Taiwan Plans F-16 Upgrades; New Radar, Jammer, Missiles Seen
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — Taiwan’s Air Force is planning a midlife upgrade of its 146 F-16A/B Block 20 fighter jets. Officials from F-16 maker Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Air Force briefed Taiwanese representatives on possible upgrade options earlier this year.
The self-governing island is still hoping to persuade the United States to sell it 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52s despite three years of fruitless effort. So the upgrade currently being considered is “limited in scope,” a Taiwan defense source said, “since funding will not be sufficient to support both the new C/D buy and an extensive upgrade of the entire A/B fleet.”
Sources here say they are expecting announcement late this year or in early 2010 about the quest to buy new F-16s.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is still developing the upgrade’s operational requirement document, which “means that funding for such a program will not start until at least after 2011,” well after the expected release of new F-16C/Ds, he said.
The Taiwan defense source said the upgrade is currently envisioned to address the issue of “diminishing manufacturing sources,” and to add capabilities “mainly in the avionics, survivability and combat-effectiveness areas.”
Under consideration are replacing the APG-66(V)3 radar with the APG-68(V)9; upgrading the modular mission computer to the MMC-7000; and adding new color multifunction displays, the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, a new internal electronic countermeasures jammer and advanced targeting pods.
If a new engine is added to the upgrade package, the candidates would be the General Electric F110-GE-129 and the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229. But funding constraints mean the upgraded F-16s will likely not get a better engine, long desired by the Air Force to allow a greater takeoff weight, more operational flexibility and economy of force.
The deal will include “industrial cooperation incentives” with Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corp., which builds aircraft engines and components for international customers.
U.S. Prefers Upgrade?
Some sources here say U.S. officials might use the upgrade as a pretext to avoid selling new F-16s in an attempt to placate China.
There are fears that selling new F-16s to Taiwan would antagonize China and, in particular, dampen cooperation on containing North Korea. In 1992, Beijing withdrew from Middle East arms control talks after Washington decided to release F-16s to Taiwan.
But one U.S. defense official said the proposed upgrade and the requested purchase are not so tightly linked and that both may potentially proceed despite pressure from Beijing.
Over the past 10 years, China has acquired a variety of fourth-generation Russian and indigenous fighters, including Su-30s and J-10s, putting its Air Force on par with Taiwan’s service.
Moreover, China has about as many fighter jets within striking distance of Taiwan as the island has fighters.
Taiwan is still flying F-16s, Mirage 2000-5s and Indigenous Defense Fighters acquired in the 1990s. Taiwan also has about 60 aging F5 Tigers acquired in the 1970s.
The F-16A/B needs a longer range radar and better electronicwarfare gear to deal with Chinese advances, the U.S. source said. Taiwan wants the F-16C/Ds to replace its “obsolete F-5s.”
“The F-5 has no beyond-visualrange [BVR] capability,” the source said. “In today’s environment, it is nothing but a target. The modern Chinese fighters could track and kill an F-5 before it is aware of the threat.”
Force Structure Decline
The Taiwan defense source said U.S. refusal to sell new F-16s would “catalyze an irreversible decline in force structure within the next several years” and would not be “conducive to developments that would help advance U.S. national security interests in the region.”
He argued that a weak Taiwan would invite Chinese military adventurism, while releasing the F-16s and renewing the U.S. commitment to defend the island would ensure security.
“The resultant reduction in the number of operational aircraft and the operational squadrons would represent a precipitous loss in Taiwan’s overall defensive capability, one which could greatly further negatively impact the military balance in the Taiwan Straits, thus making the newly reduced tensions between the two sides more tenuous and vulnerable to Chinese military intimidation,” the defense source said.