U.S. OKs Sales of M1 Abrams Tanks, Stinger Missiles To Taiwan, But Where Are The F-16s?
Any arms sales to Taiwan will prompt Chinese protests, but the fighter jet deal is a “red line” that would threaten U.S.-China trade negotiations.
The U.S. government has approved a potential sale of more than $2.2 billion in M1 Abrams tanks, FIM-92 Stinger short-range surface-to-air missiles, and host of associated equipment, ammunition, and services to Taiwan. But there's still no official word on whether or not the United States will finally allow the Taiwanese to buy more than 60 new Block 70 F-16 Vipers. This is arguably a more important purchase given the increasing age of the Taiwanese Air Force's fighter fleets and steady improvement's in China's air combat capabilities, but also one where Chinese authorities have historically drawn a "red line."
The U.S. military's Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced that the State Department had signed off on two possible deals, one relating to the Abrams and the other to the Stingers, on July 8, 2019. The M1 package is distinctly larger, with a value of approximately $2 billion, while the FIM-92 one is worth just over $223.5 million. It is important to note that just because a country has received U.S. government approval for such purchase, this doesn't necessarily mean they will do so or that the final deals will be exactly as DSCA has described them now. However, Taiwan is very eager to acquire new and improved stocks of U.S.-made weapons and other military hardware in recent years and there have been previous reports about the desire to buy M1 tanks specifically.
"This proposed sale of M1A2 tanks will contribute to the modernization of the recipient's main battle tank fleet, enhancing its ability to meet current and future regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense," DSCA's statement said. "These tanks will contribute to the recipient's goal of updating its military capability while further enhancing interoperability with the United States and other partners."
The proposed sale is for 108 Taiwan-specific M1A2T variants, but the notice does not provide detailed specifications on how these differ from other M1A2s. Previous Taiwanese media reports had said that they would be "M1A2X" tanks, based on the M1A2C variant, which is another name for the U.S. Army's latest M1A2 System Enhancement Package Version 3 (SEPv3).
If true, this could mean that the Taiwanese tanks would benefit from the SEPv3's various improvements, which include upgraded communications and data sharing capabilities and added power generation to support those systems, as well as other additions in the future. The M1A2Ts will also have a remotely operated weapon station on top of the turret, allowing the crew to employ a secondary .50 caliber M2 machine gun from safely within the vehicle. But the notice also seems to suggest that the vehicles will be in a somewhat downgraded configuration.
The M1A2Ts will notably have "FMS [foreign military sales] export armor" rather than the Next Generation Armor Package (NGAP) found on Army M1A2s, which builds on earlier passive armor suites with plating made from various materials, including ceramics and depleted uranium. There is also no mention of any of the advanced countermeasures found on the M1A2 SEPv3, such as radiofrequency jammers to defeat improvised explosive devices or the Trophy active protection system, making their way over to the Taiwanese version.
Still, the M1A2T does offer significantly improved capabilities over Taiwan's Cold War-era American-made M60A3 Pattons and locally upgraded CM-11 and CM-12 Brave Tiger tanks. All of these tanks feature 105mm main guns, compared to the Abrams' larger 120mm cannon.
The CM-11, which first emerged publicly in 1990, is a hybrid design that mates the turret from older U.S.-supplied M48A3 Pattons with the M60A3 chassis. These tanks also feature a derivative of the fire control system found on the M1A1 Abrams, making them more accurate, including on the move. Taiwan also obtained a significant number of additional fire control upgrade kits and installed them on some of their remaining M48A3s, resulting in the CM-12. Despite these improvements, these tanks have become increasingly vulnerable to improving Chinese designs, including the latest Type 99s.
The M1A2T package also includes various 120mm rounds and ammunition for the tanks' secondary machine guns. There are also 16 M1070 Heavy Equipment Transporters (HET) and 14 M88A2 tank recovery vehicles that the Taiwanese Army will need to help support units receiving the Abrams, which are significantly heavier than the M60s and Brave Tigers. Various contractor logistics and other support services are part of the package, as well.
