Wednesday, February 4, 2015

North Korea's ABC (Anybody but China) Diplomatic Strategy is Going to Face a Harsh Reality

(Photo: wikicommons)

My recent article  featured in the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute attempts to show how the North Korean leadership's initiative to "break out" from its heavy reliance on China will run into a brick wall of reality....Enjoy! 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Gripen Solution

Sweden's Gripen provides great value for the cost (photo: Wikicommons)

Brian Benedictus & Michal Thim 
This piece was originally published in Strategic Vision vol. 3, no. 18 (December, 2014).  
The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) appears to be a formidable force on paper, wielding 300-plus fighter jets (excluding the obsolete F-5E/F used for training), but its most recent purchase was 150 F-16A/Bs and 60 Mirage 2000s, both approved in 1992. Earlier this month, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou reiterated the need to procure advanced fighters from the United States in order to fulfill the pending shortage of Taiwan’s air power projection capabilities. The shortage will come due to the retirement of older F-5 jets by 2019, as well as the government’s desire to retire its current batch of Mirage 2000-5Di/Ei.
The sale of American F-16 C/D fighters has been in limbo for years; with Republic of China (ROC) officials recently stating that they no longer wish to pursue such a purchase. While there have been statements issued by the ROC government expressing an interest in acquiring the F-35 5th generation fighter currently in development by the United States, the likelihood of such a sale is unrealistic at the moment due to reasons that range from the high per-unit cost and American concerns of a harsh Chinese reaction to the sale, to Taiwan’s position at the bottom of a long waiting list of other countries which have already completed agreements with the United States for the F-35.
One option would be for the ROCAF to look elsewhere. Although the Russian market produces impressive fighter jets with competitive price tags, it is closed to Taipei due to Moscow’s close relationship with Beijing, as well as its rather rigid interpretation of the One China policy. Moreover, the introduction of Russian weaponry would create another logistical headache because, under current conditions, Taiwanese jets already need to use a range of US, French, and Taiwan-made missiles on their planes, and the availability of spare parts and general service requirements would be another issue complicating their use.
Other options are no less complex. The Eurofighter Typhoon is expensive, and France most certainly would not risk angering China by offering to sell Taiwan its Rafale fighters. Taiwan, however, could choose to think outside the box in terms of seeking to acquire new jets by looking at Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen. Granted, the political ramifications that make sales difficult are not insignificant, and in many ways are not too different from the cases outlined above. Nevertheless, the Gripen would fit well with Taiwan’s defense needs, and pursuing the bid would be a worthwhile effort, even if it ultimately is destined to fail.
A sale, however unlikely, would make sense for both sides for a number of reasons. For Taiwan, adding the Gripen into its air-power portfolio would be a major upgrade in terms of overall capabilities. The newest model, the JAS 39E, would come packed with improvements over previous models. Such upgrades include a multispectral sensor suite—a system that allows the aircraft to engage stealth targets—and the ability to fly at Mach 1.25 without the use of afterburners. Moreover, the Gripen comes equipped with the Meteor ramjet-powered air-to-air missile, which is believed to have five times the lethality of the American-made AMRAAM.
The Gripen has another quality that makes it suitable for Taiwan’s conditions. As a result of Sweden’s own precarious position due to its close proximity to Russia, Sweden has always stressed the short take-off and landing (STOL) capability for its fighter jets. That also suits Taiwan’s needs very well, as part of the latter’s plan is to utilize highways and other large paved roads in times of war. F-16s and other jets in the ROCAF inventory are capable of STOL, but unlike the Gripen, they are not expressly designed for that purpose.
Sweden has also made its previous agreements buyer-friendly; with perks that have included an offer to Indonesia that encompasses a 100-percent technology transfer, as well as an agreement with Brazil that will result in the South American country building nearly 80 percent of the airframes domestically that it purchases from Sweden. If Taiwan were to be able to negotiate a similar offer in a Gripen sale, it would be a major boost to its domestic aviation industry, particularly for the country’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. This would, of course, be an ideal scenario, in which Taiwan would be relieved of the logistical burden of relying on imported spare parts.
Licensed production
While Sweden might, under certain conditions, be willing to sell Gripens to Taiwan, agreeing to licensed production is a whole different matter. European manufacturers offer licensed production to keep their products competitive against US companies that are usually unwilling to offer such deals (Japan is a notable exception, together with partner countries in the F-35 JSF program).Thus, this particular scenario works well when the seller is competing with other offers, and Taiwan’s major problem is that sellers are not exactly lining up to sell weapons to the country.
Perhaps equally important as performance is the issue of cost, and the Gripen appears to be a bargain. The per-unit price tag of Switzerland’s recent purchase of 22 Gripens is believed to have been near US$150 million. This amount also includes training, technical support, and spare parts.
