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Taiwan’s expensive and very high-tech PAVE PAWS radar came in handy when China fired multiple ballistic missiles at points in the ocean around Taiwan.

Taiwan’s long-range radar is a $1.4 billion installation that’s designed to function for six minutes before it’s destroyed in a Chinese missile strike.

Alternatively, the huge radar’s defense systems might be able to destroy all of the missiles that would be coming at it at supersonic and even hypersonic speeds — if China ever decided to attack Taiwan. These defense systems are rumored to consist of a number of air-defense cannons and missile systems.

The powerful radar came in handy on Thursday August 4, when China launched eleven ballistic missiles at points in the ocean around Taiwan. At least one of these missiles passed over Taiwan, but Taiwan’s military could see from the radar’s tracking data that it would not hit the island. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the situation was controlled and the tracking data was shared with the U.S., Japan, and other countries for reference and comparison.

While the high-tech radar — called the Surveillance Radar Program (SRP) — has the primary role of giving Taiwan at least six minutes of early warning to react to an incoming missile strike, it does have other important roles to fill in the meantime.

From its mountain perch in northern Taiwan, the large phased-array radar can look deep into China, tracking ships and airborne objects as small as cruise missiles as far as 5,550 kilometers away. Although the 22-meter-tall radar is a stationary array built into a flat 32-meter-tall wall, its radar beam can be directed via phase shifting and electronic beam steering to aim 60 degrees to the left of its central boresight axis and 60 degrees to the right. It can also be directed to aim as much as 85 degrees up. This means the radar can probe a horizontal arc of 120 degrees and directly up into space. Because it sits on a mountain, the SRP can also monitor ships on the Taiwan Strait.

The fact that it can aim its sensing beam almost directly upward means that it is also tracking satellites and other objects in the space above China. This kind of surveillance and tracking capability would be very useful to the U.S. as well, so it is assumed that there is an agreement for data sharing between the two allies.

The SRP is a version of the U.S.’s PAVE PAWS radar system. PAVE stands for a U.S. Air Force program called Precision Avionics Vectoring Equipment and PAWS stands for Phased Array Warning System. Whereas most radars spin around a central point to rotate their sensing arrays in a 360-degree arc, PAVE PAWS radars like Taiwan’s SRP are designed to be stationary and only probe in one general direction. 

While the SRP can only scan a single arc of 120 degrees wide and 85 degrees upward, it makes up for that by scanning much faster than a normal rotating radar. Because it can change the direction of its energy beam electronically, it can jump from one direction to another within nanoseconds. Also, that scanning beam is only 2.2 degrees wide, which is why it can detect small and faraway objects with such precision.

As such, the PAVE PAWS radar was designed to continuously scan the ocean and sky for enemy nuclear missiles launched from submarines and land positions. This makes it the perfect tool for Taiwan’s military to detect the moment China fires one or more of the thousands of missiles it has pointed at Taiwan. The SRP is a powerful early warning tool because it is much more effective at detecting and tracking small-diameter threats at long range than any conventional radar.

Taiwan’s SRP first became a reality when U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the deal to sell the radar to Taiwan in the year 2000. However, the construction project suffered delays and cost overruns before it was finally ready for service in 2013, with the total construction cost amounting to a whopping $1.4 billion. The original plan was to build two SRP radars, with the second one planned for southern Taiwan, but the latter had to be canceled due to budget constraints.

Taiwanese media outlets reported in March that a U.S. delegation to Taiwan, led by former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Glenn Mullen, had suggested that Taiwan construct a second SRP in southern Taiwan. The United Daily News reacted to these reports by mentioning the massive price tag of the first SRP. The news outlet also lamented the fact that Taiwan still has to pay as much as 10 billion New Taiwan dollars ($340 million) every five years to maintain the existing SRP.

So, while it is clear that a second SRP would give Taiwan a much wider view of China’s movements — this time also of China’s moves in the volatile South China Sea — it is clear that cost will be a huge hurdle to overcome. As such a powerful eye into the South China Sea would also benefit the U.S., it might be worth the effort for both countries to make a deal and share the cost of the construction.

Image Credit: Missile Defense Agency

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