A whole lot of Taiwan’s weapons don’t work. That’s a big deal, albeit perhaps not quite as big as you might think.
Yes, the Chinese military is growing more sophisticated by the day while Taiwan struggles to import new weaponry. Yes, the Chinese population is 50 times larger than the Taiwanese population is—and China’s troops out-number Taiwan’s 10 to one. True, Beijing oversees an economy that’s 15 times bigger than Taiwan’s is.
But this imbalance does not mean China for sure could invade and conquer Taiwan. Owing to its rugged terrain and the natural advantage of any defender against an attacker, the island country is much more defensible than many observers—and indeed, much of the U.S. defense establishment—seem to assume.
Still, it’s worth appreciating just how difficult it is for Taiwan to maintain its aging arsenal of tanks, helicopters, airplanes and ships. There’s never enough money. And even if there were, China successfully has leaned on many international defense firms to limit the business they’re willing to do with Taiwan.
What’s more, Taiwan’s humid climate wreaks havoc with weaponry that, in many cases, was designed for drier conditions. Corrosion and fogging have taken a toll on Taipei’s tanks and fighter jets.
Preparing for the Nightmare: Readiness and Ad hoc Coalition Operations in the Taiwan Strait, a new report from the Virginia-based Project 2049 Institute, details Taiwan’s struggle to keep its aging arsenal combat-ready in an unforgiving environment.
“Taiwan’s military faces logistical readiness issues that could delay and/or inhibit an effective response to forms of coercion,” authors Mark Stokes, Yang Kuang-shun and Eric Lee wrote. “Each service experiences key challenges with logistical readiness including shortages of spare parts, environmental issues, obsolescence and upgrade program delays.”
The Republic of China army on paper possesses around 1,200 main battle tanks—480 American-made M-60A3s plus 450 CM-11s and 250 CM-12s. The CM-11 pairs a modified M-48 turret with an M-60 chassis. The CM-12 is an M-48 with the same modified turret as the CM-11.
These tanks are old. The youngest, the M-60s, date from the 1970s.
Upgrades can keep tanks in fighting shape for many, many decades. So the age of Taiwan’s tanks might not be a problem ... if they weren’t also falling apart. “Taiwan’s M-60A3 tanks have a record of brake failure,” Stokes, Yang and Lee wrote. “Around 100 CM-12 MBTs were mothballed due to obsolescence. CM-11 MBTs, which entered the inventory in 1990, have cracked barrels.”
The army is buying 108 new M-1s from the United States for $1.3 billion in order to begin replacing some of the oldest and weariest current tanks. But the first M-1 isn’t due to arrive until 2023. And once all hundred-or-so of the new tanks are in service, the ROC army still will possess 900 very old tanks.
A shortage of spare parts is doing to Taiwan’s helicopters what wear and tear is doing to the country’s tanks. “Taiwan’s Apache, Chinook and Blackhawk fleets require maintenance, engine test cells, installation of aircraft modifications and corrosion control support,” Stokes, Yang and Lee explained.
The Taiwanese army operates 29 AH-64 Apache gunships, 61 AH-1 Cobra gunships, 39 OH-58 Kiowa scouts, nine CH-47 Chinook heavylift transports and 60 UH-60 Blackhawk assault helicopters.
It’s an impressive force, on paper. But many of the ‘copters are unflyable. “The OH-58s are becoming obsolete and suffer a shortage of spare parts in the wake of the U.S. retirement of these airframes,” Stokes, Yang and Lee wrote. The UH-60 fleet likewise began suffering spares shortages almost immediately after the rotorcraft arrived in Taiwan in 2015.
Eight years after the CH-47s entered service in 2003, only five were flightworthy. Four years later in 2015, the army reported that just a quarter of its AH-64s were ready for combat. “Only eight out of 30 helicopters were available, since nine had rust corrosion in tail rotor gearboxes and 12 lacked spare parts,” according to the Project 2049 Institute analysts.
Now consider the Taiwanese air force’s fleet of 46 1980s-vintage Mirage 2000 fighters. “Due in part to environmental factors in Taiwan, the Mirage 2000-5 has encountered operational issues such as cockpit fogging and internal electrical system failures,” Stokes, Yang and Lee wrote. “The number of failures has risen annually from 9,447 in 2015 to 13,452 in 2018.”
It’s getting harder and harder for the Mirage pilots to get in adequate training time. “Taiwan’s Mirage pilots have a requirement of at least 15 flight hours and two night sorties a month,” according to the analysts. “However, repair and maintenance issues have reduced average flight hours to less than 10.”
If there’s a bright spot in Taiwan’s desperate campaign to keep its weapons ready for war, it’s in the navy.
The Taiwanese fleet has four submarines. They are very old. Two U.S.-made, World War II-vintage Guppy-class training submarines have been in commission since 1974. For front-line patrols, the navy also operates two Dutch-made Sea Dragon submarines dating from 1987.
Amazingly, these boats still work. “A major refurbishment program for the Guppy-class submarines, produced in 1944, commenced in 2015 and was completed in 2018,” the experts explained. “The Sea Dragons are also undergoing the life-extension project with the assistance of Lockheed Martin LMT and an Israel-Italian provision of equipment.”
The navy’s ability to maintain old submarines “has been commendable in light of the unavailability of spare parts,” Stokes, Yang and Lee wrote. If the only army and air force’s efforts were equally commendable.