Image Credit: CC 2.0 by Tomas Öhberg/Flickr
Image Credit: CC 2.0 by Tomas Öhberg/Flickr
The platform is also efficient to fly and maintain, as it has an estimated  per-hour operating cost of nearly US$7,000 and only requires six support personnel to handle maintenance—an efficient number that the demographically-challenged Taiwan would welcome. In contrast, per-unit cost estimates of the F-35 have been unreliable: While the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin hope to bring down the cost of the various F-35 models to below US$100 million, the final price tag for each unit may very well reach twice that amount.
While per-unit estimates vary, the per-hour operating cost of the F-35 can be pegged at nearly US$31,000 per flight hour, and although the total flying hours of the entire fleet is still relatively low, this would not bode well for budget-conscious legislators in Taiwan, who would not be keen to share these numbers with their constituents, especially considering the government’s plans to move forward with another expensive outlay: the ROC hopes to build four submarines of its own by 2025.
Considering all the above, it should be stressed that per-unit costs are not a very reliable indicator, as there are multiple variables affecting price. Thus, these figures need to be taken with a grain of salt. Ultimately, it also depends a great deal on whether Taiwan would be able to secure a military contract, or if the sale would go through civilian intermediaries, with the latter option making the sale and servicing significantly more expensive. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that overall costs of a Gripen purchase would be much cheaper than the F-35 alternative currently being speculated about.
Interim solution
Arguably, a Gripen sale would not need to be put forward as a competing alternative to an equally hypothetical F-35 sale: Rather, it would be an interim solution that would allow the ROCAF to retire some older combat planes without necessarily replacing their original roles (such as in the case of the Mirage 2000, which is a high-altitude fighter; a role for which there is no clear replacement) and ease the burden on the existing fleet. Moreover, Gripens can be easily integrated with existing ROCAF armaments, which would ease the logistical burden associated with acquiring a completely new plane.
All things considered, there are of course fairly obvious political obstacles on the road should Taiwan’s government proceed with the request. If the United States feels compelled to stall the sale of F-16C/Ds for nearly a decade, allegedly over worries about the Chinese reaction, why should Sweden be any different? One counter-argument is that Sweden’s economic links with China are not particularly strong: In 2012, China constituted just 3 percent of Stockholm’s exports, and 4 percent of imports. The second argument is that the sale of 60 JAS-39E/F would be the most successful foreign sale for the Swedish aerospace company Saab by a long shot. More so considering that the market for jet fighters is shrinking.
Russia, France, and the United States are producing fighter jets domestically. India recently concluded a deal for the French-built Rafale. Other potential buyers are off the table due to their involvement in and standing orders for the F-35 program. There is no other offer on the horizon that could potentially be as good as what the Taiwan offer could be. Third, some elements in the United States would be interested in making the sale happen, too; the Gripen still has several US-made parts, including the F414G-39E engine, and thus certain US defense contractors would still benefit from the deal.
That being said, obstacles do not end with Stockholm’s potential worries about retaliation from Beijing; London has the capability to block the sale due to sensitive UK-made parts (especially the scanned-array radar) used in the Gripen. Britain is arguably more economically entangled with China than Sweden is, though not significantly more so; with 3 percent of exports and 8 percent of imports in 2012 (although one could argue that this imbalance would make China be the one to feel the pain, should it move to restrict trade).
Moreover, Saab is heavily invested by the influential Wallenberg family, which also owns companies like Ericsson and Electrolux that have strong investment stakes in China. Thus, whereas incentives for the sale are strong, obstacles are formidable, too.
As noted above, Taiwan’s disadvantage is that its options are generally limited to US-made platforms in the absence of competing offers. In other words, Taiwan is usually at the wrong end of a monopoly scenario. At the very least, pursuing an acquisition elsewhere could serve to re-energize the long-stalled F-16C/D deal.
If all else fails, there is one more lesson that Taiwan can learn from looking at Sweden: A relatively small non-allied nation determined to defend its territory against a potentially hostile great power with the capability of developing its own high-quality weapon systems (albeit in cooperation with other states, technology-wise) ranging from excellent submarines and offshore defense corvettes to capable jet fighters.
There is a sense of acknowledgement among Taiwan’s defense planners that domestically built weapons are increasingly the better choice within a narrow field of options. There is no doubt that it would take a great deal of effort to develop the know-how and requisite investment in human resources. Cooperation with the United States would be required as well, but that may be less of a problem as selling parts may be less controversial in Washington circles than selling combat-ready platforms. Taiwan is not yet in a situation to become like Sweden in terms of its own defense industry, but it very well may be in 20 years’ time. Long-term investment in developing this capability has to start at some point, and there is no better time than the present.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

