Taipei Eyes Harriers as Substitute for F-16s
By WENDELL MINNICK TAIPEI — If the U.S. does not release new F-16s to Taiwan, elements in the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) plan to push Washington to provide refurbished AV-8B Harrier attack jets.
The Harrier strategy was revealed by senior DPP members at an international conference here — “A Rising Chinese Hegemony and Challenges to the Region,” held July 19-20 — that outlined continued threats by China’s military modernization to Taiwan and the region.
The Washington-based Project 2049 Institute jointly sponsored the conference with the Taiwan Brain Trust, a new think tank created in January by the DPP.
Supporters of the Harrier purchase argue that Chinese missiles will destroy airbase runways, leaving conventional aircraft grounded.
The Harriers’ vertical/short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) capability would make them perfect for Taiwan, said York Chen, a former member of the National Security Council under the Chen Shuibian administration.
However, the plan is largely dependent on whether the DPP can oust the Beijing-friendly Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) from presidential and legislative power in 2012.
The DPP might recover some of the legislative seats and possibly retake the presidency in 2012. At present, observers indicate the DPP has two potential presidential candidates, Su Tseng-chang and Tsai Ing-wen, but neither will discuss a presidential bid this early. Su is the favorite and “oozes presidential,” said an observer at the conference.
Since 2006, the U.S. has stalled on Taiwan’s request for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52s, and with the production line for new F-16s nearing an end, some are beginning to look at alternative platforms.
“F-16s would be useless in a war anyway,” said a Taiwan Defense Ministry official. “The runways will be destroyed.”
Growing Missile Threat
Local analysts have pointed to the massive buildup of Chinese short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM), which now stands at 1,300, aimed at the island since the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis. A paper recently released by the Ministry of National Defense has been widely misquoted in the Western media, suggesting the number of SRBMs will climb to 1,960 by the end of 2010.
The actual paper, “2010 China Attack Strength Analysis Study,” by Marine Corps Col. Tsai Jing-fa, states China will have 1,960 “short-to mediumrange missiles” aimed at Taiwan by the end of the year. U.S. Defense Department and Taiwan Ministry of National Defense numbers normally only include SRBMs and do not include medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) or cruise missiles.
However, MRBMs are still a concern, said Mark Stokes, a former Pentagon official now with Project 2049. China is outfitting a missile brigade in Chizhou, Anhui province, believed to be an MRBM base capable of hitting Taiwan, he said.
The conference looked beyond missile threats and posed the question of what Taiwan’s unification with China would look like in the future. Lin Cheng-yin, a research fellow at Academia Sinica, suggested “nightmare scenarios” where China puts bases on the island and uses the Taiwan Navy as a proxy force for securing disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea.
Observers expressed concerns over the rapid sequence of cross-Strait agreements since the KMT won the presidency and legislature in 2008. China and Taiwan signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in Chongqing, China, on June 29.
The historic agreement is expected to solidify closer economic and trade relations between Beijing and Taipei. There is now talk of a “Western Taiwan Straits Economic Zone” that would integrate the economies of Taiwan and China’s Fujian Province.
Project 2049 president, Randy Schriver, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said at the conference that China is maneuvering Taiwan into de facto unification under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that will abrogate Taiwan sovereignty.