U.S.-Taiwan Meeting Ends on F-16 Question
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The annual U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference ended with more questions than answers about Taiwan’s hopes of acquiring F-16 fighter jets from the United States.
Sponsored by the Washingtonbased U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, the Sept. 27-29 conference in Virginia allowed U.S. and Taiwan government and business leaders to discuss procurement and other defense issues.
Since 2007, Taiwan’s request for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters to replace aging F-5s has been on hold by the United States. There are concerns in Washington that new fighters for Taiwan would aggravate the U.S. relationship with China, and Taiwan is worried that the United States will withhold release of the new F-16s indefinitely.
Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, said the F-16 issue was raised throughout the conference because of concerns of a growing fighter imbalance across the Taiwan Strait with China.
"The next decade represents a critical period for Taiwan’s military and its airspace if it is not to cede that space to the PLA [People’s Liberation Army],” he said.
“The imbalance of power in the Taiwan Strait is growing with an additional 70 modern Chinese fighters deployed in range of Taiwan per year,” Hammond-Chambers said.
“Taiwan’s F-5s and Mirage 2000s need to be retired and the remaining F-16A/Bs and Indigenous Defense Fighters all require midlife upgrades to extend their service life.”
In a speech, Wallace Gregson, the assistant U.S. secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, did not directly mention the F-16 issue, but he did calm fears by saying, “Although I’m not going to address that issue in detail, I can assure you this administration will not waver in its commitment to provide those defense articles and services necessary for Taiwan’s self-defense.”
Taiwan’s airpower capabilities are slowly degrading. Due to attrition, the current fighter inventory includes 146 F-16A/B Block 20s, 128 Indigenous Defense Fighters, 56 Mirage 2000-5s and roughly 60 F-5 Tigers.
China has been boosting its fighter inventory with new J10s and J-11s, along with Russianbuilt Su-27s. China also is expanding its inventory of air defense missile systems capable of covering the airspace over the Taiwan Strait.
At the conference, Taiwan’s deputy minister of defense, Gen. Chaou Shih-chang, asked U.S. government officials to help Taiwan fill “gaps of understanding” that have resulted over the past 10 years due largely to political infighting in Taiwan over arms budgets.
“Our budget acquisition, allocation, management and spending are affected,” he said, adding that arms sales have “failed to proceed as expected.”
“Critical acquisitions, including F-16C/Ds, diesel submarines, utility helicopters, additional two units of PAC-3, could not be completed before the budgets expired, thus obstructing follow-on annual budgeting and policy implementation,” Chaou said.
The result, he said, is that the situation is “delaying the progress of our readiness effort and could even exert adverse impact on strategic environment and balance of power.”
After nearly seven years of delays, the United States finally released a $6.5 billion package last October that included AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, Patriot PAC-3 air defense units and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The sale infuriated Beijing, which canceled military-to-military exchanges. It also resulted in several incidents at sea involving Chinese naval and merchant vessels harassing U.S. Navy ships.
The question everyone is asking now is whether the new Obama administration will go forward with an F-16 sale that will no doubt enrage China. And if Washington continues to decline the request, how will Taiwan’s Air Force survive?
“What will be the Obama plan should they refuse to proceed with the sale of F-16s? How will Taiwan defend its airspace in the absence of a credible fighter force? These were several questions posed but as yet unanswered,” HammondChambers said.
He warned that continued delays would change the debate from F16s to F-35s in the next 12 to 24 months.
“The U.S. military no longer purchases F-16s and the production line is wholly dependent on exports. The export market for new F-16s is declining as U.S. allies prepare to upgrade their own inventories and start taking delivery of F-35s over the coming 20 years,” Hammond-Chambers said.
Twenty years is a long time to wait for new fighters, and Taiwan’s fighter inventory is unlikely to survive an air campaign against China, so a decision needs to be made relatively soon, he said.
Gregson said Taiwan should develop asymmetrical strategies that will make it expensive for China to attack Taiwan.
“Asymmetry will not replace layered defense or defeat” Chinese forces, “but it can deter them from fully employing the advanced weapons they are developing and undermine their effectiveness,” Gregson said.
This type of strategy would allow Taiwan to “shift the cost ratio of its defense,” he added.
In late September, Taiwan’s Cabinet announced a 6 percent drop in defense spending for 2010. Though procurements are often separate budgets, the fact that Taiwan is facing increased economic difficulties will make continued high-priced procurements more difficult.