US weighs how to bolster Taiwan

A decision looms about supplying the island with high-tech weapons. Experts say Taiwan itself can take steps too.

The Bush White House will soon make a pivotal decision: whether to sell Taiwan high-tech weapons to guard against the growing military threat from China.

But military experts say Taiwan's near-term security also hinges on actions the island democracy itself can take to reduce its vulnerability to Beijing.

American military strategists worry particularly about two potential dangers posed by China, which has vowed to unite Taiwan with the mainland.

The first threat involves the risk to Taiwan from a sudden, overwhelming attack by air and sea - sometimes described as a "decapitating" strike. Such an attack might wipe out Taiwan's ability to defend itself by destroying its radar, shutting down airfields, and knocking out communications systems.

The second threat entails a naval blockade that could cut off Taiwan's sea lanes and cripple its trade-dependent economy.

Some of the weapons Taiwan has requested from the US would help deter such threats. The Aegis-equipped destroyer, for example, could help coordinate Taiwan's defenses against air attacks and submarine blockades. And if Taiwan gets the modern, diesel-powered submarines it wants, they could make it much more difficult for China to clamp a tight blockade on Taiwanese ports.

Yet right at home, with better planning, Taiwan could do much to frustrate China's military aims. Among the suggestions of US experts for Taiwan:

* Harden airfields. A significant number of Taiwan's military aircraft is still stored in the open, or in flimsy metal hangers, or in shelters without roofs or doors. Shrapnel from a few well-placed bombs or rockets could do serious damage to Taiwan's 593-plane air arm.

* Protect key locations. Taiwan's command, control, communication, and computer sites remain far too vulnerable to attack, in the view of US experts. Losing these sites could blind Taiwan's military leadership during an attack.

* Upgrade military service. The bulk of Taiwan's military consists of two-year conscripts, often just 18 or 19 years old and fresh out of high school. The overall quality of the island's military personnel must be improved so high-tech weapons can be properly operated and maintained.

Taiwan priority in a strike

Taking steps to harden Taiwan's military targets is vital because if China strikes, the attack probably will happen quickly and with little or no warning, says defense analyst Tom Donnelly of the Project for the New American Century, who recently toured Taiwan facilities, including one of its four principal military air bases.

"The job for Taiwan is to be able to take the first punch and still be able to defend itself, either until the Chinese run out of gas or [the US] rides to the rescue," Mr. Donnelly says.

The cost of building hardened bunkers is approximately $4 million per aircraft. But that cost pales in comparison to the price tag for the airplanes, which include US-designed F-16s and French-built Mirage 2000s.

Taiwan airfields also lack sufficiently protected storage for munitions and fuel. Unlike NATO airfields in Europe, they are generally without secure, underground fuel lines, so that aircraft must be refueled with trucks.

David Shambaugh, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University here, says Taiwan's military personnel are "pretty good," but improvement is essential.

"Increasingly, the weapons involve sophisticated electronics and computerization, so you need a different kind of soldier," he explains. "These [Taiwanese soldiers] are 18-year-old kids who don't necessarily have that kind of training. And [they serve] only two years, so it is hard to get up to speed."

Dr. Shambaugh says the Chinese have a couple of advantages. Their draftees serve for three-years, allowing more time for training. And China has become better than Taiwan at controlling electronics and information in wartime, so Taiwan needs to bolster its ability to fight a cyberwar.

Runway repair?

Sometimes the steps Taiwan needs to take can seem rather elementary. Yet even simple steps could help Taiwan's prospects if it gets into a shooting war, says Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

For example, one early priority for the Chinese air force would be hitting Taiwan's military airfields in an effort to blow enough craters in the runways to make them inoperable.

However, the Chinese don't have night-bombing capability. So even if they got in a first strike, Taiwan would have an opportunity to repair its cratered fields in time for its planes to take off the next morning.

The problem with this scenario is that Taiwan currently doesn't have sufficient repair equipment to fix its runways overnight. The simple addition of more equipment, kept in protected bunkers, could make a vital difference in maintaining its air power.

Unless Taiwan hardens its most important targets against China's expanding military threat, there's an increasing danger that political coercion by the mainland will succeed. Analysts say that could help China achieve its goals with Taiwan - perhaps without firing a shot.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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