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Don’t Write Taiwan’s Air Force Off Just Yet

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Asia Defense

Don’t Write Taiwan’s Air Force Off Just Yet

Taiwan needs anti-access strategy, but it also needs an air force to complement it.

Don’t Write Taiwan’s Air Force Off Just Yet
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Taiwan’s defence planners are in a precarious position. Modernization of the PLA has irreversibly tilted the qualitative edge towards Beijing, and Taiwan lacks the wherewithal to engage in an arms race with its powerful neighbour, who happens to claim Taiwan as part of its territory. Perhaps the only way out is to redirect efforts towards asymmetrical platforms: Taiwan needs to mount anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capability on its own. Yet compromising the combat effectiveness of the Air Force (ROCAF) is not the answer. A suggestion to scrap the much needed upgrades to Taiwan’s standing fleet of F-16s without augmenting its existing force structure, as proposed in The Diplomat in an otherwise thoughtful piece by Van Jackson, means just that.

Granted, Jackson is absolutely correct in identifying A2AD as the desirable direction, and Taiwan has already taken notice. Other experts, such as James R. Holmes or Ian Easton have argued for incorporating A2AD platforms into Taiwan’s defence posture. Jackson’s proposition would fit well into the “porcupine strategy” proposed by US Naval War College Professor William S. Murray in 2008, who also recommended scrapping high-level expensive acquisitions and proceeding with affordable investments to enhance survivability. One of the authors of this piece has similarly advocated for Taiwan’s A2AD approach elsewhere.

However, “going asymmetrical” must accommodate and use existing assets. An active fighter complement has its unique role in both peace and war, and while the ROCAF would not be able to maintain Defensive Air Superiority (DAS) even under ideal conditions, it does contribute to the goal of building-up “resolute defense and credible deterrence” as stressed in Taiwan’s defensive-oriented military policy. Obviously, Taiwan’s defense  cannot voluntarily vacate the sky before shots are fired. As long as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) must deal with the ROCAF, it cannot direct resources elsewhere (i.e. against land and sea based A2AD assets, for example). Thus, discontinuing upgrades and never proceeding with the sale of new fighter jets would effectively degrade the ROCAF into a mere peace time air policing force. That in turn would undermine Taiwan’s emerging A2AD infrastructure.

The current ROCAF inventory consists of a  fleet of 150 F-16A/B Block 20s approved by the first Bush administration in 1992, complemented by a fleet of 50+ Mirage 2000-5Di/Eis acquired from France in 1992, 126 indigenous F-CK-1 C/Ds, and a fleet of old F-5E/Fs. The F-16C/D Block 50/52s were not meant to be a temporary solution to attain qualitative parity with the PLAAF. Instead, the ROCAF sought to retire the aging and dangerously accident-prone F-5s, and replace them with part of the F-CK-1 fleet (and dedicate the other half to ground attack missions).The new F-16C/Ds would then take over the air defense roles and be based in Taichung.

In contesting air superiority under defensive conditions, one needs to maintain a larger fleet of active fighters distributed over as many areas as possible. Countering the strategic and tactical initiative that the PLAAF enjoys would inevitably entail severe combat attrition. The ROCAF has already made a significant investment in relevant infrastructure, including hardened aircraft shelters, rapid runway repair capability, and contingency runways. Relegating F-CK-1s to training and ground attack duties without a replacement dedicated to air defense represents an unacceptable change in total force structure.

Unique conditions in the skies over the Taiwan Strait and deployment of advanced air defense assets on both sides mean that any aerial engagement will quickly deteriorate into close quarter combat. ROCAF pilots, who have above-NATO average of 180 hours training per year, would likely more than make up the minor qualitative differences in the performance of the F-16 and the J-11. The ultimate goal of the ROCAF would be to prevent the PLAAF from prosecuting operations against ground and maritime assets, while turning the contest into a war of slow attrition, buying Taiwan the time it needs for reinforcements. The upgrade program for the F-16A/B to USAF CAPES standards would secure that capability. A sufficient active fighter complement is also the only way to effectively and economically counter stand-off weaponry while dealing with threat from the sea in an asymmetrical manner.

