Friday, May 14, 2010

Taiwan Sends Mixed Message on Fighters

Defense News


Taiwan Sends Mixed Message on Fighters


TAIPEI - Comments made by Taiwan's Air Force chief of staff have confused the issue over whether Taiwan actually wants F-16s.

On May 13, Air Chief Ger Hsi-hsiung told members of the legislature that F-16s would meet Taiwan's immediate requirements, but the F-16 lacks the stealth and short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) capabilities that will be needed in the future.

When asked by the legislature to identify the fighter better suited to meet Taiwan's long-term needs, Ger identified the F-35B Lightening II.

Taiwan first requested 66 new F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters from the United States in 2006, but Washington has been hesitant to release the aircraft due to pressure from China.

Ger's response sends the wrong signal to Washington at a time when the government is pushing hard for the release of F-16s, said a Taiwan defense official.

"He is downplaying the utility of the F-16 and that the F-16 is not appropriate for our future needs." The result is "confusion at a time when there should be one voice on the F-16 procurement," he said.

Taiwan's Air Force faces 1,300 short-range ballistic missiles and a Chinese land-based air defense network that can target aircraft over the northwestern portion of the island. Runways are expected to be destroyed within the first salvo of ballistic missiles. Therefore, the Air Force has a requirement for a stealthy fighter with STOVL capabilities that can operate from damaged runways and avoid Chinese radar.

Taiwan had looked at procuring used Boeing AV-8B Harriers to fill the STOVL requirement, but the matter was dropped when the F-35s became an option.

A Taiwan defense analyst said the F-35 would give Taiwan control of the air at a tactical and even at a strategic level that it has not had since the 1980s. The F-35 would also enhance survivability against ballistic missile attack and radar targeting by China.

Though Ger acknowledged it was government policy to pursue procurement of new F-16s, the fighters do not "satisfy" the Air Force requirements. He said Chinese fighters can cross the Taiwan Strait in five-to-seven minutes, leaving little time to react.

Ger's comments are not new. Taiwan submitted a letter of intent (LoI) to the U.S. Department of Defense in 2002 requesting a briefing on the F-35, which was subsequently granted.

"Strikes on Taiwan airbases would neutralize existing aircraft due to their inability to perform short take-offs and landings," the LoI said. "Requirement: capability to engage enemy forces from air, after initial strikes against conventional ROCAF [Republic of China Air Force] airbases render the bases temporarily inoperative. Our forces are designed to absorb an initial strike and provide a full defense from ongoing air attacks from the PRC [People's Republic of China]."

A Taiwan government adviser said the military will be "lucky to afford" new F-16s, let alone more expensive F-35s. He said the military budget was shrinking at the same time it was taking delivery of $13 billion worth of new arms and equipment from the United States.

He doubts the military can afford the new arms and a costly streamlining and reorganization program now underway. The military is moving from conscription to a volunteer military within the next five years. It is also decreasing the number of personnel and consolidating commands.

Arms in the pipeline include 60 UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, 30 AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, 12 P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, two Osprey minesweepers and more than 300 Patriot PAC-3 missile systems.