Tuesday 11 October 2022

The PLAN’s New Foe: Taiwan Acquires The MQ-9B SeaGuardian

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Republic of China, more commonly referred to as Taiwan, continues to invest billions into its domestic arms industry to safeguard R&D and production capabilities. While Taiwan is already self-sufficient in the design and production of most weapons systems or well on its way towards attaining such a capacity, the nation still makes regular purchases from the United States, its biggest supplier of arms and munitions. Recent purchases have included 108 M1A2T MBTs, 29 M142 HIMARS MRLs along with 84 ATACMS SSMs and 864 guided rockets, and Harpoon coastal defence missile systems. [1] [2] The latter two systems will serve alongside their Taiwanese-designed counterparts.

In late August 2022, Taiwan signed another contract with the United States for the provision of four MQ-9B SeaGuardians for a staggering $555 million. [3] The total cost for the acquisition will eventually amount to some $700 million, with the remaining costs coming from the construction of the necessary infrastructure in Taiwan, new buildings to house the MQ-9B's ground control stations, support equipment and training. [3] Taiwan's acquisition comes just two months after Greece purchased three MQ-9B SeaGuardians at a similarly high cost of $400 million. [4]
Taiwan is currently also running its own MALE UAV programme, the latest iteration of which, the Teng Yun 2, was unveiled in 2020 and is currently undergoing testing prior to its operational debut. Despite their similar layout, the Teng Yun 2 and the MQ-9B SeaGuardian are in a different class entirely. The Teng Yun 2 is equivalent to the MQ-9B Reaper UCAV while the MQ-9B SeaGuardian is a dedicated maritime patrol/anti-submarine warfare (ASW) variant of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, itself a version of the MQ-9B Reaper tailored to meet European NATO requirements.

Born out of a concept originally offered to the U.S. Navy for its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) programme (which was eventually won by the MQ-4C Triton), the main selling point of the SeaGuardian is its synthetic aperture radar that can spot surface targets including ships, submarine periscopes, as well as its ability to carry sonobuoy pods for ASW. Future improvements include the carriage of ASW torpedoes and AIM-9 Sidewinder AAMs for self defence; even a version with foldable wings for use from aircraft carriers and LHDs is currently under consideration.

The NCSIST Teng Yun 2 MALE U(C)AV.

The Republic of China Navy (ROCN) currently operates twelve recently-delivered P-3C maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs) and some two dozen S-70C(M)-1/2 Thunderhawk and Hughes 500MD/ASW Defender ASW helicopters. These aerial assets, along with a fleet of Kang-Ding-class, Chi Yang-class (ex-U.S. Knox class) and Cheng Kung-class (based on the U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry class) frigates, are tasked with countering a rapidly modernising and expanding People's Liberation Army Navy Submarine Force. The threat posed by Chinese submarines is growing year to year, with (modern) attack and ballistic missile submarines increasingly deploying in the waters around Taiwan.
Indeed, although many deem a direct invasion of Taiwan as the gravest threat to the island, an air and naval blockade could cut off the island off from the outside world and pressure the Taiwanese government to accepts Beijing's terms concerning the future status of the nation without Chinese troops ever having to set foot on the main island. The ROCN is heavily investing in long-range naval assets as a result: In addition to the construction of eight indigenous submarines, the ROCN is set to construct a new class of ASW and air-defence frigates over the coming decade to replace the ageing Cheng Kung-class frigates (the first of which entered service with the U.S. Navy in 1971!).

Interestingly, an acquisition of twelve MH-60R ASW helicopters at a cost of $1.15 billion was cancelled in May 2022 due to a lack of budget and disagreement with the U.S. over whether the purchase was in line with Taiwan's actual defence needs (with the U.S. pressing Taiwan to invest in more asymmetric warfare capabilities). [5] [6] Why an acquisition of four SeaGuardian UAVs at an ultimate cost of some $710 million was greenlighted by the U.S. with no mention if these are in line with Taiwan's defence needs is therefore certainly curious. Whatever the case, the SeaGuardian's advanced sensor systems and its 40+-hour endurance is certain to strengthen Taiwan's maritime patrol and ASW capabilities.

The threat of the PLAN submarine force has forced Taiwan to direct significant resources towards the acquisition of suitable ASW assets that can operate in waters far away from the main island. Though the acquisiton of twelve MH-60Rs was cancelled in May 2022, the deal for four SeaGuardians is set to go ahead. This new capacity is set to come at a cost that could rightfully be called exorbitant. Whether they're worth it we hopefully never find out.
[1] Taiwan to buy 18 more HIMARS from US amid Ukrainian wins https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4643514
[2] Taiwan Unveils Two-Phase Anti-Ship Missile Deployment Plan https://www.thedefensepost.com/2022/04/22/taiwan-anti-ship-missile-deployment-plan/
[3] Taiwan Signs $555M Deal With US to Buy Four Sea Guardian Drones https://www.thedefensepost.com/2022/09/08/taiwan-deal-sea-guardian-drones/
[4] ASW At A Premium: Greece Purchases MQ-9B SeaGuardian UAVs https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/08/asw-at-premium-greece-purchases-mq-9b.html
[5] MH-60R chopper purchase likely to be canceled due to price https://focustaiwan.tw/politics/202205050009
[6] MH-60R反潛直升機太貴採購喊停!海軍尋找替代方案 https://www.nownews.com/news/5846978