The US has approved the sale of four sophisticated drones to Taiwan, which will help Taipei to spot Chinese preparations for an attack.
The sale of the drones is the final aspect of a weapons package worth nearly $4.8bn. US defence experts said the deal was vital if Taiwan was to deter an invasion or counter a blockade by the vastly more powerful People’s Liberation Army.
The MQ-9B Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles are the maritime surveillance variant of the Reaper drone the US Air Force has used in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade.
They will be equipped with control systems and a range of radar, imaging and targeting systems that will cost $600m, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency said.
The drone sale approval follows notifications to Congress of a number of weapons sales since October 21: Harpoon coastal defence missiles worth $2.37bn; HIMARS mobile artillery rocket systems worth $436m; SLAM-ER air-launched land attack missiles worth $1bn; and reconnaissance equipment for F-16 fighters with a price tag of $367m.
The Pentagon’s announcement of the drone deal on the day of the presidential election underscores the political and military support Taiwan has received from the Trump administration — the strongest since Washington switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
China claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to attack it if Taipei refuses unification indefinitely. Taiwanese military experts said the drone sale would make Beijing particularly angry because the UAVs, once armed, could become offensive systems, for example to target Chinese naval ships on their way to Taiwan.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Monday that eight Chinese military aircraft had flown incursions into Taiwan’s air defence buffer zone, the biggest in weeks.
However, since the S-400 air defence systems China has received from Russia over the past two years can cover all of Taiwan if deployed at the coast, the drones were unlikely to survive in a battle scenario, the experts said. They will be used instead to detect PLA preparations for a potential attack.
“Adding the SeaGuardian platform will provide Taiwan with substantial new maritime surveillance capabilities,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan business council, a lobby group.
“This is a crucial mission for the Taiwan navy, particularly given the PLA’s aggressive incursions in regional waters and in the Taiwan Strait. We can expect Taiwan to further expand this capability in the coming years.”