Taiwan’s unusually public missile test fizzles

JIUPENG, Taiwan — Taiwan’s leader presided Tuesday over an unusually public test-firing of 19 missiles, but almost a third missed their targets, raising new questions about the self-ruled island’s readiness to defend against Chinese attack.

President Ma Ying-jeou’s attendance at the drills at a base in Taiwan’s south was ostensibly to underscore his commitment to an effective Taiwanese deterrent, following critcism that the island’s defense has been undermined under his policy of reconciling with the mainland.

However, one analyst suggested the public display was aimed at persuading Washington to sell more advanced arms to Taiwan.

Six of the 19 surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles failed in drills that came after China’s successful test flight last week of a next-generation J-20 stealth aircraft, a system expected to further widen its growing edge over Taiwan’s own equipment-starved air force.

“I’m not satisfied with the results,” Ma told reporters after the missile drills. “I hope the military will find out the reasons and improve its training.”

The missile tests were the first held in full view of the press for almost a decade. They were meant, Ma said, “to bring more transparency into military affairs and allow the public to view the military’s readiness.”

But under a cloud-speckled winter sky, six of the missiles failed to hit their targets, including one RIM-7M Sparrow, which cascaded harmlessly into the South China Sea less than 30 seconds after launch. Other missiles tested included Sky Bow IIs — which have a range of 125 miles (200 kilometers) — MIM-23 Hawks and FIM-92 Stingers.

Following China’s well-publicized test of the J-20 last week, the normally pro-government United Daily News questioned Ma’s policy of shifting the military’s main mission away from national defense and toward disaster relief, commenting that “the more important mission for the military is to defend against threats.”

The shift in military priorities, unveiled after a devastating typhoon in August 2009, reflects Ma’s belief that his continuing efforts to lower tensions with China — the main theme of his 2 1/2-year-old administration — make war across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait less likely than ever before.

The two sides split amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing still claims the island as its territory and has reserved the right to invade the democratic island of 23 million people if it moves to make its de facto independence permanent — something Ma opposes.

Defense expert Wang Kao-cheng of Taipei’s Tamkang University said one purpose of Tuesday’s missile test may have been to persuade the U.S. to sell Taiwan the 66 relatively advanced F-16 jet fighters that top its military wish list.

Washington is considering the request, but bitter Chinese opposition to the deal has delayed its implementation for more than two years.

“The Taiwan government may be using this exercise to send a message to the U.S. that its air defense is facing mounting pressure as China continues to develop the new generation of fighter jets,” Wang said.

Taiwanese military commentators say the main function of the missiles tested Tuesday is to deter Chinese aircraft from entering the island’s self-proclaimed defense zone on the eastern side of the north-south median line dividing the Taiwan Strait.

The missiles bolster the island’s aging air force, which American analysts say is becoming increasingly ill-prepared to meet the challenges of China’s continuing military buildup.

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