China's Korea Problem


In my piece published today by the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, I discuss the challenges that China faces in attempting to balance an increasingly complex set of relationships which involve North and South Korea. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Taiwan's Impending Independence Surge

(Photo: Wikicommons)

The fact that the occupation of the Taiwan legislature by student activists earlier this spring was woefully under-reported, is disappointing for a number of reasons. Primarily, the world missed an opportunity to see the changes in social and political identities sweeping across the island nation. These generational changes that are taking place in Taiwan, along with external factors such as China’s treatment of Hong Kong and its increasing bellicosity in its littoral areas, are going to reshape local politics in a way that suggests in the not-too-distant future, there is going to be a powerful new impetus for independence in Taiwan.

(The full article written by Michael Turton  and myself for Ketagalan Media can be accessed here.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Missing the Point on Taiwan's Pursuit of Submarines

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Yesterday Lauren Dickey of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote a a piece that advocated against  Taiwan acquiring submarines, as well as the United States assisting in supplying them. While Dickey touches on a number of interesting aspects involving the longstanding-saga behind Taiwan's quest to obtain a modern sub fleet, there were a number of widely accepted notions that have often been passed along as facts regarding this issue.

Dickey says  that "the interest of the Ma Ying-jeou government in developing indigenous submarine capabilities has resurfaced", when in fact Taiwan's interest has remained constant for decades.  A number of House and Senate staff members have told this author that officials from Taiwan have consistently approached them (albeit discreetly) with various proposals outlining scenarios in which the United States could assist Taiwan in its quest to acquire modern submarines--either with American industrial/logistical support or through America's diplomatic maneuvering with a third country that would be willing to partake in such an endeavor. These meetings between Taiwanese officials and Congressional Members and their staff are not a new development.  While Dickey does correctly state that the Bush Administration's Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program was evaluated to have a high cost (over ten billion) leading to political posturing between then President Chen's Administration and the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), it doesn't necessarily mean that Taiwan's government could not compromise in reaching adequate funding for such a program.  In fact, submarine acquisition is one of the few national security areas that both sides of the political spectrum in Taiwan agree is a necessity.

Dickey goes on to state " can only begin to wonder why the Taiwanese defense establishment isn't looking elsewhere to fulfill its wish list."--Only to answer her own question in the following paragraph, stating that the only option for Taiwan in recent years has been to acquire weapons from the only country that is willing to disregard China's threats (up to a certain point) which has been  the United States.

