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

War of Wits for Taiwan Air Force


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.

July 1, 2013 at 10:53

China is also the USA's biggest trading partner. Surely… the USA is "dependent" on China too. Not quite, we're dependent on them for cheap labor. Note how with China's rising wages and shift from manufacturing to the service sector has seen a huge move in production to Vietnam.

Sean Su
July 1, 2013 at 10:51

The fact that you're comparing the relationship of a bank and a civilian with Treasury Bonds is quite hilarious. No, China is not the banker of the USA. Yes China brought US Debt, and owns 10% of it (edging out Japan) but it was mainly to offset trade and the fact that it is mostly owned by individuals. The USA has no problems paying off that debt when it matures and it does so all the time. Now China could sell those bonds at a huge loss but all it'll be doing is screwing itself. It, like everyone else, will simply wait until it matures.

May 30, 2012 at 06:38

@John Chan: “Modern pig farms are hi-tech and clean in order to raise high quality pigs efficiently. Those modern pigs live on farms with better living condition than most common Indians can afford.”
This reference by SOFABITCH Chink Chan is to the members of Chinese Communist Party like Hu, Bo and Wen. With the slush money they make, they certainly can afford to stay in places better than cowsheds and horse stables.

May 28, 2012 at 17:05

@John Chan: The only nation that doesn’t tell the truth about their numbers is china.
Once again, you fell to dispute my points and just dancing around.

John Chan
May 28, 2012 at 03:26

I have never seen a whiteman not standing humbly in front of his banker while holding his hat in his hands. China is USA’s banker, why can’t China expect the same from his borrower like all the white bankers? Is it something to do with the American Exceptionalism again?

John Chan
May 28, 2012 at 03:11

Wikipedia is edited by the western people to boast western culture standing. A self proclaimed expert Whiteman with multiple academic credentials and posts insisted Japanese kanji was developed by the Japanese in an independent environment, he gave theories to support his insistence. He insisted his words must be taken as given truth.

Anything to tell the incidences about the Homeland Security abuses toward foreigner at border will be erased too.

John Chan
May 28, 2012 at 02:47

Which nation reports their government numbers without manipulations? The numbers in the western democracies are so distorted that they no longer can rely on their own numbers to come up any means to arrest their financial and economic crisis even after 4 years and counting. Canadian is renown in speak nothing, hear nothing and hear nothing.

Vietnam and India are even worse than those western democracies; they simply manufacture numbers in a room without windows, that’s why their economics are in free ride.

aco, you let your emotion do you in, you can’t differentiate between ideology with human incompetence. Communism is an ideology that promotes a more equitable society and it has nothing do human incompetence. Any ideology falls in the wrong hands can bring disaster, like the 2008 world financial meltdown, it was the handy work of the free market capitalism and western democracy.

John Chan
May 28, 2012 at 02:05

Why are pigs are dirty? Is it because Indians worship their dirty cows so they can’t think anything better than their dirty cows? Modern pig farms are hi-tech and clean in order to raise high quality pigs efficiently. Those modern pigs live on farms with better living condition than most common Indians can afford.

John Chan
May 28, 2012 at 02:04

If you are a representative of Canadians, truth does not exist in the Canadian dictionary. It is hard to decide who would win the thin air fabrication among the Canadians, Vietnamese, and Indians.

Agent Orange was supposed to kill weeds, not to kill people and deform babies, but the US turned an innocent chemical into an evil tool that kills and deforms Indochinese people by the millions. Just like language is innocent, but through you, it becomes a tool to destroy world peace and global prosperity.

Stereotyping Chinese with insidious intent is your expertise, all that news was widely published in the Chinese media, and all perpetuators were punished. You are using well-known news as a new discovery.

The example the convicted were following was the result of capitalism. These people were following the Wall Street mantra of Greed is Good; do anything, step on anyone to make a buck. Wall Street graduates tens of thousands of even more ruthless, unscrupulous, and shameless types every year; a vast horde compared to what China produces. If you were really a Canadian, you’d know we really don’t like those Wall Street types.

May 26, 2012 at 14:39

nice one, china should shut up and be friendly, and dont anger US. as we all know US have a capability to take down China and that Trillion of money borrowed by US will be clear…

venkat s kanakamedala
May 26, 2012 at 12:19

i feel america and NATO should supply all latest jet fighters to Taiwan and also to all free nations in Asia to resist china.

May 26, 2012 at 06:44

@dirty p*g Chan
The Cuban Missile Crisis was precipitated by your fellow communists in the erstwhile USSR. US did not start it. As usual consume opium and write comments for 50 cents. OR has the rate come down, with other Chinese p*gs joining the fray?

May 26, 2012 at 06:40

utter sh** that you Chinese pi*s dish out on this forum. If you p*gs are representative of China, its people and its policies then Armageddon is preferable to p*gs.

May 26, 2012 at 03:17

Vec wrote: “@jOHN x

I owe no one any money and thats how it should be.

Though if I were China and was owed so much money by the US, then maybe I would speak quietly as if I pissed them off enough, then maybe they would just not pay it back.

China is supposed to be a communist country, but except for the love of oppressing its own people, it sure smells like a capitalist to me.

Don’t throw stones in a glass house mate.

May 26, 2012 at 03:01

@John Chan: Fabricating facts is not our strong suit, compared to china. It’s a concept that we, in the civilized world cannot tolerate. BTW, the reason I raised the points was, at the moment china can manufacture chemicals that, with a small portion can turn pork to beef. With some other small compound can turn a gallon of water into “orange juice” like, etc… they can also produce fake eggs, fake rice, etc. so, chemical weapons are very possible. This is one of the area where they keep really quiet about. Hmmm.

May 26, 2012 at 02:48

@Imperium Vita: With those words from John Chan, you probably know that he has lost the debate to you.

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