Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Airplane Race in Taiwan Straits - Taiwan Seeks Advanced F-16s Fighters


Airplane Race in Taiwan Straits - Taiwan Seeks Advanced F-16s Fighters


Taiwanese Air Force officials plan to ask Pentagon officials informally about the purchase of some five dozen F-16C/D Block 52 fighter jets.

The discussions will be held in Washington May 25-29, during a trip that will allow the delegation to attend military-unit reunions, including that of the legendary 14th U.S. Air Force, whose Flying Tigers served in China during World War II.

A U.S. defense source said the Taiwanese officials intend to gather information that will help them shape the self-governing island’s effort to replace its fighter fleet, which consists of 146 F-16A/Bs, 128 locally produced F-CK-1 Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs), 56 Mirage 2000-5s and 60 or so aging F-5 Tigers.

“Taiwan needs to modernize its fleet to counter the advanced fighters the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is fielding now,” the source said. “Even if Taiwan decides to purchase the aircraft this year, Taiwan won’t see the aircraft until 2011-2012 due to paperwork and production timeline. By that time, the IDFs will be close to 20 years old and the F-16A/Bs will be over 15 years old.”

U.S. and Taiwanese officials often exchange information in these kinds of informal meetings because of Taipei’s ambiguous diplomatic status and Washington’s desire to avoid offending Beijing.

Taiwan’s Military Spokes-man’s Office refused to comment on the planned meeting or the F-16 issue.

Any effort to buy advanced fighter jets is sure to provoke strong opinions from Beijing to Washington.

U.S. administration officials remain irritated by Taipei’s refusal to buy the eight diesel submarines, 12 P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and several Patriot PAC-3 air defense systems offered by President George W. Bush in 2001. Taiwan’s legislature has refused to allocate money to buy them for a tangled array of political, economic and strategic reasons.

A source at F-16-maker Lockheed Martin said formal progress toward a Taiwanese purchase of the fighters would likely have to wait until Taipei and Washington decide how to handle the package of weapons that U.S. officials proposed for sale in 2001.

“ROCAF [Republic of China Air Force] planning folks are doing their job in looking down the road at their force structure and options for the future,” the source said. “I would hope the F-16 is on their list, but asking Uncle Sam at this time just doesn’t fit.”

Taiwan Opposition to Sale

There might also be opposition to buying F-16s on the Taiwanese side. This might come from the legislature’s pro-unification members, those who distrust the United States and those who fear becoming reliant on foreign weapons.

Local officials still grumble over the U.S. decision to switch diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, and there are deep-seated fears the United States will abandon Taiwan during a war with China.

Chinese Opposition

China is certain to oppose the idea. On May 10, Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan demanded the United States end all military-to-military contacts with Taiwan and stop the sale of advanced weapons to the island, Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

Cao made the remarks in talks with Adm. William Fallon, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, who was in China for a seven-day visit aimed at improving military ties between the two countries.

Washington promised Beijing in 1982 that it would reduce sales of advanced arms to Taiwan. But Taipei had already begun agitating to buy F-16s, and in 1992, the first Bush administration agreed to the sale of 150 fighters. This drew angry outbursts from Beijing, which threatened to withdraw from international arms control talks and cut cooperation with Washington at the United Nations.

China’s hard-line approach to the Taiwan issue has isolated the island in the international community. Today, only the United States is willing to provide Taiwan with advanced weapons. Previous foreign suppliers, such as France, which supplied fighters and frigates in the 1990s, have refused Taiwan’s requests for arms.

One American regional expert predicted that Beijing would complain about the sale of more F-16s, just as it would any U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.

“However, its protests would be based on increasingly shaky ground given the nature of its military build-up opposite Taiwan,” said Mark Stokes, who directs the U.S.-Taiwan Enterprise Foundation and who once ran the U.S. defense secretary’s China and Taiwan office.

“The PRC has and will protest any U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, whether it’s a major program or even a small spare parts package, and cite it as a ‘violation’ of the 1982 Communiqué, which was a statement of policy under the Reagan administration that called for the gradual reduction of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan,” Stokes said.

“However, this Reagan administration commitment in the 1982 Communiqué was contingent upon Beijing’s provision of an atmosphere conducive to such a reduction. There is a direct linkage between the nature of the threat that the PRC poses to Taiwan and arms sales.”

Reshaping Fighter Fleet

Any information offered by U.S. officials will help Taiwanese defense officials decide how to reshape their fighter fleet.

F-CK-1-maker Aerospace and Industrial Development Corp. is developing a proposed upgrade called Hsing Shing (Soaring Upgrade), which would allow the Taiwan-built planes to carry better avionics, new weapons, electronic-warfare gear and an extra 771 kilograms of fuel.

The firm is wrapping up work on two prototypes, but the military may simply decide to retire the planes in the next five or six years.

The military also may mothball some of its Dassault Mirage 2000-5s, for which it paid an estimated $3.8 billion in 1992. It is experimenting with a vacuum-packaging method that could protect the fighters from the salty climate yet allow them to be quickly readied for service.

Taiwan is preparing to retire its F-5 Tigers.