Key point: These tanks will be a major upgrade for Taiwan's defenses and a thorn in Beijing's side.
The U.S. State Department has signed off on the sale to Taiwan of more than 100 M-1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and other weapons.
The $2.2-billion sale, if Congress approves it, could significantly improve Taiwan’s army, which has not acquired new tanks in several decades. U.S. lawmakers historically have approved weapons deals with Taiwan.
“This proposed sale of M-1A2 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,” the Defense Security Cooperation Agency stated.
“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 recipient will have no difficulty absorbing this equipment into its armed forces.”
The deal includes 100 M-1A2T tanks, 14 M-88A2 tank-recovery vehicles, 16 M-1070A1 Heavy Equipment Transporters plus 250 Stinger Block I-92F shoulder-fired anti-air missiles.
The M-1A2T is a special Taiwanese configuration of the U.S. Army’s latest M-1A2C. The M-1A2T’s improvements include more electrical power, a new auxiliary power unit and an ammunition data link for “smart” shells with reprogrammable fuzes.
The Abrams reportedly will replace, in two battalions, some of the Taiwanese army’s aging M-60A3 and CM11 tanks. The Taiwanese defense ministry has already identified bases for the tanks in the island country’s northern region, according to Taiwan News.
Notably, this latest U.S.-Taiwanese arms deal doesn’t include the 60 new F-16 Block 70 fighters that Taipei wants. The F-16s still are under State Department and Pentagon review.
“This is arguably a more important purchase given the increasing age of the Taiwanese air force's fighter fleets and steady improvements in China's air combat capabilities, but also one where Chinese authorities have historically drawn a ‘red line,’” Joe Trevithick noted at The War Zone.
Washington and Beijing are struggling to negotiate a sweeping trade agreement as each country slaps more and more damaging tariffs on the other.
China has objected to the weapons deal. “We are severely concerned about the U.S.’s move,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing in June 2019. “We are firmly against U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. We urge the U.S. to see the high sensitivity and severe harm of arms sales to Taiwan.”
Taiwan has not bought new tanks in several decades. In 2001, the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush rejected an earlier request by Taipei to buy M-1s.
At present, the older M-60A3 is Taiwan’s most important tank. After initially failing to acquire the M-1, Taiwan launched an ambitious effort to enhance up to 400 M-60s. In 2017, the army transferred two M-60s to Taiwanese research institutes for evaluation. Upgrades were scheduled to begin in 2019 and take roughly a year to complete.
The updates reportedly include a new fire-control system, turret drive, sights and nuclear defenses, an automatic loader and a 120-millimeter gun to replace the present 105-millimeter weapon. Taiwan is also considering giving its M-60s an Active Protection System, which fires tiny projectiles to intercept incoming rockets and anti-tank missiles.
Upgrades to 400 old M-60s and a potential purchase of 100 new M-1s belie Taiwan’s numerical disadvantage when it comes to tanks. China possesses 6,900 tanks, including nearly 4,000 fully modern ones.
Of course, China would struggle to deploy large numbers of tanks in Taiwan. Even after pummeling Taiwan with rockets, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would have to ship troops and equipment across the Taiwan Strait in an effort to take and hold the islands. Only then would Taiwan’s own tanks even factor into the fighting.
An invasion of Taiwan would be a daunting challenge for China. Beijing would have to win quickly or risk political and military retaliation by the United States that could doom the attack. Taipei’s tanks merely must slow the Chinese assault rather than totally reverse it.
“Yes, the Taiwanese army projects that it can only hold off its enemy for two weeks after the landing,” Tanner Greer noted in Foreign Policy, “but the PLA also believes that if it cannot defeat the Taiwanese forces in under two weeks, it will lose the war!”
“The disparity between the military budgets on both sides of the strait is large, and growing—but the Taiwanese do not need parity to deter Chinese aggression. All they need is the freedom to purchase the sort of arms that make invasion unthinkable. If that political battle can be resolved in the halls of Washington, the party will not have the power to threaten battle on the shores of Taiwan.”