United States aircraft-maker Boeing has been awarded a contract to manufacture 31 AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters for Taiwan. The total cost for the Longbow program is set to reach US$2.53 billion, and the first batch of AH-64Ds is expected to be delivered to the island in the first quarter of 2014.
But a deal that at a glance seems like a Taiwanese success in lobbying for advanced US weaponry raises questions. Even to experts on Taiwan’s defense, it remains beyond imagination how the Apaches could fit into any of the threat scenarios Taiwan faces.
For decades, the essence of Taiwan’s national defense strategy has been the ability to fight a mainland Chinese invasion force in naval and air battles in the middle of the Taiwan Strait. This is
based on the assumption that before the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could launch an amphibious invasion of Taiwan proper, it would have to gain superiority over its airspace, install a crippling sea blockade, and use missiles and air strikes to destroy crucial Taiwanese infrastructure.
If predictions about cross-strait conflict scenarios had a tenor, it’s that if Chinese combat troops set foot on Taiwan’s soil, the battle would effectively be lost. Accordingly, Taiwan’s army has taken the back seat in terms of weapons’ procurement to the navy andair force. But with the procurement of as many as 31 highly sophisticated attack helicopters, this long-standing doctrine seems shaken.
The AH-64D Longbow Taiwan is to get is a significantly upgraded version of the original Apache, a weapons system that has become the primary attack helicopter of several nations and currently serves in Afghanistan and Iraq. The most prominent advantage the AH-64D has over its predecessor is a dome installed over the main rotor that houses the AN/APG-78 Longbow target acquisition system.
By taking advantage of the raised position, targets can be detected and missiles launched while the helicopter is hidden behind terrain. An additional remarkable piece of equipment is an improved sensor suite with integrated radio modem that allows the easy sharing of targeting data with other AH-64Ds, efficiently enabling them to attack units of armored vehicles in packs. Also, the helicopter’s firepower is more than convincing. It is armed with AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and Hydra 70 laser-guided rockets, all of which combat-proven.
As technically advanced as the AH-64D Longbow arguably is, it’s striking how poorly the helicopter matches Taiwan’s needs. In the case of an outbreak of war across the Taiwan Strait, the AH-64D would likely only come into meaningful operations during the very last days of the hostilities. Its design is meant for close-air-support missions, primarily to support soldiers on the ground.
In South Korea, US Apaches are in charge of key missions to deter North Korean tank units from crossing the military demarcation line and to help prevent North Korean special forces from infiltrating the South. They are seen as even more effective than the outstanding F-16s when it comes to missions at low air speeds and altitude. Yet, unlike Korea, Taiwan is an island where there’s no such a thing as a land border an invader’s tank formations could cross, and by the time Chinese commandos infiltrate Taiwan, the battle would likely be close to over anyway.
By opting for AH-64Ds instead of strengthening its navy and airforce, Taipei is moving in a perplexing direction: from trying to stop the enemy in or above the Taiwan Strait, to letting it land and battling it on Taiwan proper.
But the puzzle doesn’t stop here. According to experts, the fact that Taiwan is choosing super-advanced attack helicopters for its army is not the only odd aspect of the Apache deal. They say that if it has to be a heavy attack helicopter, it shouldn’t be the AH-64D.
“Taiwan has a high mountainous interior with low salty coastlands. Neither are friendly to Apaches,” said Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, in an interview withAsia Times Online. “Taiwan wanted Apaches largely because they are the latest, most technologically advanced piece of equipment in the US arsenal, but it’s the Cobras, which are popular with the US Marine Corps, that can handle the types of environments found in Taiwan with ease.”
The AH-1W Super Cobras Minnick recommends are the backbone of the US Marine Corps’ attack helicopter fleet. Over the next decade, they will be replaced by the AH-1Z Viper upgrade, which is widely called “Zulu Cobra” in reference to its variant letter. The marines placed orders for more than 400 AH-1Zs, and one of the things that makes the Zulu Cobra especially suitable for a military that fights in proximity of seashores is that its rotor blades come with a semi-automatic folding design, which allows the helicopter to be stored aboard amphibious assault ships. The Longbow radar that gives the AH-64D Apache Longbow its name can also be mounted, along with the same missiles and rockets as the Apache.
Neither from a military nor an economic point of view does Minnick see why Taiwan would choose the Apaches over the Cobras. “Taiwan already has two squadrons of AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters. It was given an option to procure 30 new Zulu Cobras and was offered an upgrade of their older Super Cobras up to Zulu standards. That would have given them 90 AH-1Z heavy attack helicopters in their inventory. But instead they chose Apaches.”
According to Minnick, yet another aspect that makes the Apache deal seem less than ideal is that it leads to Taiwan’s defense industry losing out. That is because the new Zulus would have been co-assembled in Taiwan, thus creating jobs, while the Apaches will be entirely produced in South Korea and the US.
After the first batch of AH-64D Apache Longbows has been delivered to Taiwan in 2014, its military will have two different platforms of attack helicopters in its arsenal. Due to their sophistication, the maintenance of Apaches will be rather costlier, and the upkeep on two different training programs will add to the bill.
While the military rationale for the Apache procurement remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, experts still sense something like a plausible pattern behind the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense’s decision. Taiwanese expert Arthur Ding, a research fellow at Taipei’s National Chengchi University told Asia Times Online: “I guess that it may have something to do with service rivalry [between the navy, army and air force]. Our defense strategy is shifting to ‘homeland defense’, and with this direction, the army will play an increasingly important role. This makes for a good excuse for the army to buy armed helicopters.”
Minnick’s conclusion goes in another direction. “There is symbolism at work here. Taiwan wants the best US military equipment. Not because it can use it, but because it demonstrates to China that the US supports Taiwan’s defense.”