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Asia-Pacific , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Taiwan Deploys the MIM-23 Hawk to Protect its Airspace; How a 59 Year Old Missile Design Can Pose a Major Threat to China's Modern Air Force

February 13th - 2018

Amid growing tensions across the Taiwan straits, Taipei has taken measures to upgrade its air defences against a potential Chinese attack. The country's limited resources however have left it to resort to an anti aircraft system first inducted into service in 1959 - the U.S. made MIM-23 Hawk. Developed long before the U.S. entry into the Vietnam War, with the program beginning in 1952 largely in response to the threat posed by advanced Soviet built aircraft in the Korean War, the missile precedes even the MiG-21 and F-4 Phantom in its antiquity.

Reliance on the MIM-23 is but one example of a malady which is widespread within the Taiwanese military - the reliance on heavily dated technology to face an adversary which fields some of the most advanced weapons in the world in far greater numbers. Taiwan's reliance on M-48 battle tanks dating back to 1953, the mainstay of its armoured warfare capabilities, are another example. When compared to China's cutting edge systems such as the S-400 surface to air missile system, the most advanced of its kind in the world, and the Type 099 main battle tank which also has world leading capabilities, Taiwanese weapons capabilities appear negligible in comparison.

While the original MIM-23 is no match for modern Chinese combat aircraft, the platform has since 1959 been extensively upgraded to allow it to target modern combat aircraft. Just as Yugoslavia, North Korea and other former Soviet arms clients have upgraded their SAM systems to be able to target modern aircraft, so too can the MIM-23, with the necessary upgrades, potentially prove lethal against low flying Chinese modern platforms. While the missile uses the same body and are largely restricted to the same ranges as the original platform, modernised variants of the missile allow it to more accurately target enemy aircraft. The fact that the Hawk has remained in service in several modern militaries including Israel and Japan is testament to its potential to incorporate upgrades. Assistance in upgrading these platforms from Israel, the United States or another third party remains a distinct possibility. While the U.S. and its allies have less experience developing anti stealth technologies due to their very recent emergence outside the U.S., the platform could nevertheless prove a threat to the majority of Chinese fighters which lack such capabilities.

The Taiwanese military plans to deploy its missiles to to key outlying territories such as Orchid Island and Green Island, the first line if defence against a potential invasion, where launch pads and silos are currently being installed. Though restricted to speeds of just Mach 2.4, ranges of just 50km and a somewhat modest 54kg warhead, modernisations have improved its semi active radar homing systems and provided countermeasure to modern jamming systems which would leave older variants of the missile inoperable. Ultimately Beijing would be wise not to underestimate Taiwan's MIM-23, despite fielding some of the world's most survivable combat aircraft such as the J-20 stealth fighter. The U.S. was notably humiliated when it made the same mistake against Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and saw two of its 'invulnerable' F-117 stealth fighters successfully targeted and one downed by supposedly obsolete surface to air missiles. Israel's continued losses against Syrian surface to air missile systems dating back to 1961serve as another example. Western analysts continue to make the same mistake when evaluating North Korea's missile defence capabilities, despite these being far more advanced than anything a Western Air Force has ever faced, far surpassing those of Syria or Yugoslavia, and the Korean military having received extensive Russian assistance in upgrading these systems. China for its part would do best to exercise caution and not to dismiss these systems as 'obsolete' despite their age. Doing so could bring about humiliating losses and seriously undermine confidence in the capabilities of the People's Liberation Army Air Force. 

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