Taiwan AF Gives New Fighter Cool Reception
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
Much ceremony surrounded Taiwan’s March 27 unveiling of two prototypes of the second-generation Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF), but one industry executive said the Air Force “was never very interested” in the new plane.
Many here say if the service doesn’t buy the plane, the company that built it will go under.
The new F-CK-1 “Ching-Kuo” IDFs were unveiled at CCK air base in Taichung. Built by the government-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC), one of the IDF-II prototypes conducted a 20-minute flight demonstration.
Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, who attended the ceremony, named the new fighter the Goshawk.
AIDC, which built the original 130 IDFs in the 1990s, hopes the military will order the IDF-II, but there is little evidence the military is interested in the upgrade program.
AIDC launched the IDF-II Xiang Sheng (Soaring Upgrade) program in 2000, when the Cabinet allocated $225.5 million to transform two air-interdiction IDFs into strike fighters with longer range and bigger payloads.
The IDF-II can carry an additional 771 kilograms of fuel and payload, doubles the load of Tien Chien 2 (Sky Sword) air-to-air missiles to four, and adds the ability to carry the Tien Chien 2A anti-radiation missile and the Wan Chien (Ten Thousand Swords) cluster bomb.
“The IDF II incorporates enhancements in the digital flight control computer, avionics and radar, which contributes to improving its countermeasures capability, and a new designed dorsal conformal fuel tank to increase endurance effectiveness,” an AIDC press release said.
The Air Force’s fighter fleet includes 146 F-16s, 128 IDFs, 56 Mirage 2000-5s and roughly 60 F-5s. Taiwan is preparing to phase out the F-5s with hopes of selling them to a third country, possibly Mexico or the Philippines.
The service is hesitant to buy the IDF-IIs, instead favoring the purchase of 60 additional F-16s and eventually phasing out the IDFs when the U.S.-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter becomes available.
Political, Industrial Pressures
Many in the Taiwan and U.S. defense communities here believe Air Force plans to buy F-16s are unlikely in the near future due to Washington’s concerns that Taiwan has badly mismanaged the procurement program, and growing economic and diplomatic pressure from Beijing not to provide arms to Taiwan.
Many in Taiwan are backing the IDF-II program as a way of saving AIDC from extinction.
AIDC has not built an aircraft since the last IDF rolled off the assembly line in 2000. At present, AIDC continues to manufacture commercial aircraft engines and has a contract with Bell Helicopter to assemble tail booms for the U.S. Marine Corps’ new UH-1Y and AH-1Z helicopters. But a refusal to order the IDF-IIs could be the death knell for AIDC.
“IDF-II is getting a second look now that the F-5s are being phased out,” an AIDC executive said. “The IDF has the lowest maintenance requirements compared to the F-16 and Mirage. But it was the Cabinet, and not the military, that allocated funds for the new program. So, the military was never very interested in it.
“AIDC has to get an order from the military to go forward, and I doubt it will happen,” the executive said. Air Force officials “really want new F-16s. If the military does not order the upgrades, AIDC will slowly die.”
The military-run Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology, China Shipbuilding Corp. and AIDC make up Taiwan’s indigenous defense manufacturing base. All three have suffered serious economic problems in the past five years, and local sources say there has been no serious attempt by the government to rescue them.
The United States is Taiwan’s only source of foreign arms, and there are fears here that pressure from China may limit future sales.
A Poor Substitute?
Rupert Hammond-Chambers, head of the Washington-based U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, argues that the IDF-II might create jobs in the short term, but it will fail to create enough spin-offs to be considered successful.
“An upgrade program would benefit AIDC as a jobs program, as any funded program might, but the IDF remains an average piece of hardware,” Hammond-Chambers said. “It is unlikely to result in the production of new units, export orders or domestic IP [intellectual property] that could be spun off and used to build new programs around or offered to multinationals in foreign programs.
“The IDF program has consistently failed to live up to expectation,” he said. “In concept and delivery, the platform remains a poor substitute for F-16s. The IP transfers involved in the initial production never resulted in a platform that met expectations, that could be produced for export, nor follow-on programs that might benefit Taiwan’s indigenous defense industry.”
Arthur Ding, a military affairs specialist at the National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations, also said that if the Air Force does not want the new upgrade, it could spell the end of AIDC.
“The Taiwan Air Force did not make any commitment [for the IDF-II]. If that continues to be the case, AIDC has to find other projects for survival,” Ding said. “As for Taiwan’s defense industry, it does not look promising. There is no institutionalized government agency to handle this issue, and everything is done on an ad hoc basis.
“For instance, they do have an armament bureau at the Ministry of National Defense, but there is no defense science and technology commission-related agency at the Cabinet level,” he said. “It takes tremendous and continuous effort to build up a defense industry.
“There is no discussion and debate societywide on how much resources we need to pour in building up a defense industry, and what type of defense industry we need to have, because it relates to resource allocation and the tax rate,” Ding said.