State Department Approves Arms Sales of Advanced Drones to Taiwan

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a Master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
November 4, 2020 Updated: November 4, 2020

TAIPEI, Taiwan—The Trump administration has approved the potential sale of four advanced drones and related equipment to Taiwan that is estimated to be worth about $600 million, the State Department announced on Nov. 3.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) under the State Department has sent a formal notification to Congress of the possible sale, which included four weapons-ready MQ-9B remotely pilot aircraft, two fixed ground control stations, two mobile ground control stations, personnel training, and technical and logistics support services.

“This proposed sale will improve the recipient’s capability to meet current and future threats by providing timely Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), target acquisition, and counter-land, counter-sea, and anti-submarine strike capabilities for its security and defense,” DSCA said.

DSFA added that the proposed sale of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, will also strengthen Taiwan’s self-defense.

The four drones are manufactured by the California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, a major U.S. defense contractor that manufactures unmanned aerial aircraft systems and radars. Additionally, the drones will be outfitted with SAGE 750 Electronic Surveillance Measures Systems.

Congress has 30 days to object to any sales, but rejection of this arms sale is unlikely given broad bipartisan support for Taiwan.

Beijing views the island as a part of its territory that must be united with the mainland, with military force if necessary. Taiwan’s defense is chiefly to protect against potential invasion by the Chinese regime. The island is a de-facto independent country with its own constitution, currency, and democratically-elected officials.

Beijing has routinely reacted angrily whenever the United States sells weapons to the island.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the proposed U.S. arms sale in a Twitter post, saying that it showed U.S. commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the Six Assurances.

“It also enables the country to maintain a robust self-defense, as well as cross-strait & regional peace & stability,” the ministry said.

Washington ended its diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing in 1979, but it has maintained a non-diplomatic relationship with the island based on the TRA, signed into law by former President Jimmy Carter in April 1979, which authorizes the United States to provide the island with military equipment for its self-defense, and set up a nonprofit corporation called the American Institute in Taiwan, which is now the de-facto U.S. embassy on the island.

In 1982, former President Ronald Reagan also made six security assurances to Taiwan, including that the United States pledges not to set a date for ending arms sales to the island, and that it would neither consult Beijing on any arms sales nor revise the TRA.

On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, at a daily briefing, said the United States “rudely interfered in China’s internal affairs” with the arms sale. It also accused the United States of “damaging Sino-U.S. relations and cross-strait peace and stability.”

A day earlier, China’s state-run media Global Times published an article, accusing the arms deal “as a card in the U.S. presidential election with Taiwan being used as a tool.”

Su Tzu-yun, a research fellow at Taiwan-based think tank, Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said the new drones would boost Taiwan’s military’s reconnaissance (observation of an adversary’s territory) and battlefield management capabilities, in an interview with Taiwan’s government-run Central News Agency (CNA).

Chieh Chung, a research fellow at Taiwan’s Association of Strategic Foresight, told CNA the drones would be more well-suited to conduct long-range surveillance missions compared to Taiwan’s current P-3C submarine-hunting aircraft, as the former could stay in the air for longer hours.

As a result, the drones would be suited for intelligence-gathering missions across a wide swath of waters near Taiwan against enemy vessels, according to Chieh.

This latest sale is the tenth for Taiwan since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

Last month, the State Department approved an arms package worth over a billion dollars that included 135 Boeing-made precision land-attack missiles. It later approved another arms deal worth about $2.37 billion that included 100 Boeing-made Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems and 100 RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II Surface Launched Missiles.

The proposed drone sale to Taiwan came after the Trump administration eased drone export rules in relation to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in July, according to a White House statement. MCTR is an informal political understanding among 35 member states aimed at preventing the proliferation of missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.

Before the rule change, drones were classified as cruise missiles and Washington held a position of “strong presumption of denial” to any foreign purchase requests. According to the statement, the presumption of denial is now removed for drones with speeds of less than 800 kilometers per hour. Exports of these drones will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“If concluded, this would be the first time since our July 2020 update to the export policy the US government invoked its national discretion on the implementation of the Missile Technology Control Regime’s ‘strong presumption of denial,’” an unnamed State Department official told U.S. news site FlightGlobal about the latest sale.

Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a Master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.