AEGIS Destroyers Would Spell Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait

By Carl Ford Taiwan Research Institute June 1999

When Taiwanese officials came to Washington this spring to discuss the purchase of defense equipment, one of their highest priorities was AEGIS, a powerful system combining phased array radar and command/control elements. New American destroyers and cruisers carry AEGIS and its sale to Japan and Singapore had already been approved. Pentagon experts do not dispute Taiwan's need for the system, which would help fill a dangerous gap in the island's defensive capabilities.

Yet when the discussions ended, AEGIS was missing from the short list of approved items. There was no explanation of this surprising decision. The annual conversations in Washington about Taiwan's security needs always take place behind a smokescreen of no official comments. The fact that Washington did approve the sale of a land-based early warning radar system (EWS) got attention primarily because Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-NY, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, had publicly demanded that the Clinton administration do so.

AEGIS also warrants a high priority. Taiwan sought to add to its fleet three or four U.S.-built destroyers equipped with the system. As a Pentagon report to Congress noted earlier this year, most of the Taiwanese Navy "consists of obsolescent World War II-era ships." The PRC, meanwhile, has been acquiring modern surface and undersea vessels while strengthening its air force and missile arsenal as well.

The versatile AEGIS would help offset the PRC's advantages in all these sectors. The system's powerful SPY-1 radar is capable of tracking multiple aircraft, and even low-flying cruise missiles, at much greater distances than is currently possible for Taiwan. When combined with its state-of-the-art command/control capabilities, the AEGIS package would go a long way towards offsetting the PRC's crushing numerical advantages.

No single system can guarantee victory. However, if deployed in the next few years -- which remains Taiwan's goal -- a few AEGIS destroyers would complicate the PRC's military calculations about the likely outcome of combat. Creating such uncertainty is a critical element in deterring aggression. Deterrence, in turn, is the raison d'etre of the long-term U.S. security policy in the Taiwan Strait.

Unofficial word seeping out of the recent U.S.-Taiwan arms discussion is that the AEGIS request isn't dead. Rather it is said to be on hold, pending review. If that is the case, the study will not tax anyone's intellect. The military aspects of the issue could not be simpler. It is the political calculus -- the administration's fear of irritating Beijing -- that cries loudly for review and overhaul.

As a Senate staffer, Carl Ford served as an East Asia analyst. He also held posts at the CIA and the Pentagon. He is now a consultant to the Taiwan Research Institute.