Why Taiwan's Navy Needs Aegis Destroyers Now

By Carl Ford Taiwan Research Institute December 1999

Taiwanese military officials, according to Capitol Hill sources, last month renewed their request to buy four new destroyers equipped with the multi-purpose Aegis system. The proposal, made during the semiannual consultations on the island's defense needs held in Washington, echoed one rejected by the Clinton Administration in the April round of talks.

Early indications from the National Security Council suggest that the administration will again say no based on the same reasoning: the risk of offending Beijing takes precedence over meeting Taiwan's defense needs. Ironically, last February's Pentagon report to Congress on the military balance in the Strait area made a strong case for approval. Of China's navy, it said:

"Barring third-party intervention, the [mainland's] quantitative advantage over Taiwan's navy in surface and subsurface assets would probably prove overwhelming over time. Taiwan's military forces probably would not be able to keep the island's key ports and SLOC's [sea lines of communication] open in the face of concerted Chinese military action."

Since that report was issued, Beijing's military buildup has become more menacing. New missile deployments are underway in coastal areas close to Taiwan and the PRC is reliably reported to be pressing ahead with construction of a submarine capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles.

Though these and related developments argue for prompt counter measures, Washington appears to favor procrastination. The pattern is familiar. Though the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 obligates the United States to help Taiwan maintain adequate defenses, successive administrations have slowed the process to a crawl. F-16 warplanes, for instance, appeared at the top of Taiwan's request list for 12 years before approval came in 1992. Since then, American officials have limited the aircraft's capabilities by declining to sell Taiwan the top-of-the-line equipment it can carry.

Delaying sale of the Aegis system now poses special dangers. It takes years to build and outfit these sophisticated vessels. It takes more time for crews to become proficient in their use. Approval of the Aegis sale now would allow Taiwan to keep pace with the PRC's buildup at an affordable price.

The Aegis system is what military planners call a "force multiplier." Mounted on Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers, the system's sophisticated weapons and radar capability defend against a variety of threats: submarines, surface vessels, aircraft and cruise missiles. It is designed to excel in high intensity combat situations and can engage multiple targets simultaneously -- attacking aircraft and cruise missiles, for instance. Because an Aegis destroyer requires a crew of only 350, it is efficient to run. By acquiring four of these ships, Taiwan could retire a larger number of obsolescent warships.

The most important reason for approving this sale is its value as a deterrent. As Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has observed: "The Aegis combat system is a means of achieving peace through military preparedness." Allowing the military balance to tilt too far in the PRC's favor is to invite miscalculation, and possibly a shooting war. Aegis would be a significant antidote to that risk. That is why Taiwan wants it. That is why the U.S. should provide it.

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