic. He also noted that the Kidds and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers have the same propulsion system, suggesting that it could provide Taiwan's navy with some useful training should it eventually acquire the Aegis- equipped Arleigh Burke.

Wu Shi-wen, Taiwan's defense minister, indicated that Taiwan's priority was still to acquire the Aegis because it had the potential to serve as a sea-based antimissile defense. In an interview, he declined to say if Taiwan would buy the Kidds, saying the matter required further study.

But other Taiwanese officials suggested that Taiwan would be willing to defer the Aegis purchase for a year if it was linked to a demand that China restrain its military buildup. "We are still hopeful that our request for the Aegis will be granted this year," Dr. Tien Hung-mao, Taiwan's foreign minister, said in an interview. "But I think this is something we are willing to give the U.S. administration room to think about. In the end, if the Chinese fail to cooperate, the U.S. will be in a more justifiable position to say, hey, we gave you 12 months. You cannot just make unilateral demands without making any concessions."

Some experts say, however, that while the Kidd might do for now, it is no substitute for the Aegis, especially if the Chinese continue to increase their air, missile and naval forces nears Taiwan throughout the decade.

They say the Aegis's phased-array radar and combat system is capable of tracking and attacking a greater number of targets than Kidd's system, which uses an older, rotating radar.

The Arleigh Burke-class destroyers on which the Aegis is installed also carries more surface-to-air missiles than the Kidd and can fire more quickly. And if the United States succeeds in developing a theater sea- based antimissile defense and decides to provide it to Taiwan, it would use the Aegis-equipped Arleigh Burke, not the Kidd, as a platform.

"The Kidds can handle the current Chinese antiship missile threat," said Norman Polmar, a naval analyst. "But the Chinese future missile capability will require a much more sophisticated defense like the Aegis."