The Stinger missile package, as its overall value would suggest, is significantly smaller, centered primarily on 250 FIM-92F missiles and 108 man-portable, shoulder-fired launchers, as well as various ancillary equipment and services. Also known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), these weapons can only help bolster Taiwan's short-range air defense capabilities. But again, it's not clear if these weapons have the latest improvements found on American versions, including the improved ability to engage small unmanned aerial vehicles, another area where China has been making significant investments.
Regardless, any U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are likely to draw protests from Chinese authorities, who do not recognize the Taiwanese government's authority to conduct such business or otherwise engage in independent foreign affairs. The U.S. government itself recognizes Beijing as the government of China, though it reserves the right to sell Taiwan weapons and other military hardware ostensibly for defensive purposes until such time as the island's final status has been formally agreed upon. As such, foreign military sales to Taiwan are done through the auspices of Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO), which functions as its unofficial embassy in Washington, D.C.
The new proposed sales to Taiwan could be particularly sensitive, given that U.S. and Chinese authorities have just recently rebooted negotiations to try to find a way out of a bitter trade war that has led to painful tariffs on both sides and other tit-for-tat measures, including the arrests of notable Chinese and foreign nationals.
It also comes at a time when tensions between authorities in Taipei and in Beijing have been steadily growing. In April 2019, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing Wen threatened to "forcibly expel" any Chinese military aircraft that violated the de facto boundary separating the island from the mainland. More recently, Taiwanese authorities have offered rhetorical support for mass protests in Hong Kong over a new law that would weaken that semi-autonomous city's judicial independence from the mainland. Tsai, who Chinese authorities have branded in the past as an "independence extremist," has also developed a very close relationship with President Donald Trump and his administration, who have, in turn, increased naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait to the ire of China.
All of this could help explain why what is perhaps the most important U.S. arms deal with Taiwan, the sale of the new F-16s, has yet to receive formal, public approval from the U.S. government. Reports that Taiwanese authorities were negotiating this purchase first emerged in March 2019. Negotiations were still reportedly ongoing as of July 3, 2019, according to a report from Foreign Policy. That same report said the goal was to get negotiations to the next step before Congress goes into recess in August, but did not say where in the process the discussions over the fighter jets were at present.
The War Zone has covered Lockheed Martin's Block 70 F-16s in detail in the past and suffice to say that they would give the Taiwanese Air Force a significant boost in capability. Taiwan is already in the process of upgrading its existing fleet of around 145 Block 20 F-16A/B Vipers to the near-identical F-16V standard, but this only came after long and arduous negotiations.
Chinese authorities have made it clear that the sale of additional new fighter jets to Taiwan is a firm "red line" they find categorically unacceptable. So, if the U.S. government were to approve the Block 70 order, it's not hard to see how it might scuttle U.S.-China trade negotiations, or worse. Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly threatened in recent years to use force to unseat Taiwan's government if it appears to be moving closer to declaring the island an independent country.
With that in mind, it remains possible that the Trump Administration has floated out the Block 70 deal as leverage in its own negotiations with Beijing, while offering the M1A2T tanks, Stinger missiles, and other hardware as a sort of consolation prize for Taiwan. There have also been discussions about alternatives options, such as leasing fighter jets to Taiwan, which might be less likely to provoke especially strong Chinese reactions.
But even if Taiwanese authorities were aware of any such bargain, it could still serve as a bad precedent to treat a long-time regional partner in this way so publicly. It would very clearly show that the U.S. government is willing to negotiate away arms sales after otherwise agreeing to them in order to secure concessions from third parties.
With the Trump Administration now in the midst of a renewed push to make a trade deal with China, it may not be too long before the fate of Taiwan's Block 70 F-16 purchase becomes clear.
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