U.S. Picks Taiwan for First Armed Drones Sale Under Eased Rules
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. will sell Taiwan armed Reaper drones in a $600 million deal that will likely further anger China and help lock in a shift in American military support for Taipei during the next presidential administration.
The State Department on Tuesday approved the proposed sale of the four weapons-ready MQ-9B drones from General Atomics -- capable of carrying laser and GPS-guided munitions -- along with radar, sensors and ground control stations for flying the aircraft. It was the first time the U.S. has approved the sale of armed drones since the Trump administration eased export restrictions in July.
“This proposed sale will improve the recipient’s capability to meet current and future threats by providing timely Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, target acquisition, and counter-land, counter-sea, and anti-submarine strike capabilities for its security and defense,” the State Department said in a statement. “The capability is a deterrent to regional threats and will strengthen the recipient’s self-defense,” it said.
The move comes shortly after similar approval in recent weeks for two arms sales worth a total of $4.2 billion for the democratically controlled island, which Beijing considers part of its territory. The deals leading up to Tuesday’s election in the U.S. continue a notable shift away from the sale of more traditional, expensive weapons platforms -- such as warplanes and tanks -- toward a so-called “hedgehog” defensive strategy designed to make the costs of a Chinese invasion too high by deploying nimble weapons such as mobile missile systems, mines and drones.
China’s military has continued to pile pressure on Taiwan, with People’s Liberation Army aircraft breaching the island’s air defense identification zone on a near-daily basis. Tensions are also high between the world’s two biggest economies, with China featuring prominently in election rhetoric between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called the latest arms sale a “severe violation” of the one-China principle and urged the U.S. to “immediately cancel its arms sale plans to avoid further damaging China-U.S. relations.”
“It grossly interferes in China’s domestic affairs and gravely undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests,” Wang told a daily briefing in Beijing on Wednesday. He vowed China would “take legitimate and necessary responses in light of the changing developments,” without elaborating.
While the U.S. recently sold Taipei F-16 warplanes and Abrams tanks, military analysts have argued that these expensive acquisitions are particularly vulnerable should China launch a barrage of missiles to knock out the island’s defenses -- including parked jets and vehicles, runways and military facilities -- ahead of an invasion.
“The trend for U.S. security assistance to Taiwan is to shift away from large platforms and systems like the F-16V fighters and M1A2 Abrams tanks sold to Taiwan in 2019,” said Shirley Kan, an independent specialist in Asian security affairs and a member of the research organization Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory board.
Taiwan has also scrambled around 3,000 jets this year as Chinese military aircraft fly close to the island, and a crash of an aging F-5 fighter has fueled concerns about the age of its fleet.
“The main benefit of these drones will be to improve our surveillance and detection capabilities in the Taiwan Strait,” Shu Hsiao-huang, assistant research fellow at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said, citing their ability to stay in the air for long periods. “This will help us maintain stronger surveillance on the areas around Taiwan.”
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