Taiwan Eyes Phalanx Point Defense Gun Systems To Defend Mountainside Air Bases

As China’s military capability has improved, Taiwanese Air Force bases near the country’s eastern shore have become increasingly vulnerable.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Taiwan photo


Amid the rising threat of potential Chinese attacks along its Pacific-facing coastline, Taiwan is reportedly looking to buy land-based rapid-firing guns to help defend the partially underground Jiashan and Taitung Air Bases on that side of the island. A land-based version of the American-made Phalanx appears to be the most likely candidate and these systems would act as point defenses against land-attack cruise missiles, anti-radiation missiles, and small drones.

Taiwan’s Chinese-language outlet Up Media was first to report on the potential contract on Aug. 7, 2018. The story included a screenshot showing a formal request for quotes that was dated June 6 of “Minguo 107,” or 2018. The Taiwanese government uses the Minguo calendar, which started in 1912 with the founding of the Republic of China, for official documents.

The request called for a fast-firing, but highly accurate gun-based weapon system that can automatically track and engage hostile targets. The system could be either fixed in place or mounted on some form of mobile platform.

The land-based version Raytheon’s Mk 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), also known as Centurion, would seem to be the most obvious choice. This turreted weapon system is relatively self-contained, combining a 20mm 6-barrel Vulcan cannon with a rate of fire of 4,500 rounds per minute with an integrated fire control radar suite. 

One of the US Army's trailer-mounted Centurion fires a test burst at a base in Afghanistan., US Army

The system can engage targets autonomously or in a manual mode where an operator issues commands. More recent versions add infrared and electro-optical sensors to the system, increasing its ability to identify, track, and engage targets.

These features have long made it a low-cost close-in defense option for a wide array of ships and also helped Raytheon to port the system over to a ground-based role. The U.S. military began deploying the Centurion version around 2004, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, to shoot down incoming rockets and mortar rounds.

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But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t still be able to perform many of the same functions it does at sea, where its main job is to blast incoming anti-ship cruise missiles. Raytheon says the latest Block 1B variant can also engage helicopters and small boats.

The company has also used the Phalanx’s sensors to cue a solid-state laser close-in defense weapon to destroy unmanned aircraft, suggesting it could also engage those targets if they were to come into range of the gun. Centurion comes in trailer- and truck-mounted versions, too, which could give the Taiwanese military more flexibility to employ them as necessary and then redeploy to reinforce different areas as needed.

Taitung Air Base with the underground facilities at the far right., Google Earth

Taiwan could be even more inclined to pick a version of Phalanx given that it already has the systems in service on a number of destroyers, frigates, and missile boats. It’s a system the Taiwanese military is familiar with and that it already has pipelines in place to support logistically.

It wouldn’t be the first time the country has installed a land-based Phalanx system, either. The Taiwanese Navy turned one over to the country’s Air Force after taking it off a decommissioned ship and it now guards the Leshan radar station in New Taipei City, according to Up Media. The outlet’s report noted that the Taiwanese Air Force had considered adding a similar rapid-fire gun system to its defenses across the country in the past, but decided against it given the nature of the threat, as well.

The Leshan radar station in Taiwan., via fas.org

For decades, a major concern for Taiwan had been finding ways to insulate itself against the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ballistic missiles, which Phalanx or any similar system would have no chance at defeating. The Taiwanese Air Force built Jiashan and Taitung Air Bases on the eastern shores of the island with hangars and other facilities tucked away at least partially inside mountains specifically to make them difficult to hit with a barrage of conventionally armed ballistic missiles.

Land-attack cruise missiles steadily became more of a threat, too, but their range made it hard for ground-based launchers across the Taiwan Strait to engage targets all the way on the other side of the island. Sea- and air-launch platforms were neither numerous or capable enough to truly challenge facilities such as Jiashan and Taitung or do so without risking coming within range of Taiwanese air and shore-based anti-ship defenses.

A map showing Taiwan within the range of multiple short-range ballistic missiles and land- and sea-based surface-to-air missile systems., DOD

In recent years, that has all begun to change dramatically as the People’s Republic of China has significantly expanded the size and scope of the stand-off arsenal it could employ during any conflict over Taiwan. Just in May 2018, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) demonstrated its capabilities in this regard when it flew fighters and bombers in a route that effectively encircled Taiwan.

In any potential conflict scenario, bombers could use land-attack cruise missiles to try to temporarily disable runways or destroy other important targets across the island. Multi-role combat jets would employ anti-radiation missiles against air defense and early warning radars to blind and neuter Taiwanese defenses.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is also substantially growing its surface and sub-surface forces, adding advanced types with land-attack cruise missile capabilities. Those ships would be able to position themselves on the eastern side of the island, as well.

This is to say nothing of the growing threat of Chinese unmanned aircraft and drone swarms. Spying remains a major concern in Taiwan and individuals could use small quad-copter-type drones to snoop on sensitive facilities, such as Jiashan and Taitung, or worse. During an actual conflict, they might perform intelligence or surveillance missions, locate targets for stand-off strikes, or employ their own small munitions, electronic warfare jammers, or systems able to launch cyber attacks to confuse and overwhelm the island’s defenses or just harass Taiwanese forces.

People's Liberation Army Navy ships and submarines, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, sail through the Taiwan Strait during a major exercise in April 2018., Li Gang/Xinhua via AP

The stark reality is that bases such as Jiashan and Taitung would be just as vulnerable to Chinese strikes in any future potential conflict and there is a clear need then to update their defenses. Phalanx would offer a relatively simple way to increase protection against cruise missiles and drones at those sites in the near term and could be a valuable part of a layered defense arrangement in the long run. It’s a model that the Taiwanese military could easily apply to other sites along the country’s eastern shore or elsewhere, too.

Any Phalanxes Taiwan buys might serve as the basis for new weapon systems in the future, as well. Raytheon’s SeaRAM uses much of the same physical and systems architecture but features a cluster of 11 RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles instead of the Vulcan cannon. The Taiwanese government has been funding development of a similar domestically-designed system as a replacement for Phalanx, called Sea Oryx.

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It’s possible that Raytheon could substitute a solid-state laser for the gun, or otherwise add that capability on in the future, too. Networking the guns with each other and additional sensor nodes could also improve their precision and response times.

In addition, Phalanx is a weapon that Taiwanese authorities have been able to purchase from the United States in the past, which is no small consideration given the political complexities surrounding Taiwan’s self-rule distinct from the government of the People’s Republic of China and its relations with foreign governments. Authorities in Beijing do not respect the island’s ability to conduct its own foreign affairs and object to arms sales to its military on principle.

There are other similar systems available, such as the Mantis system from Germany’s Rheinmetall, which combined turreted 35mm cannons with a separate fire control radar. But the officials in Berlin and elsewhere might not be inclined to incite China’s ire. 

An artist's conception of the Rheinmetall's Mantis counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar system., Rheinmetall

The United States under President Donald Trump, who has been highly critical of China at times and has now launched a trade war against that country over what he describes as unfair business practices, has had no qualms about approving sales of weapon systems and other military equipment to Taiwan.

Whatever system they end up choosing, and however long it might take to finalize the deal, the Taiwanese Air Force needs an additional last line of defense at Jiashan and Taitung, and potentially other locations, now. Taiwan has already passed on a plan to buy land-based Phalanxes once, when ballistic missiles looked to be the bigger concern, but it can't afford to do it again.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com