Taiwan Fears Air Power Reduction, Vulnerability to China
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — Taiwan military officials are growing more anxious as requests to the United States for new F-16s, denied since 2006, remain in limbo.
Without the new fighters, the balance of air power across the Taiwan Strait will shift in China’s favor, say sources here and in Washington, as Taiwan’s Air Force prepares to retire aging fighter aircraft and mothball others.
The result could be the closure of one, possibly two, fighter wings.
Since 2006, Taiwan has made repeated requests for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters to replace F-5E/F Tigers, scheduled for retirement within the next five years. The Air Force also may mothball its Mirage 2000-5D/Es because of maintenance costs.
Currently, Taiwan’s Air Force consists of 390 fighters: 146 F-16A/B Block 20s, 128 F-CK-1 Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDF), 56 Mirage 2000-5s and roughly 60 F-5s.
According to the 2009 Pentagon report on China’s military modernization, Taiwan is facing 330 Chinese fighter aircraft in military regions directly across the strait. China has 1,655 fighter aircraft in total.
Failure to maintain equity in air power could weaken Taiwan’s negotiating posture with China, and a weakened military could invite Chinese adventurism, officials said.
“The most significant consequence of forgoing the F-16s would be strategic in nature,” a former Pentagon official said. “President Ma [Ying-jeou] and Taiwan may have less political confidence in dealing with China, whether it’s the symbology of U.S. support, or having those assets available to counter Chinese coercive air activity in the Taiwan Strait, short of a full-scale air and missile campaign.”
Symbology or not, U.S. reluctance to provide Taiwan with additional fighters places the Air Force in a difficult position.
Options include the IDF-2 “Goshawk” program, begun in 2000 by state-run Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC). Based on the original IDF airframe, the IDF-2 can carry an extra 771 kilograms (1,700 pounds) of fuel and payload.
AIDC has produced two prototypes, but the Air Force has largely ignored the program in favor of new F-16s, leaving continued research and development in stagnation. AIDC manufactured the original IDFs during the 1990s, but Air Force officials have said the IDF does not match F-16 or Mirage capabilities.
An F-5 upgrade option was abandoned by the AIDC in 2000 due to technical problems.
AIDC “gave up too easily after initial tests,” said the former official. There are also problems with high “logistics costs” for maintaining the F-5 airframe.
Another option would be to continue maintaining the Mirage fleet, but its operational costs are three times that of the F-16s, said Fu Mei, director of the Taiwan Security Analysis Center.
“As such, most of the aircraft are expected to be mothballed starting in 2010,” he said. “The alternative, if the U.S. doesn’t sell F-16s, would be, of course, to keep flying the Mirage 2000s, but at the price of significantly lower cost-effectiveness for its air defense dollar.”
The former Pentagon official confirmed the problem.
“A huge portion of Taiwan’s Air Force O&M [Operations and Maintenance] budget is spent on the Mirages,” the former official said. “As a bridge measure, one option could be to upgrade all or a part of its existing F-16 A/Bs with a new radar, mission computer and engine.”
New fighters would serve as a bridge to Taiwan procuring vertical/short-takeoff-andlanding (VSTOL) fighters, the source said.
China targets Taiwan with about 1,000 Dong Feng short-range ballistic missiles, which could destroy conventional runways, making most of Taiwan’s current fighter aircraft inoperable.
To alleviate the problem, Taiwan has debated the procurement of refurbished AV-8 VSTOL Harriers and has already expressed an interest in F-35B VSTOL fighters, but the F-35s are not expected to be available for at least a decade.
“Additional F-16s could enter the inventory within three [to] four years after contract signing, so it could be viewed as a $5 billion bridge solution,” said the former Pentagon official.
The Air Force also faces reductions of 5,000 to 6,000 troops due to streamlining demands by the Ministry of National Defense.
“Cuts that deep would readily translate into losing at least one operational wing and possibly two,” Mei said. “If the U.S. should decide to kill the F-16C/D sale, then it would simply make it logically more difficult for the Air Force to resist standing down one of its fighter wings. Losing one-sixth of its fighter force would be a serious blow to Taiwan’s air defense capability.”
U.S. State Department and Pentagon officials under the Obama administration have said publicly and on background that F-16s would be given consideration under the Taiwan Relations Act, which guarantees continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
However, China continues to wield increasing economic and diplomatic power in the United States and in Asia.