Harriers in the Taiwan Strait?

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Harriers in the Taiwan Strait?

The U.S. may not be willing to sell Taiwan its latest F-16. But the Harrier jet could fill in some blanks for Taipei.

Despite the Obama administration’s recent rejection of Taipei’s request for new sales of F-16C/D multirole craft, elements of the U.S. government continue to support the future sale of various combat weapons systems to the island nation.

Looking at the situation strategically, most observers agree that Taiwan needs new fighters. As it currently stands, the air forces of the Republic of China operates a mix of F-16A/B jets, Mirage 2000s and the domestically-produced Indigenous Defense Fighter. While some of these fighters will be retired in the foreseeable future, the recent $5 billion sale of an upgrade package for Taiwan’s sizeable F-16 fleet certainly means that current forces will largely be able to endure for some years to come.

Still, Taiwan faces a double-edged threat. On the one hand, the current fighters increasingly face the costs of age-related mechanical problems (and presumably will continue to do so). On the other, the swift growth of technologically advanced and strategically viable forces across the Straits consistently restrains the degree to which the ROC Air Force can be relevant, given its current capabilities, in any potential future conflict.

China’s January unveiling of the J-20 stealth fighter hinted at just how quickly the People’s Republic is producing its own advanced technologies. While it’s probably true that the plane will likely be in development for some years to come, the J-20 and other forces, from the PRC’s new aircraft carrier to ship-killing ballistic missiles, send a clear message: the China of the future will be well-equipped to achieve its goals in international affairs.

The government in Taipei, not surprisingly, is more aware of this more than other regional neighbors. With a mere hundred miles of sea separating the two Chinas, the mainland’s growing military power could be lethal in a possible military conflict. Given this, the island is assuming that new strike and air superiority fighter forces will be the lynchpin for any future force structure. To that end, intense lobbying for new F-16s, unsuccessful so far, will surely continue.

And yet, the United States may be sitting on a perfect near-term solution for the Taiwan problem – the Harrier. It’s well known Taiwan’s air defense forces, even the newer block F-16C/D, would not withstand the numerically superior assault of Chinese ballistic and aerial forces for more than a few hours. Interestingly, the primary reason for this isn’t based on capabilities, but rather the high likelihood that China’s missile forces would disable the island’s ability to field military units in short order, targeting air bases, commercial runways and any other infrastructural means for launching combat fighters and reconnaissance craft. Taiwan will ultimately need short- or vertical-takeoff capable craft like the F-35B. Taiwan’s dilemma when it comes to the procurement of new forces is that, short of the VSTOL Joint Strike Fighter, new fighter sales from the United States may do nothing more than irritate Beijing.

Yet, the Harrier jump jet could help shore up deficiencies in the contingency capabilities of the ROC Air Force for any future conflict. The Harrier AV-8B, currently operated by the U.S. Marine Corps, is a competent night attack VSTOL strike fighter, used extensively in Libya and capable of operating without any real runway facilities to speak of. Until their scrapping by a controversial defense review last year, Great Britain’s Royal Navy operated a similarly designed version from the decks of its Invincible-class aircraft carriers. That being said, these well-designed and functional planes live on. The U.S. military has now taken advantage of Britain’s austerity measures, buying an entire air wing of Harrier jump jets and their parts that can be modified and used by the Marine Corps until production of the newer VSTOL F-35B can be ramped up.

As I’ve said elsewhere, planes like the Harrier II jump jet and the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen could be a solid investment for Taiwan, as neither requires long runways and both could respectively provide continuing strike and air superiority capabilities under difficult conditions. The former plane would prove an effective countermeasure to potential naval and amphibious assault in the future, while the latter’s focus on large air-to-air payloads would augment and strengthen air defenses against China’s 4th generation jet series.

In the end, the debate over future arms sales to Taiwan will continue, with changing American administrations and shifting strategic realities constantly shaping both the island’s requests for supplementary forces and Washington’s decisions to supply new technology.

The benefits to Taiwan of a Harrier sale are clear and, though arms sales to Taipei have always risked incurring the wrath of the mainland, the relatively light profile of these craft and the potential effect that they could have on quelling further requests for arms in the foreseeable future may well make such a sale politically feasible. For the United States, this kind of move could help construct a balanced status quo situation that wouldn’t risk arms escalation and would allow for more focus on cross-Straits confidence-building measures in the near future. 

Christopher Whyte is a Washington DC area analyst and graduate student in Political Science in International Relations at George Mason University, Virginia.