Taiwan Considers IDF Upgrade
Decision Follows Rebuff on F-16 Block 50 Purchase
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
After years of resisting the idea, Taiwan’s Air Force is taking a second look at a proposal to upgrade its F-CK-1 A/B Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF), or Ching-kuo, into C/D “joint strike fighters.”
The reversal comes after U.S. officials rejected Taiwan’s request for price and availability information for Block 50/52 F-16s. Air Force officials had sought 60 of the Lockheed Martin jets to replace the same number of aging F-5 Tigers.
“The Air Force is thinking about what to do. They are doing a study on the feasibility of using the IDF upgrade as an interim fighter until the F-35s are available in 2015,” said a source with Taiwan’s state-run Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC).
AIDC launched the seven-year Hsiang Sheng (Soaring Upgrade) program in 2000, when the Cabinet allocated $225.5 million to turn two air-interdiction IDF prototypes into strike fighters with longer range and bigger payloads.
“The Air Force needs more combat time at station, and the current range and payload of the IDF was lacking,” said an AIDC source.
Unconvinced, Air Force officials pushed their own plan, sources said: replace their F-5s with F-16s, then start buying F-35 Lightning II fighters.
Taiwan’s Air Force, which has a stated minimum force requirement of 400 fighters, comprises 146 Block 20 F-16s, 128 IDFs, 56 Mirage 2000-5s and roughly 60 F-5s.
Many in Taiwan are backing the Soaring Upgrade program as a way to keep local defense industry capable of making complex weapons. They note that the United States is the only country that still permits large-scale arms sales directly to Taiwan, and wonder whether China’s rising influence might sway U.S. officials.
One U.S. defense source in Taipei argues that Taiwan needs to strengthen its own indigenous weapon production capability and slowly cut the umbilical cord with Washington.
“What they [U.S.] should do is encourage Taiwan’s defense industry. This includes providing assistance in R&D of more exotic weapons, such as missiles. We should be all over this project [the IDF upgrade]. We should be helping the Taiwanese, not selling them stuff they don’t need or can make themselves.”
The upgrade program was conceived as part of President Chen Shui-bian’s 2000 “offshore engagement policy,” which shifted the traditional strategy of defending air and sea boundaries to that of projecting air power into mainland China.
The upgrade allows the IDF to carry an additional 771 kilograms of fuel and payload, doubles the loadout 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, both produced by the military-run Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology.
It also upgrades the mission computer, electronic warfare system and radar.
Washington’s rejection of Taipei’s F-16 request may be related to U.S. disappointment that Taiwan has not yet accepted a longstanding U.S. offer to buy P-3 Orion maritime patrol planes and submarines, plus fear of offending Beijing.
As well, doubt has been raised about Taiwan’s need for 400 fighters. In the past decade, many Taiwan Air Force pilots have resigned to take lucrative and less stressful airline jobs, a shift that led to a government plan to mothball some of its Mirages — and prompted questions about how many fighter jets the self-governing island actually needs.
New Flight Control Computer
BAE announced on Nov. 6 the first flight test of a new digital flight control computer outfitted on an IDF C/D Hsiang Sheng prototype.
The architecture is similar to computers provided for F-15s and the Korean T-50 trainer, said Andre Doumitt, business development director for BAE Systems’ navigation and AHRS product lines in Los Angeles.
Taiwan plans to upgrade half of its IDFs and build more C/D Hsiang Sheng models, he said.
He said he anticipates a new-build aircraft program to be funded in 2007 and launched in 2008.
AIDC will conduct the final flight test of the IDF prototypes in December.
“After this test, the IDF C/D will be ready for flight demonstrations,” said an AIDC source.
Taiwan launched the IDF program in the 1980s after Washington declined a request to buy Northrop F-20s and other advanced U.S. fighters to replace F-104 Starfighters.
Taipei’s creation of an indigenous fighter program led U.S. officials to reverse their decision. Taiwan subsequently bought F-16s and French Mirage 2000-5s, and cut IDF production from a planned 250 to 130.
This sent AIDC into a financial tailspin that it has yet to recover from, and allowed many of its engineers and designers to be lured to the T-50 Golden Eagle program of Korea Aerospace Industries and Lockheed Martin.