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Dragon Watch: Taiwan's rusty air defenses

Analysis: A new report shows that Taiwan may not be as protected against a Chinese attack as first thought.

Taiwan's navy launches a missile from a warship during the annual Han Kuang No. 22 Military Exercise in Ilan county, 49 miles west of Taipei July 20, 2006. (Richard Chung/Reuters)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — While China ramps up its missile threat, Taiwan's air defenses are getting shabbier by the day.

So says an unclassified report from the Defense Intelligence Agency, prepared for and sent to the U.S. Congress last month.

Taiwan has some 400 fighter jets, but "far fewer" than that number would actually be good in a fight, the DIA says.

(China has 330 fighters within range of Taiwan, and 1,655 fighters total, according to the most recent Pentagon report on China's military power).

Some of Taiwan's planes are too old, others have outdated gear. And for Taiwan's 56 French-made Mirage fighter jets, spare parts are in short supply. Afraid of China's wrath, France hasn't sold any major weapons to Taiwan recently, leaving the U.S. as Taiwan's only supplier of big-ticket arms systems.

The report also highlighted the growing missile gap between Taiwan and China. Despite warming cross-strait relations, China continues to build up its arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles (at least 1,300 and counting) and cruise missiles (several score).

To shoot those down, Taiwan has 200 Patriot missiles and 500 homegrown "Skybow" missiles, the DIA says. But Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, said in an email that only about half the Skybows can hit incoming SRBMs (the others can only be used against
aircraft), and "normally you dedicate 2 missiles per incoming target."

That means Taiwan can only blunt some 15 percent or less of China's deployed missile force.

Three hundred and thirty more Patriot missiles, and missile fire units, were approved by
in 2008 but won't be delivered until August 2014, says the DIA. And the weapons package released for sale by the White House last month — the one China got so angry about — will add another 114 Patriots after that.

Even then, it's a lopsided game, and the Patriots and Skybows would be used to protect only the most valuable military and political targets.

China, for its part, has insisted its missile arsenal is there only to deter Taiwan's pro-independence forces from seeking a formal, legal break.