President George Bush has offered 12 Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft and eight foreign designed diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan as part of an arms package.

Taiwan has sought submarines for over 20 years and has requested the P-3 for at least three. It is not clear when the Orions will be delivered, as the P-3 production line must be revived to meet the order.

The weapons have been offered to combat China's ability to impose a blockade. Reports suggest that Sikorsky MH-53E minesweeping helicopters have also been offered. The main threat is from China's growing submarine force and warships armed with Russian and new Chinese supersonic anti-ship missiles (ASM).

Bush, however, deferred a decision to sell Taiwan the "Advanced Combat System" (ACS), or Aegis, air defence ships. Instead Taiwan will receive four ex-US Navy Kidd-class air defence destroyers armed with the Raytheon Standard SM-2 surface-to-air missile, but not the Aegis' phased-array radar. Taiwan has repeatedly requested the ACS to defend its ships and to serve as a secondary national air defence command and control centre.

Beijing fears the ACS/Aegis will be upgraded with anti tactical-ballistic missiles (ATBM) to help blunt China's growing short range ballistic missile force near Taiwan. The Administration is also proceeding with technical briefings on the Lockheed Martin Patriot Advanced Capability-3 ATBM.

Not approved for purchase was the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, the Raytheon AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile or the Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition GPS satellite navigation- guided bomb.

In addition, Bush is ending the annual arms sales review process for Taiwan, which will now take place on a case-by-case basis. This is a victory for Taipei as it normalises relations with Washington and makes more difficult Beijing's efforts to prevent weapon sales.

Provision of the P-3 is complicated by the closure of the production line which was shut in the mid-1990s. Tooling is available, but Lockheed Martin has not determined how long it would take to restart production.

Officials suggest Taiwan might instead acquire surplus USN P-3s, or opt for an ASW variant of the Lockheed Martin C-130J.

Source: Flight International