The United States Department of State approved a potential future arms sale to Taiwan that gives the small island nation on China’s doorstep a powerful new capability—one that puts China directly in Taipei’s crosshairs.
The arms package, actually three separate sales, would see Taiwan armed with 11 HIMARS rocket launchers, 135 Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) Missiles, and six MS-110 Reconnaissance Pods along with related training, support, and maintenance equipment.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), a Federal agency tasked with increasing allied countries' military capabilities via training and facilitating equipment sales, stated the three potential purchases would serve “U.S. national, economic, and security interests by supporting the recipient’s continuing efforts to modernize its armed forces and to maintain a credible defensive capability.” In addition, the potential future sale would “help improve the security of the recipient and assist in maintaining political stability, military balance, economic and progress in the region.”
The Tyranny of Geography
Although the DSCA stated that the deal, valued at over $1.8 billion, would not alter the military balance of power in the region, what it would do is put the Chinese coast in range.
The narrow expanse of water separating mainland China from Taiwan, known as the Formosa or Taiwan Strait, is only 180 miles, or about 290 kilometers at its widest—and the HIMARS' maximum range is 190 miles, or 305 kilometers. The long-range, six-wheeled rocket launcher is noted for its off-road ability as well as the rapidity with which it can deploy, fire a barrage of rockets, and drive off to safety, a tactic known as shoot-and-scoot.
With HIMARS, Taipei could cover not only the entirety of the Strait from its western shore, but it could also strike targets on the edge of the eastern Chinese coast. And in the future, the HIMARS could also strike targets hundreds of miles inland as well—thanks to the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
For the last thirty-one years, the United States’ land-based missile range was bounded by INF Treaty restrictions. The United States and the Soviet Union signed the INF Treaty in 1987, which banned either country from fielding land-based cruise or ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 1,000 kilometers, and 1,000 to 5,500 kilometers. Sea- and air-launched missiles were exempted from treaty restriction.
Since the United States’ August 2019 withdrawal from the INF Treaty, however, the U.S. Army has expressed an interest in bringing the HIMARS' range up to and past 499 kilometers, the previous INF limit. This would open the door to extending other HIMARS operators' range as well, including Taiwan.
Further augmenting Taiwan’s long-range firepower is the SLAM-ER missile, an over-the-horizon standoff precision missile with a 155 mile plus range. The SLAM-ER is intended to strike targets on land and at sea and would very likely be compatible with Taipei’s substantial 200+ F-16 fleet. Given the extremely lop-sided advantage China enjoys over Taiwan in terms of conventional military ability, any enhancement to Taiwan's stand-off warfighting capability would be sure to be a boon to Taipei—and an irritation to Beijing.
Though not stealthy, the American-supplied F-16s provide Taiwan with a powerful defensive capability, especially when mated with the MS-110 reconnaissance pod. The MS-110 is a multispectral imaging pod that provides an all-weather day/night long-range reconnaissance capability and would enhance Taiwan’s monitoring capabilities.
Taiwan does already possess a number of missiles that can strike targets deep inside China, but this most recent tranche of American weaponry would provide Taipei with a more robust and survivable equipment suite aimed at deterring a Chinese invasion by increasing the cost in manpower and material to Beijing.
Though Taiwan has been cleared for these three purchases, they are not yet final. Total costs as well as the exact number of equipment pieces could be expected to change. One thing is certain, however—irrespective of the overwhelming military advantage China enjoys over Taiwan, Beijing would prefer that this most recent defense acquisition remain nothing more than on paper.
In a daily press briefing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that they “urge the United States to strictly observe the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, and stop selling weapons to Taiwan or having any military ties with it. We will continue taking necessary measures to safeguard national sovereignty and security interests.”
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Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.