War of Wits for Taiwan Air Force
Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

War of Wits for Taiwan Air Force

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After years of frustrating efforts to acquire 66 F-16C/D aircraft from the United States, it’s now starting to look like Taiwan might finally get what it wants, with the Obama administration promising that it would give “serious consideration” to the matter, while the U.S. House of Representatives last week passed an amendment to the U.S. 2013 National Defense Authorization Act ordering the sale.

Defense analysts almost unanimously agree that Taiwan needs the new aircraft, not only because of their modern capabilities, but also for numerical reasons, as Taiwan’s Air Force will soon start retiring ageing F-5 and Mirage 2000 aircraft, while grounding others, such as the F-CK-1 “Ching Kuo” Indigenous Defense Fighter, for mid-life upgrades. The unexpected developments with regards to the F-16C/D occur as the Taiwanese military is in the process of evaluating the nuts and bolts of a U.S. $5.2 billion upgrade package for its 145 F-16A/Bs, which it acquired in the early 1990s, and looks for ways to make the program fit the $3.7 billion Taipei has allocated for the retrofits.

So at long last, the endeavors of two administrations could be close to fruition, and Taiwan might finally be within reach of getting both the upgrades and procuring the new F-16C/Ds.

But there’s a catch: some officials in Taiwan are now saying that Taipei can’t afford the two programs, and that the upgrades would be sufficient – at least for the time being. There’s no denying that the Taiwanese military faces a budget crunch following the release of nearly $12 billion in arms sales by the U.S. in the past few years. Compounding the problem is an ongoing program to end conscription and create a professional military by as early as 2015, efforts that will require billions of dollars more for training, reorganization, and to bring salaries in line with the private sector, with which the military will now be competing in the job market. (Some defense industry sources also claim that Taipei has been unable, or unwilling, to explore ways to lower the costs for the F-16A/B upgrades, meaning that Taiwan will end up paying more than it should.)

President Ma, who has often been accused of being “soft” on defense, now finds himself in an awkward position. To silence his critics, he made no less than 12 public appeals over the past four years for the United States to sell Taiwan the F-16C/Ds. Turning the offer down, after years of unsuccessful attempts, would be a loss of face not only domestically, but also with the island’s principal security guarantor, which may be more inclined to proceed with the sale now that general elections are coming.

There might be a way out for Ma, however – by asking the impossible. The same people who have argued that Taiwan can’t afford the F-16A/B upgrades and the new F-16C/Ds are now saying that any future acquisition of aircraft should be based on the principle that they be substantially more advanced than the F-16A/B after the upgrades, which, among other things, include top-of-the-line Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars (but no improvements in airframe and avionics).

In other words, what such officials are saying is that rather than spend an estimated $10 billion on F-16C/Ds, whose qualitative edge over the upgraded F-16A/Bs they consider to be marginal, Taipei had better conserve that money for the future acquisition of aircraft with radar-evasive and vertical takeoff/landing capabilities.

In other words, the F-35B.

Whether the international consortium, led by Lockheed Martin Corp, will eventually succeed in making the troubled aircraft work is an intellectual exercise that has already been carried out elsewhere. What is already known, however, is that the aircraft has become prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, and more relevant in the present case, the F-35 involves systems and attributes that could make the U.S. extremely reluctant to sell the aircraft to Taiwan, for fear that the advanced technology would be transferred to China. Despite improving relations in the Taiwan Strait in recent years, China continues to aggressively target the Taiwanese military and would undoubtedly make a platform such as the F-35B a primary target of such activity.

Meanwhile, other options, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale, remain off the table, as the EU doesn’t want to risk Beijing’s wrath by selling arms to Taiwan.

The F-35 could therefore become a convenient tool to kill the F-16C/D program while maintaining the politically useful illusion that Taipei remains committed to national defense. While there’s no doubt that requests for the advanced aircraft are heartfelt within the military, there’s reason to doubt that the same applies to Taiwan’s National Security Council and the Presidential Office.

If a decision were made to abandon the F-16C/D in favor of the impossible-to-get F-35B, Taiwan’s air force would face several more years of stagnation that it can ill afford, possibly striking a coup de grace to national security.

J. Michael Cole is a correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly and deputy news chief at the Taipei Times.

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