A reported US plan to sell the General Atomics MQ-9 unmanned air vehicle (UAV) to Taiwan will complicate Beijing’s incessant prodding of the island’s defences.
Media reports indicate that the value of the potential Reaper sale is $400 million, part of an overall package worth $3 billion. Based on previous Foreign Military Sales (FMS) deals involving the Reaper, Taipei could end up with four examples of the high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) system. These could potentially be the SeaGuardian variant, which is optimised for maritime surveillance.
The potential Taiwan deal emerged after the Trump administration’s decision in July to modify the USA’s adherence to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). An informal pact among 35 countries that originated in 1987, MTCR is intended to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through exports of delivery systems, such as cruise missiles. In recent years, however, it has effectively curtailed US UAV exports.
Beijing vociferously opposes all arms sales to Taiwan. It will protest bitterly should the US congress approve the overall package. It claims Taiwan as a breakaway province, and 2020 has seen it ramp up tensions by sending fighters and reconnaissance aircraft to probe Taiwan’s air defences.
Beijing also took a dim view of September’s ‘Agile Reaper’ exercise by the US Air Force (USAF), which was designed to show the type’s effectiveness against peer competitors. The exercise saw a trio of Reapers deployed to a remote location and emphasised maritime awareness.
“Agile Reaper is about beating adversary targeting cycles as we get MQ-9s into any location, rapidly relaunch, and create effects, before the enemy detects and targets us,” said USAF Lieutenant Colonel Brian Davis, 29th Attack Squadron commander.
“We’re putting penetrating, persistent, multi-role aircraft over the battlespace where least expected. This provides reduced-risk, low-cost options to our leaders that present asymmetries to potential adversaries. It’s combat initiative…this is strategic audacity.”
In a none-too-subtle illustration of the “potential adversaries” Davis spoke of, a commemorative patch issued for the exercise depicted a skeletal grim reaper superimposed with a cross-hairs over a map of China.