Taiwan: Report Highlights Fighter Gap with China
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI - A report issued May 11 by the Washington-based US-Taiwan Business Council highlights the need to improve Taiwan's air defense capabilities in response to a growing threat by China.
"The Balance of Air Power in the Taiwan Strait" is clearly a plea for the release of 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters, now on hold by the U.S. government since Taiwan's initial request in 2006.
It should be noted, the council represents the business interests of U.S. defense companies and not U.S. foreign policy.
The report is pushing the release against what it sees as an ever-closing window of availability. With the last F-16s under contract slated for delivery by the end of 2013, along with the 36-month manufacturing lead-time, the U.S. government must make a decision soon on a release, the report said.
In part, the report is an attempt to supplement a recent unclassified U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report on Taiwan air power issued in January to the U.S. Congress, said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president, US-Taiwan Business Council.
The DIA report, mandated by U.S. law, will be issued in classified form later this year.
"Because the bulk of the DoD analysis on this matter is classified, the US-Taiwan Business Council felt it important that the community have a more substantial analysis to consider, leading to the production of this report," he said.
The Obama administration must weigh the implications of Taiwan's inability to protect its own airspace and the potential cost of a U.S. "requirement to fill that void in a possible conflict," he said, noting the increased burden on U.S. forces in Alaska, Okinawa and Guam to meet other threats to peace and stability in the region.
Taiwan's current inventory comprises 18 fighter squadrons with a nominal strength of 387 fighters of U.S., French and indigenous origins: 145 F-16A/Bs, 126 Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDF), 56 Mirage 2000-5s and 60 F-5E/Fs.
The report notes the F-5s are scheduled for retirement in 2014 and the Mirage fleet suffers from high maintenance costs and chronically low availability rates.
The report indicates the per-flight-hour cost of the Mirage fighter is "more than triple" that of the IDF and "five times" that of the F-16A/B. Though the Mirages comprise only 17 percent of the fighter fleet, their operational costs "consume nearly 59%" of the total operations and maintenance budget. Availability has been as low as 58 percent and pilots now only fly eight-15 hours per month.
The report indicates that within the next five-10 years, Taiwan's fighter strength will drop from 387 to 327 to 271, respectively, as the F-5 and Mirage fighters are phased out.
At the same time, China's fighter fleet will continue to modernize and expand beyond its current fleet of more than 700 combat aircraft within operational range of Taiwan, "with hundreds more in ready reserve."
"Given the size of the Chinese combat aircraft fleet deployed opposite Taiwan, the minimum number of operational fighter aircraft Taiwan must field at the start of hostilities should be no less than 360-400 aircraft, or roughly the present nominal force size," the report said.
The report warns that by no later than 2014, Taiwan will no longer have the fighter aircraft needed to meet "the operational requirements of defending its air space from the Chinese military threat."
Taiwan defense officials and defense industry sources indicated continued denials of new fighters could force Taiwan to develop a pre-emptive strike posture.
The report does acknowledge Taiwan's development of a "deep-strike capability" that is driven by a "need to neutralize high-value military targets." These include roughly 1,300 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, as well as C2 facilities, air bases, radar stations and surface-to-air missile units capable of hitting aircraft over Taiwan.
This includes a major research-and-development program for two land-attack missiles: a land-attack cruise missile and a tactical ballistic missile.
However, Taiwan defense sources previously have indicated these programs serve both as a ploy to force Washington to release arms to Taiwan and as a backup in case arms are not approved.
One example is continued resistance by the United States to release the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile. In response, Taiwan developed its own anti-radiation variant, the TC-2A.
Though China and Taiwan are improving relations and are expected to sign the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement soon, the report cautions that the political situation is still fluid and the future uncertain.
This "significant quantitative decline" represents a "fighter gap" between China and Taiwan that exposes the island to "Chinese political extortion as the two sides move towards political dialogue."
China continues to use a "carrot-and-stick" approach to negotiations and has made no effort to reduce the military threat to Taiwan.
Sources in Taipei caution that the upcoming presidential election in 2012 could see the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party return to power, resulting in a violent reaction by China.