US Approves $2.2 Billion Sale of Tanks, Missiles to Taiwan

F-16s not included in arms package but new jets expected in coming weeks

U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets / Getty Images
July 10, 2019

The Trump administration is selling $2.2 billion worth of tanks and missiles to Taiwan but has delayed exports of new F-16s over budget shortfalls in Taipei.

The main piece of the latest arms package announced Monday is the sale of 108 M1A2 Abrams frontline tanks and associated equipment, including tank rounds, machine guns, and tank-related gear.

"The proposed sale will help improve the security of the recipient and assist in maintaining political stability, military balance, and economic progress in the region," said Army Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper in a transmittal notice to Congress. Hooper is director of the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency that is in charge of arms sales.

"This proposed sale of M1A2 tanks will contribute to the modernization of [Taiwan's] main battle tank fleet, enhancing its ability to meet current and future regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense," he added.

The tank sale will strengthen Taiwan's military capabilities and will not alter the military balance in the region, Hooper stated.

In addition to the tanks, the Pentagon notified Congress of the sale of 250 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Taiwan.

The Stinger sale is one response by the U.S. and Taiwanese to China's recent decision to unilaterally begin commercial and military aircraft flights along the dividing line through the middle of the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait that has forced Taiwan to increase air defense operations over concerns the increased air traffic could be used as cover for a future air assault on the island.

Taiwan is a democratic, self-governing island nation formed by Chinese nationalists during a civil war in the late 1940s. The island remains the main target of a promised takeover by the Communist-ruled mainland China government that has vowed to use force if necessary to regain control.

The United States is obligated to defend Taiwan from mainland attack and provide defensive weapons under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. The act was passed by Congress to bolster ties with the once-close ally after Taipei was de-recognized diplomatically with the establishment of formal ties with the People's Republic of China that same year.

The tanks and Stingers were requested by the Taiwan government, which also has requested the purchase of 66 F-16V fighter jets needed to replace the Taiwan military's fleet of aging jet fighters.

A Trump administration official said the Taiwanese government was unable to fully fund the $16 billion needed for the new F-16s. The administration is expected to approve parts of the jet sale in the next several weeks. "We'll be moving ahead as quickly as possible," the official said, noting that air frames and engines will be supplied first, followed later by additional components.

The official, speaking on background, said Taiwan's legislature only budgeted $8 billion for the new F-16s and would not reduce the number of jets in the original request to match the funding.

The administration agreed in April to provide the new F-16s, the first expected warplane sale to Taiwan since a batch of F-16s were sold nearly 30 years ago.

The island state's fleet of 144 older F-16s are being upgraded under a $3.7 billion arms package approved in 2016 that included advanced radar used on fifth generation F-22 and F-35 jets.

The newer F-16Vs are expected to significantly boost air warfare capabilities, but the jets are still estimated to be less capable than China's newer frontline J-20 and J-35 fighters—weapons built with extensive stolen American military technology.

The request for new F-16s was made in February and Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said last week that U.S. approval is expected next month.

A spokesman for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, the government's representative in the United States, did not comment when asked about the F-16V funding issue.

The latest arms sale set off the expected Chinese government rhetoric denouncing it. China over the past 30 years has limited protests of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan to rhetoric and has taken little or no action in response.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Beijing the arms sale "gravely violates international law and basic norms in international relations, seriously breaches the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiques, flagrantly interferes in China's domestic affairs, and harms China's sovereignty and security interests."

"China deplores and resolutely opposes it. We have lodged stern representations with the U.S.," he said.

Geng urged the United States to cancel the sale and to curb military ties to Taiwan to prevent further damage to U.S.-China relations and peace and stability across the strait.

Ties between China and Taiwan remain strained, according to the Pentagon's latest report on the Chinese military. Beijing has pressured the island with increased military exercises near Taiwan that included bomber flights around Taiwan and naval exercises in the East China Sea.

The sale of U.S. tanks appears designed to deter what the Pentagon views as the growing danger of a Chinese military amphibious assault on Taiwan.

"The PLA [Army] is improving and increasing its options for a Taiwan invasion," the report said. "It is converting the bulk of its maneuver units to combined arms brigades, including the former amphibious divisions and amphibious armor brigades."

Additionally, China has deployed an estimated 1,200 missiles within range of Taiwan and recently deployed long-range rocket artillery with precision strike capabilities capable of reaching Taiwan.

"Although China advocates for peaceful unification with Taiwan, China has never renounced the use of military force, and continues to develop and deploy advanced military capabilities needed for a potential military campaign," the Pentagon report said.

On Taiwan's defenses, the report said: "Taiwan’s advantages continue to decline as China's modernization efforts continue."

In addition to the tanks, the Taiwanese will purchase 14 M88A2 tank recovery vehicles, 16 heavy equipment transporters to move tanks. The tank sale also includes 122 .50 caliber M2 machine guns, 572 tank tracer rounds, and 1,187 high-explosive anti-tank rounds.

The tanks will be built by General Dynamics Land Systems, and the Stingers are made by Raytheon. The tanks will cost $2 billion and Stingers $223.56 million.

The transmittal notice said the tank sale will involve sensitive technology that could be compromised if obtained by China. It includes a thermal imaging target acquisition system that provides the tank with a substantial advantage.

The tanks also will be equipped with special armor capable of withstanding both chemical weapons and kinetic rounds. The gas turbine propulsion system also involves sensitive technology.

"If a technologically advanced adversary were to obtain knowledge of the hardware and software elements, the information could be used to develop countermeasures or equivalent systems which might reduce system effectiveness or be used in the development of a system with similar or advanced capabilities," the notice says.

The Pentagon has determined that Taiwan will be able to provide the same protection for the sensitive tank technology as the U.S. government.

The Stinger missiles also include sensitive technology, but the Pentagon has determined that the Taiwanese will be able to protect the missile know-how from compromise to China.

Taiwan has been hit by a number of Chinese spy penetrations of its military and intelligence service in recent years. The case drew protests from the Pentagon over concerns U.S. military systems sold to Taiwan will be compromised by Beijing's spies. Taiwan's government has promised to increase its anti-China counterintelligence efforts in response.

U.S. spies also have compromised communications equipment sold to the Taiwanese military. Greg W. Bergersen, an employee of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, was convicted for spying for China in 2008 and supplying China with secrets on U.S. military sales to Taiwan.

Last year, Taiwan took delivery of 250 Stinger missiles. Those missile were delivered as China and Taiwan engaged in a dispute over Beijing's decision to conduct regular commercial and military flights along the center of the Taiwan Strait through a commercial aviation route known as M503.

"Unilaterally initiating use of controversial aviation routes is a provocation that undermines regional security," Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement in January 2018.

Use of the commercial route is part of what Taiwanese officials said is a Beijing ploy to force Taiwan to expend limited defense resources in scrambling jets more frequently in monitoring flights along the route.