While a next-generation replacement is more desirable than an interim solution, it is unlikely to occur. The Swedish JAS-39C/D Gripen would be a good option for the ROCAF, but such a sale would face a steep political climb despite potential benefits for both sides. Apart from Beijing’s objections, the U.S. would be loath to give up its near-monopoly on fighter sales to Taiwan. The F-35 option, as advocated by one of the authors elsewhere, and actively sought after by the ROCAF, may be the eventual winner. However, political hurdles aside, Taiwan would have to contest production quotas allocated to other partners under the JSF program. Hence, an F-35 sale would not materialize earlier than the end of the 2020s. The CAPES upgrade for existing F-16A/Bs thus could not and should not be delayed any longer.

The F-16A/B upgrade may have been sold by Washington to Beijing as a replacement for a F-16C/D sale, but in truth the two have always been separate matters. One is an attrition replacement, while the other is a qualitative upgrade to restore parity, as evidenced by Taiwan’s failed effort to purchase at least one squadron of F-16C/D fighters while simultaneously negotiating the CAPES upgrade for the A/B model. Taipei never meant to acquire “inferior fighters in fewer numbers.” Instead, the intention was always to strengthen the existing fleet.

Every debate pertaining to Taiwan’s defense inevitably leads to the budget argument. Time and time again observers have rightly pointed out that Taiwan’s defense spending is inadequate. But the level of spending is less the result of budgetary constraints than a lack of political will to raise the budget and defend corresponding budget cuts elsewhere in the face of public anger. Moreover, while the level of defense spending is a problem on the Taiwan side, it should not serve as a convenient excuse for policy dithering on the U.S. side.

Arms sales to Taiwan are an expression of U.S. commitment to stability and peace in the Asia-Pacific region. What message does Washington send to its allies and to China if it wavers over arms sales to Taiwan? While we are far from arguing in favor of approving arm sales because they let Taiwanese feel good about U.S.-Taiwan relations, the symbolic aspects of arms sales are out there in the open. Washington may very well decide that the time for big defense packages like F-16 sale is gone and find legitimate grounds to shelve further arms sales altogether. But then it can hardly be surprised if its position in the region weakens. Taiwan by itself may not be the foremost U.S. priority in the region, but it does not exist in isolation. If we need to learn more about Taiwan’s regional importance, Tokyo would be good place to start. Moreover, the relative calm across the strait since 2008 should not be taken for a pattern that justifies easing on arms sales. The stability is predicated on a rapprochement not between two countries but between two political parties, the CCP on the Chinese side and the KMT on the Taiwanese side. While China is a one party-state, at some point KMT will be voted out of power. Beijing would definitely be less interested in keeping the Taiwan Strait calm once its preferred partner on the Taiwan side sits on the opposition benches.

Taiwan invests in asymmetrical, survivable platforms. However, this includes investment in the ability to maintain at least a limited presence in the sky. Though the ROCAF would eventually be overwhelmed, that does not make it useless. If the value of the F-16 sale is judged against the PLA’s ability to destroy the ROCAF then we should disband the Taiwanese military completely because, given time and a lack of third-party assistance, the PLA would eventually overcome any resistance Taiwan can offer. Moreover, degrading Taiwan’s air force into irrelevance will eliminate an important element of Taiwan’s deterrence infrastructure. PLA planning will be much easier if it can scratch off the ROCAF without having to fire a single shot. Ultimately, Taiwan’s A2AD capabilities are not better off without its air force.

Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, a member of The Center for International Maritime Security, an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim. Liao Yen-Fan is Taipei-based defense analyst specializing in airpower and Taiwanese military. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].