Taiwan's helicopter buy a strange choice
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - 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
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 and air force. But with the procurement of as
many as 31 highly sophisticated attack helicopters, this long-standing doctrine
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
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 air force, 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 with Asia 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
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
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."
Jens Kastner is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.