As I stated earlier, Taiwan is actively looking for a third country to assist in the providing either plans for a submarine design or, less likely, the actual sale of subs to Taiwan directly. Due to constant Chinese pressure,  Taiwan realizes that  cannot simply send a delegation to Germany, Sweden, or Japan requesting a bilateral sale of modern submarines, or it would have undoubtedly done so years ago.

 Taipei is seeking to keep its options open,which  requires innovative thinking, and its desire in acquiring a modern fleet is by no means a recent "ask" by the Taiwanese government. Due to the fact that the U.S. has not produced diesel submarines in well over a half century means that a 3rd country will  have to be involved if any deal is reached. It has been a long-standing request approved by the Bush administration over 10 years ago.  Yet with so many instances involving U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the submarine question is one remaining in limbo.

From a strategic standpoint, Dickey argues that "any submarines acquired by Taiwan may actually do more harm than good, due to their vulnerabilities to existing Chinese weapons.", citing Professor William Murray's well circulated "Porcupine Theory" in which he states Taiwan would be best served in developing its defense capabilities at the expense of maintaining high ticket items, such as fighter jets and submarines.

While I believe that many of Murray's ideas that Dickey advocates  make a great deal of sense strategically for Taiwan from a defensive point of view, the notion that Taiwan should abandon a lethal asymmetrical platform like modern submarines--a platform that is widely believed to be an PLAN Achilles Heel when it comes countering such platforms---and instead investing the overwhelming bulk of its military assets in preparation for being perpetually pummeled by a Chinese military that would have a seemingly infinite supply of offensive weapons at its disposal--sounds more akin to an Alamo strategy rather than a sound defensive strategy.

I do however, agree with Dickey in that Taiwan should continue to invest in its ASW capabilities in order to monitor PLAN submarine activity.  Yet there is a dilemma if Taiwan were to follow Dickey's (and by extension Murray's) ideas at face value: If Murray is in fact correct in his belief that the majority of Taiwan naval surface fleet would be destroyed at the outset of a China-Taiwan conflict, and that Taiwan's air force would be rendered impotent due to the PLA 2nd Artillery Corps missile salvos that would destroy most, if not all of Taiwan's air strips, there are two questions that need to be answered.  First, how would Taiwan utilize their newly acquired antisubmarine aircraft, and second, even if said aircraft were able to be deployed under combat conditions, of what use would this data be if Taiwan has no platforms in which to counter the Chinese underwater threat?  Surveillance cameras would not hold much value in the deterring potential criminals if they knew that a society had no means of force to counter such actions.

Finally, for Dickey to state that Washington doesn't have the "time nor money" requisite to help Taiwan develop its submarine program, while it has ample time and resources  to strengthen relationships with other long-standing allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines), and cultivating new ones (Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia) is a massive oversimplification of the current situation regarding Taiwan's long standing request of a modern submarine fleet, and the topic deserves a much deeper examination than given by Dickey.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tempering Expectations...Why a Vietnam-U.S. Strategic Alliance might Not be all its cracked up to be

(Courtesy of Wiki commons) 
In an article featured today in The Diplomat, I questioned the reality of a meaningful security partnership between the United States and Vietnam developing, and what might stand in the way of said partnership taking place. While Patrick Cronin and General Dempsey both make insightful and compelling arguments for doing so, this author is skeptical weather the countries could align their interests enough to make such a partnership viable.

The full article can be accessed here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why China and Taiwan are really different (My latest for Ketagalan Media)

(photo credit:

The topic of ethnicity and nationality can be a sensitive topic.  Today I discussed how the Chinese Communist Party perceives them  in both their current social policies within China, as well as how it applies said issues towards Taiwan.  (Special thanks to Ketagalan Media's co-founder Chieh-Ting Yeh for adding some great edits and insight into the article as well).

Full article access can be found here, at Ketagalan Media's excellent site.