|When Hu's carrier met Ma's missile|
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - On the morning of August 10, the first China's People's Liberation Army Navy aircraft carrier left its shipyard in the port city of Dalian in northeastern Liaoning province for its inaugural sea trials. Simultaneously, at a trade show some 1,500 kilometers to the south, the Taiwanese military presented a supersonic anti-ship missile to the public, with its promotional poster clearly showing it destroying a vessel very similar to the Chinese colossus.
The combat scenario chosen by the missile's promoters seems somewhat inappropriate in times of friendly cross-strait relations, but a closer look at the missile and the carrier reveal that the timing of their launches - for both Taipei and Beijing - was carefully chosen.
Firstly, for the time being, the military value of both China's 300-meter-long, 65,000-tonne refurbished Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class carrier and Taiwan's 6.1-meter, 1.5-tonne Hsiung Feng 3 (HF-3) missiles is questionable. Secondly, the first and foremost aim of both weapon systems seems to be sending signals, supporting its side's leaders on the battlefield of domestic politics.
That China's still unnamed aircraft carrier has finally started sea trials after having been turned by the Chinese - in a decade-long effort - from the skeleton of the Ukrainian-made Varyag into the starting point for a carrier program, was well documented by seemingly every media outlet in the world.
However, a single carrier is impressive but useless without a proper battle group protecting it. While it's perfectly plausible that the PLA Navy intends to deploy the vessel solely for the purpose of aeronautical, naval and logistic training, this steely symbol of great-power status sends chills down China's neighbors' spines, so media said.
The 2011 Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition has been considerably less in the spotlight. This was where the island's indigenously developed anti-ship missile, the supersonic HF-3, was unveiled. Reinforcing the capabilities of the 130km-range, single-warhead weapon, the HF-3's creator, Taiwan's military-run Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST), placed the missile in front of a poster depicting an aircraft-carrier set ablaze by missile attack.
To make the reference more obvious, the doomed aircraft carrier looked just like China's, and printed next to the inferno in Chinese characters were the words "aircraft carrier-killer".
This has led to lively discussions.
"The HF-3's warhead weighs only 120 kilograms; the claim that it can sink an aircraft-carrier is off the mark," reported local media. "Taiwan's HF-3 and its other cruise missiles would be to the PLA [People's Liberation Army] what mosquitoes are biting an elephant," Lin Chong-pin, Taiwan's former deputy defense minister, was quoted as saying.
Other experts responded on a slightly less dismissive note.
"A HF-3 could damage a large warship or sink a small one," John Pike, founder and director of GlobalSecurity.org, told Asia Times Online. When ask how a layman could imagine the scale of destruction a 120-kilogram warhead like the HF-3's could cause, Pike illustrated the proportions. "It would destroy a five-story building rather than a city block; the crater wouldn't be deep enough to damage subway lines."
According to the Taiwanese military, the battle scenario used on the display was far from improbable. "The HF-3 is capable of penetrating a vessel's exterior before exploding inside crucial departments of the ship's cabin, causing maximum damage," an official stated.
CSIST began building the HF-3 in the middle of the last decade and it was first revealed to the public in 2007. Reportedly, the HF-3, which due to its speed of around 2300 km/h can be brought down only by a Russian-made anti-ship missile, the SS-N-22 Sunburn, has been outfitted on the Taiwan Navy's Perry-class frigates for testing. It is also due to be fitted onto an indigenous high-tech stealthy 500-tonne catamaran corvette Taiwan plans to build a prototype of by 2012, as well as the new Kuang Hua-6 missile boats, which begun entering service last year.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's apparent naval strategy - that swarms of small, stealthy, missile-armed craft could give a PLA Navy coming across the Taiwan Strait a major headache - has earned some praise from renowned international strategists.
However, as with China's first carrier, there are signs that the HF-3, said to cost US$3.5 million per piece, is not ready for combat use.
According to reports, the missile's size and weight caused problems while developing land-based and mobile versions, with no vehicles able to carry the launchers. Other sources say that the missile's high speed does damage to a number of its own components. In late June, the HF-3 overshot its target in a series of secret firing tests.
