Taiwan finally signed a contract with Boeing to order the 400 land-based Harpoon missiles it was authorized to buy in October 2020. However, that order won’t be completed for many years, so one U.S. admiral explains how Taiwan can ‘Macgyver’ a few dozen Harpoons by cannibalizing retired U.S. hardware
The year is 2026. Taiwanese military police sergeant Lee Jong-fen lights a cigarette and glances once again at the military tent in the distance. Covered with camouflage netting, the tent looks almost invisible where it stands on the edge of a rice farm, with one half hidden inside the surrounding jungle. Sergeant Lee knows the tent is only there to hide the weapon system that is positioned inside it. He doesn’t know what the exact weapon system is. None of the soldiers who work inside the tent are allowed to talk to him about the weapon, and he is not allowed to ask. His task is to patrol the farm and the hills around the farm, shadowing any civilians who use the hiking trails, and observing any suspicious activity.
If Sergeant Lee catches civilians doing something suspicious, like taking a photo in the direction of the tent or loitering too long, his job is to temporarily detain such civilians and get all their information. He works as part of an armed team that is ready to shoot whenever they approach a civilian, as the civilian could very well be a lethal Chinese spy.
This kind of high-security scenario would become increasingly commonplace in the months leading up to 2027, the year in which China’s President Xi Jinping says he wants China to be ready to invade Taiwan. If such an invasion does happen, it would most likely start with a massive aerial bombardment by Chinese attack jets and guided ballistic and cruise missiles. To survive such a bombardment, Taiwan would have to ensure that the locations of its hundreds of defensive missiles are as secret as possible, as China would be trying to destroy as many of these systems as possible during the initial stages of any theoretical invasion.
In fact, some analysts believe China might even be tempted to attack Taiwan before 2027, as U.S. arms manufacturers are facing severe delays in delivering vital weapons systems that Taiwan ordered years ago.
One example of such a vital weapons-acquisition program is Taiwan’s plans to buy 400 RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II missiles from Boeing. These high-tech anti-ship cruise missiles are designed to be launched from warships but can also be fitted on road-mobile trucks that each carry four missiles in one four-tube launch system. These trucks would also carry the electricity generators and launch systems required to aim and fire the missiles. Once the missile is fired, it uses land-based or airborne or space-based radar to find and destroy ships as far away as 130 kilometers with a 224-kilogram warhead.
The Block II RGM-84L-4 version of the Harpoon was first delivered to the U.S. Navy in 2009. It uses advanced inertial measuring hardware and software plus inertial and GPS guidance technology to calculate its own position and to find its target with high accuracy. With these guidance upgrades it is one of the few missiles that can function effectively in littoral waters. The system also allows for airborne assets like helicopters to target enemy ships and feed that targeting data to the missile, enabling it to hit targets in concealed or cluttered environments far beyond the line of sight of its own launch radar.
Bloomberg reported on April 18 that Taiwan has finally signed a contract with Boeing to buy 100 launch units equipped with 400 of these missiles for $1.17 billion, two-and-a-half years after the U.S. Congress approved the sale in October 2020. The problem is that it will take until as late as 2029 to deliver the last of these missiles, and that’s only if the U.S. arms industry can find a way to avoid delivery delays inflicted on other weapons contracts by stockpile shortages created by the Ukraine war and COVID supply chain complications.
These delivery delays mean U.S. factories are now in a race with China’s military to be the first to deliver the military power needed to defend Taiwan on one side, and to defeat Taiwan on the other. Four hundred of these powerful and highly accurate missiles would be able to sink many Chinese warships and would therefore constitute a powerful deterrent, once they are in position on Taiwanese soil.
In an article published by Defense News recently, retired U.S. Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery explained why Taiwan should not wait for Boeing’s factories to win the battle against time, but should work with Boeing and the Pentagon to create a stop-gap solution.
The admiral explained that the Pentagon used a similar “MacGyver”-type approach to get Harpoons to Ukraine quickly and “while such an effort for Taiwan would need to be conducted on a larger and more sustainable scale, using existing components can expedite delivery of initial capabilities for Taiwan, too.”
This temporary solution would be to redirect to Taiwan some of the several hundred existing Harpoon missiles of the U.S. Navy that the Pentagon has put under consideration for demilitarization or destruction. To build the complex launch systems for these missiles, Taiwan can work with the Pentagon and Boeing to build relocatable ground-launch platforms from existing U.S. inventories of launch support structures, control systems, power generators and communications systems for voice and data links that provide targeting data.
These “relocatable” platforms can initially be installed together on a simple steel plate so it can be moved as a single unit by using heavy equipment. These can also be turned into more mobile systems by attaching the whole thing to the bed of a truck. The admiral says the launch support structures and Harpoon Ship Command-Launch Control Systems would be drawn from those taken off decommissioned U.S. Navy ships. He added that the communications and data-link hardware could come from existing Taiwanese systems, while the generators and trucks can be taken from either country’s inventories.
As China is increasing the speed at which it is building up its capability to invade Taiwan while also keeping the U.S. from easily interfering with such an invasion, it is becoming increasingly clear that Taiwan is running out of time to build up its arsenal of anti-ship missiles. For these reasons it would be wise for the Pentagon and Taipei to heed the admiral’s call for a program to cobble together an ugly but functional force of temporary Harpoon systems that would be able to deter an invasion until the shiny new models can take their place.
Image: Marinens Biblioteks Arkiv, Public Domain