Taiwan and the F-16
Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

Taiwan and the F-16


The Diplomat asks Project 2049 Institute Executive Director Mark Stokes for his take on renewed talk of the U.S. selling F-16 fighters to Taiwan.

In what ways would an F-16 C/D purchase be an upgrade over Taiwan's current F-5s or F-16 A/Bs?

Compared to F-5s and F-16 A/Bs, F-16 Block 50/52s (e.g. F-16 C/Ds) offer greater time in the air and more lethality on the ground.  Additional F-16C/Ds in the inventory of a regional security partner provides policymakers on Taiwan and in the United States with a wider range of political and military options in the event of Chinese use of force in the region.

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Does upgrading Taiwan's current F-16 A/Bs still make sense in terms of defense dollars if they get the C/Ds?

If there are unlimited resources, then both upgrading Taiwan’s existing F-16s as well as procuring additional fighters would be great.  If there were an either/or situation, I’d take the new fighters.  This would be the Ma administration’s decision though. If they pursue both, then maybe the upgrade program schedule could be stretched out to accommodate the new ones in the annual defense budget. The United States should keep a wide open door for Taiwan in terms of available defense articles and services. If the U.S. makes a system available, it should be left up to taxpayers on Taiwan and their democratically elected leaders to decide whether or not to invest the resources. But they first need to know whether or not a system is available before they make a decision.

Could the money be spent a better way?

I’m not presumptuous enough to tell Taiwan taxpayers or democratically elected officials how they should use their limited resources. Americans shouldn’t tell other taxpayers in a democratic country how to spend their hard earned dollars.  Democratically elected officials of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and senior ROC military officers know their requirements better than we do, given Taiwan’s unique political, economic, and military environment.

China has a vast array of land attack cruise missiles and ballistic missiles that could target Taiwan's air force on the ground. How can Taiwan protect its possible new investment in advanced fighter aircraft from Chinese attack?

Taiwan needs an integrated means of denying the Chinese Communist Party Politburo their political and military objectives in a coercive campaign against Taiwan. One requirement, among many, is the capacity to identify and strike single points of failure in the Peoples Liberation Army’s theater military command directing offensive military actions against Taiwan. The PLA is getting good, but not that good. Vulnerabilities exist within the PLA’s operational system. No one understands these vulnerabilities better than the ROC Air Force. F-16 C/Ds provide political and military commanders on Taiwan (and in Washington and Honolulu) with a greater range of options in a crisis. The most effective and efficient means of defending against a large scale PLA ballistic and land attack cruise missile campaign is interdiction of joint PLA command and control systems, theater communications networks, logistics, and other operational-level vulnerabilities. Assuming enemy air defenses can be suppressed – and the PLA’s air defense system opposite Taiwan has single points of failure – then new F-16s would be an asymmetrical means of evening the playing field by bringing to bear minimum firepower in order to achieve systemic effects. Other means may exist for similar operational purposes, such as the Hsiungfeng-2E (HF=2E) land attack cruise missile (LACM). But given a LACM’s limited payload, nothing spells deterrence like a fully loaded F-16, nestled secure in a mountain bunker until the propitious moment, and ready and able to deliver firepower through a sophisticated air defense network direct to the door of invading PLA commanders.

What missions would Taiwan F-16 C/D’s be utilized for? Land Attack? Air-to-air engagement?

F-16 C/Ds would enable ROC political and military leaders, should they exercise that option, to conduct deep interdiction missions in order to defend Taiwan against a PLA coercive air and missile campaign. F-16s are also important for maritime interdiction and defensive counter air missions. However, number one priority is true application of air power – interdiction missions against the PLA commanders directing an offensive military campaign against Taiwan.

How would these new jets stack up against China’s 4th generation planes like the Su-27/J-10s or 5th generation J-20s in the future?

The idea is to avoid air-to-air engagements with PLA fighters. A better way to frame the question is how new F-16 C/Ds could support combined operations with the United States and joint forces on Taiwan to deter PLA use of force in the Asia-Pacific region and reduce the operational effectiveness of a PLA Joint Theater Command, Second Artillery, and PLA Air Force air defense system in a Taiwan Strait scenario.

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