The navy ruled out human error for these misses and pinned the failure on the missile's performance problems, an assessment supported by the fact that all other missiles test-fired on the same occasion met their respective targets. That the test results were later covered up didn't help the HF-3's image.
"The HF-3 is part of an asymmetrical and hopefully credible strategy aimed at deterring China from attacking Taiwan," Jean Pierre Cabestan, professor at and head of Hong Kong Baptist University's Department of Government and International Studies, told Asia Time Online. "But its rather disappointing tests have poured some cold water on Ma Ying-jeou's ambition to demonstrate that he has been doing a good job for Taiwan's security in a context of a continuing decreasing of Taiwan's defense budget."
As a campaign pledge in 2008, Ma promised to raise Taiwan's defense spending to 3% of the island's gross domestic product (GDP). In 2009, however, affected by the global financial crisis, he failed to meet the target, and in 2010 Taiwan's economy grew by over 10%, making it difficult for the defense budget to keep pace. In this year, the budget will account for just 2.2% of GDP, impacting on Ma's reputation of taking the island's security seriously and standing up to outside threats.
In line with this assessment, Professor Tsai Ming-Yen, chairman of the Graduate Institute for International Politics at Taiwan's National Chung Hsing University, believes that the attempt to portray the HF-3 as a "carrier killer" is to save face for Ma'. "In order to avoid criticism over his broken promise in regards to the defense budget endangering his chances for re-election in 2012, Ma must react to China's perceived carrier threat by putting the HF-3 into the spotlight," Tsai told Asia Times Online.
And just like Ma, mainland China's leaders are plagued by worries related to domestic politics. Like the Taiwanese, Beijing has resorted to directing public focus onto a prestigious yet unfinished weapon, said Tsai. "As this year was the Chinese Communist Party's [CCP's] 90th founding anniversary, the carrier's sea trials are of great importance to domestic politics as they showcase the CCP's successful rule."
Tsai pointed out President Hu Jintao's needs to burnish his legacy with the help of the carrier before leaving office in 2012 , and that the carrier's sea trials are needed to secure the domestic standing of the CCP in the wake of tensions in the South China Sea.
"Last year, the US and South Korea conducted joint drills in the Yellow Sea; this year the US held some with Vietnam and the Philippines. By means of the new aircraft carrier, China's leadership is showing to the Chinese public that it stands up for maritime rights."
Lai I-chung, an executive committee member of Taiwan Thinktank, a public policy research institution based in Taipei, agrees that it's Hu's quest to be revered by the ensuing ages that will very soon turn China's presently immature aircraft-carrier program into a mature one.
Lai told Asia Times Online that a light carrier battle group would possibly be rolled out sometime before the CCP's 18th National Congress next year, where Hu is scheduled to step down as the party's general secretary.
As to Taiwan's HF-3, Lai acknowledged shortcomings, but nonetheless came to the defense of Taiwan's "carrier killer". "The HF-3 is a supersonic cruise missile. Since flying faster than the speed of sound needs strong boosters, the payload has to be smaller. Also, it is known that torpedo is a better tool to sink a ship," Lai said.
He added that while missiles striking from above down can punch a hole in a ship, a ship with a hole can still be operable. Due to the smaller payload, the HF-3's threat to a big ship would be even less significant, said Lai, qualifying this assessment by bringing to attention the HF-3's unique virtue. "But once it sets out to hit a target, there's virtually no way the enemy could intercept it. By striking a big ship repeatedly, it probably can get the job done," he said.
Lai believes that Taiwan's HF-3 has what it takes to send as significant signals to target audiences as China's new aircraft-carrier is launched. "The HF-3 marks that Taiwan can build a supersonic cruise missile; this is so difficult that not many nations in the world have mastered it. The HF-3 is a message to the domestic public, China and the US at the same time. It's to make the public feel safe, to show China about Taiwan's ability in technology, and to let the US know that Taiwan has its means to deal with security threats."
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.