Taipei, Republic of China —Aircraft carriers are the cause of apprehension here in Taiwan. The concern is that, in the event of any future hostile action taken by China against Taiwan, U.S. carriers would be taken out by China’s increasingly capable arsenal of anti-ship missiles—and that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s air wing (PLAN AF) would bring attack aircraft and other strike assets closer to Taiwan.
Given China’s growing capability, it appears increasingly more likely that U.S. aircraft carriers would be threatened by an increasing number of advanced Chinese missiles. Three years ago, Orville Hanson, a naval weapons systems analyst, described the threat presented to Taiwan: “take out the [U.S.] carriers” and China “can walk into Taiwan.”
Around the same time, Admiral Michael Mullen, then chief of U.S. naval operations, took a more diplomatic approach when speaking about China’s ability to take out U.S. carriers. “I’m concerned about China developing a military capability that we don’t understand, and their intent for using it is not clear,” Mullen said.
Given the Obama administration’s posture in Asia, and its weakening of the U.S. military presence in Asia, these concerns are real.
This, too, explains the “aircraft carrier killer”—or the ramjet-powered supersonic anti-ship cruise missile Hsiung Feng 3 (HF-3)—developed by the Chungshun Institute of Science and Technology in Taiwan.
The artist’s rendition of a battle at sea shows a simulated engagement. The image shows this missile making several hits on a ski-ramp configured aircraft carrier—clearly the Soviet-designed Varyag carrier, which was acquired by China from Ukraine more than a decade ago.
Since purchasing the Varyag, the PLAN maintained the fiction that they had no plans or aspirations to develop an aircraft carrier, despite a massive and long-running effort to refit the ship and make it capable of conducting operations at sea.
Finally, in the last week of July, China’s defense spokesman, Geng Yansheng, admitted that they are pursuing an aircraft carrier program, but disingenuously told those assembled for his briefing that “China’s research on the development of the aircraft carriers is to promote the capabilities in maintaining peace and safeguarding the national security.”
Yansheng’s overdue admission caps a long history of this vessel. In the late 1980s, when it was still under construction at shipyards in Ukraine, the Varyag was intended to be the second Kuznetsov-class carrier to enter service with the Soviet Navy. But before completion, the USSR dissolved, leaving the former Soviet Republic with a ship “too far along to just cut up for scrap but too far from completion to be of any real use,” as a Ukrainian government official said at the time.
Ukraine spent the next several years trying to decide what to do with the unfinished carrier. It was finally sold to a Chinese tourism company on the pretext that it would moored at the former Portuguese enclave of Macau and turned into a floating casino and hotel complex—another canard that no one with knowledge of the PLAN believed at the time.
The Varyag ended up at the overhaul and repair docks at the Dalian, China shipyards and has been undergoing a refit ever since. The vessel has been refitted with a new propulsion system, radar and electronics – technologies also acquired over the years from Ukraine’s cash-starved defense industrial sector. On August 10, it finally departed the docks for a short sea trial.
Taiwan’s decision to display the HF-3 is an uncharacteristically hostile gesture toward China. Defense analysts based here in Taiwan were more than stunned by the display because “the Taiwanese almost never make reference to the mainland as ‘the enemy,’” said one long-time China defense expert. “It is always kept very ambiguous so that you never have any real references to China, so to show this missile taking out what is clearly the Varyag—the soon-to-be-flagship of the PLAN—is nothing short of astonishing.”
The sudden show of defiance, however, is a sign that the U.S. appears unwilling to help Taiwan defend itself. Taiwan is not alone: China’s aggressive demeanor—and America’s impotence—has forced Japan, as well as other nations in the region, to modify its defense posture.
During the same week of the defense exposition showing of the HF-3, a delegation from the U.S. Department of Defense showed up here in Taipei to deliver bad news to the Tawain. The F-16 aircraft that Taiwan has been requesting to purchase since 2006 are not going to be sold to the island nation. Instead, the Republic of China Air Force will have to be content with a possible upgrade of its older F-16A/B model aircraft.
So while the U.S. is willing to sell technologically advanced fighter jets to Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, and other Asia-Pacific nations that feel threatened by China, Taiwan remains an unexplainable exception.
“We can see the U.S. abandoning its commitment to Taiwan,” said one senior U.S. defense industry executive told me. “It’s really criminal.” Another told me his peers all project that this is the last major blow before “Taiwan goes down the tubes.”
A NATO diplomat in Beijing told me last month that Washington does not understand the significance of what happens with Taiwan. “That little island is the line in the sand,” he said. Sadly, it is Taiwan with its carrier-killer missile that is daring China to cross that line—and not the U.S.
Reuben F. Johnson is an aerospace and defense writer based in Kiev.