As China ramps up its aggression, Taiwan is still waiting for weapons it ordered in 2017 — and the U.S.’s production delays are getting worse.
The Biden administration has approved the sale of another $1.1 billion worth of U.S. arms to Taiwan, but the war in Ukraine is colliding with global supply chain issues to delay weapons delivery in expected and unexpected ways.
The new arms deal was approved on Friday, September 2 and is now awaiting approval by Congress, which is almost certain to vote in favor of the deal. The deal will include a $655 million support package for Taiwan’s radar warning system, plus multiple Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Sidewinder anti-air missiles.
The support package will increase Taiwan’s $1.4 billion radar warning system’s ability to track incoming warships and airplanes, while the high-tech missiles would guarantee a high kill ratio against these incoming threats. All three of these systems would go a long way to make Taiwan the “indigestible porcupine” that many of its military chiefs aim to make it. The goal of this asymmetrical warfare strategy is to field as many of these high-tech systems as possible, to guarantee high losses of Chinese warships, warplanes, ballistic missiles, soldiers and submarines if China ever orders its military to invade Taiwan.
However, the big problem with this strategy is a serious delay in delivery dates of similar weapons that Taiwan ordered years ago. Taiwan ordered a number of Harpoon and Stinger missiles years ago, but those have now been sent to Ukraine. Apart from the new deal, Taiwan is still waiting for another $14 billion in U.S.-made weapons, some of which had been ordered as long ago as 2017.
One of the reasons for the backlog is the lengthy Foreign Military Sales process that each foreign application to buy a U.S. weapon system has to go through. This process requires multiple government departments to hold a series of reviews to see if the deal passes a range of political and tech-security requirements. Once these are done, the application goes to a 30-day Congressional review, after which it can take years to sign a final contract.
After that, the arms producer can start the lengthy process of actually building the weapon systems. And for some of these weapons, Taiwan has to wait for the previous clients’ products to be finished first. For instance, Taiwan is currently on the waiting list behind multiple Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries for 66 F-16 fighter jets that the U.S. approved in 2019.
This backlog is made worse by the global supply chain crisis. U.S. producers sometimes have to temporarily stop production because they can’t find crucial components of their high-tech systems. The war in Ukraine has also forced the U.S. to push Ukraine to the front of the waiting line and send large numbers of its weapons stockpiles to Ukraine. This means that the U.S. now has to replenish its own stockpiles as well as those of its allies who sent their systems to Ukraine, and all that gets added on top of the orders still stuck in the waiting lists.
The war in Ukraine also had one very interesting effect on the U.S.’s ability to produce missiles. When Russia took the sprawling steel works in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on May 20, it also knocked out a plant at the center of Ukraine’s position as a powerhouse in global neon gas exports. This gas just happens to be an important part of the production of the world’s microchips, and Ukraine produced half of the world’s supply, with Russia producing most of the other half. The resulting shortage of neon gas has driven up its price 5,000%, and is one of the reasons why the world’s chip makers are currently struggling to produce enough microchips.
In short, the Ukraine war has led to a shortage of neon gas that has contributed to a shortage of microchips that has slowed down the production of U.S. missile systems earmarked for Ukraine, Taiwan, and NATO stockpiles.
This supply chain crisis has led to production delays of weapons that Taiwan urgently needs, which adds to the delays caused by the frustratingly slow Foreign Military Sales process. Add to this the fact that Taiwan’s military often takes more than two years to assess which weapons it wants to apply for, and the need to streamline the process becomes very apparent.
The fear is that if the delivery of Taiwan’s backlog of weapons can’t be sped up, the fixation with Ukraine might cause the U.S. to drop the ball on Taiwan. China could calculate that it might be easier to strike Taiwan while it’s still waiting for most of its U.S.-made systems, rather than wait for its own forces to reach peak strength. This means the delivery delays could cause China to miscalculate and cause a lot of preventable bloodshed.
The good news is that the U.S. government has now realized its mistake of not recognizing the foreign weapons delivery crisis earlier. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Pentagon has created a new task force of senior officials tasked with streamlining the delivery of weapons to allies. These teams will look at ways to shorten the time needed to approve applications and ways to improve the production speed of its manufacturing partners. Some teams will also work directly with the militaries of countries like Taiwan to speed up their own assessments of which U.S. weapons would best suit their needs.