Exercise Shows Taiwan's Former French Connection
By Wendell Minnick
HSINCHU AIR BASE, Taiwan - Taiwan put on a show of strength during a two-day exercise that included naval maneuvers in the waters south of the island on a French-built Lafayette-class frigate and a demonstration of its French-built Mirage 2000-5 fighter readiness at Hsinchu Air Base in the northwest.
The exercise is the first military show of force since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May, returning the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to power after eight years. The new administration has moved quickly to improve ties with China with direct cross-Strait flights and the lifting of economic restrictions on mainland investment in Taiwan.
The military took the media out on the Lafayette PFG-1207 Wu Chung on Aug. 28 for a triple-threat exercise involving air defense, anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare. The exercise involved five missile patrol boats, including four Hai Ou-class (Sea Gull) and one Ching Chiang-class missile patrol boat, which dropped two depth charges.
Taiwan bought six Lafayette frigates in the 1990s for $2.8 billion as part of its Kuang Hua II (Glorious China) naval modernization program. The ships are armed with a mix of indigenous and French weapons, including the Hsiung Feng II (Brave Wind) anti-ship missile.
On Aug. 29, the media was taken to Hsinchu Air Base, home of the 499th Tactical Fighter Wing, with three squadrons of Mirage fighters. Taiwan acquired 60 Dassault Mirage fighters in the 1990s, along with 480 Magic II and 960 Mica air-to-air missiles, as part of the Fei Lung (Flying Dragon) program.
The exercise included a missile-loading demonstration with Mica and Magic II missiles, an aerobatic display by one fighter and a static display of two fighters with missiles.
The Mirage and Lafayette purchases were the last French arms sales granted to Taiwan before Paris succumbed to Beijing pressure in 1994 and agreed to prohibit future arms sales. French officials were also unhappy about a major scandal involving the frigate sale that resulted in the murder of a Taiwan naval officer by unknown assailants and kickbacks amounting to more than $400 million.
This places Taiwan's military in an awkward position with no competitive arms deals other than with U.S. defense contractors. Currently, Taiwan is seeking the release of 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters, but the U.S. government has rejected several letters of request over the past two years as part of a larger decision by Washington to freeze arms sales.
Taiwan needs the F-16s to maintain its Air Force's requirement for 350 fighter aircraft. Taiwan is phasing out 60 F-5 Tigers acquired in the 1970s and 1980s. If the U.S. does not release the F-16s, Taiwan will have to consider a base realignment with fewer aircraft.
Taiwan has the capability to build its own fighters. In the 1990s, the state-run Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC) manufactured 130 F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs). AIDC now has an IDF-II Goshawk upgrade program with two prototypes, but there have been difficulties securing Air Force support for the new fighter.
The original IDFs have been criticized for not being as advanced as U.S.-built fighters, and the IDF has often been ridiculed as the "I Don't Fly" aircraft. However, if the U.S. continues to refuse to sell additional weapons to Taiwan, the local arms industry will be the only reliable source of arms.