Taiwan Pushes for U.S. To Sell It F-16s
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
Taiwanese defense officials arrived in Washington last week to convince Washington to sell Taipei new F-16 fighters, arguing the United States needs the island nation as a strategic chess piece against rising Chinese military power.
Taiwan is writing a formal letter of request for price and availability data for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52s, local defense sources said.
In June, Taiwan’s legislature passed a defense budget allocating $450 million in frozen funds for the program.
Sources say Taiwan faces an uphill battle to garner the deal.
There is concern in Taipei that some top officials in Washington feel burned by previous arms offers gone awry — and that Chinese assistance on regional problems like North Korea, along with massive Sino-U.S. economic trade, could cause hesitation in Washington to release F-16s.
In 2001, the Bush administration offered Taiwan eight diesel submarines, 12 P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and six batteries of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 air defense systems. The arms package has been held up in legislative political bickering since the budget was introduced in 2004, with only the budget for the Orions approved to date.
The experience has prompted accusations from Washington that Taipei does not take its defense seriously.
According to sources, however, the Bush administration will approve the sale after the upcoming U.S. presidential elections but before Bush leaves office. A Democratic president is less likely to be sympathetic to Taiwan, sources in Taipei said.
A U.S. defense official argues that there are too many variables pushing Taiwan and the United States toward new F-16s.
“Even now, the aging F-5s are not a viable weapon system,” he said. “Without beyond-visual-range capability, they are just targets. These are the main reasons why Taiwan will be a hollow force by 2011 if Taiwan does not acquire additional new fighters now.
“A hollow Air Force could be destabilizing, since the Air Force is Taiwan’s first line of defense. A weakened Air Force could invite Chinese adventurism. That is not in the interest of the United States or the region.”
Rather, a beefed-up Taiwanese military will stabilize the region, a fact that should compel Taiwan’s neighbors to lobby Washington for the deal, the official said.
“So the benefit of approving the F-16 is that it will allow Taiwan to maintain its deterrence posture, which will contribute to stability across the Strait,” the defense official said. “I believe regional actors who benefit from a peaceful Taiwan Strait should all jump in and tell the decision makers in Washington that continued delay is not good for anyone. Continued delay is not in the long-term interest of the U.S., Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. The only beneficiary is China.”
Part of the precondition for the F-16s could be pressure on Taipei to discontinue the development of its Hsiung Feng 2E (Brave Wind) land attack cruise missile.
Taiwan has been developing the HF-2E as a response to China’s growing number of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) — now 800 to 900 Dong Feng 11 and DF-15 SRBMs — aimed at the island state.
“The U.S. decision on the F-16 sale has been pending since the summer of 2006, in part due to the stalemated arms budget but also for other policy reasons,” said Fu Mei, director of the Taiwan Security Analysis Center here, referring to the fiscal 2007 defense budget, which contains funding for the F-16s as well as resolution on at least some of the items from the arms package approved in 2001.
With the 2007 defense budget now passed, “U.S. policy considerations will move to a different level,” Mei said. “The Bush administration has become increasingly concerned about Taiwan’s indigenous land-attack missile programs and intends to raise the matter as part of the F-16 review process. High-level consultations to address this can be expected over the coming months.”
Due to attrition, Taiwan’s current fighter inventory includes 146 F-16A/B Block 20 fighters built by Lockheed Martin, 128 Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs) developed by Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC) and Lockheed, 56 Mirage 2000-5s built by Dassault Aviation and roughly 60 F-5s built by Northrop Grumman.
There have been discussions about reselling some of the F-5s to the Philippines and Mexico.
The United States hesitated to sell the original F-16s to Taiwan due to pressure from pro-China elements in Washington.
However, French offers to sell Taiwan the Mirage 2000-5, and efforts by state-run AIDC to develop the F-CK-1A/B Ching Kuo IDF in the 1980s, put pressure on the White House from the U.S. defense industry to release F-16s.
The sale included a program that allowed Taiwan’s participation in an advanced fighter training program at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz, which began in March 1995.
Taiwan assigned the 21st Tactical Fighter Squadron “Gamblers” of the 56th Fighter Wing to participate in the program. Fourteen Taiwanese F-16s are still assigned to Luke.
AIDC launched the IDF-II Xiang Sheng (Soaring Upgrade) program in 2000, when the Cabinet allocated $225.5 million to transform two IDFs into strike fighters with lon-ger 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. Two IDF-II Gos-hawk prototypes were unveiled in March at the CCK air base in Taichung.
Despite the fanfare for the IDF-II, the Air Force favors new F-16s over ordering IDF-IIs.
AIDC officials complain that this attitude is destroying Taiwan’s indigenous defense industry, and the IDF upgrade is a reasonable alternative to supplementing the fighter inventory with the retirement of the F-5 and Mirage 2000s in the next 10 years.
Additionally, sources argue that Taiwan should procure 250 new F-16s, rather than 66, to maintain its current force requirement of 350 fighter aircraft. With the upgraded IDFs, the fighter inventory would meet the minimum requirements.
Taiwan Air Force officials want to procure only 66 F-16s to supplement the fighter inventory until the release of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
However, critics argue that Taiwan is very low on the list of priority customers for the F-35, and increased pressure from China may deny Taiwan’s Air Force the F-35 in future negotiations over the next 10 years.