Taiwan Frustrated Over Stalled F-16 Effort
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI - Taiwan defense officials are frustrated by continued U.S. reluctance to move forward on new F-16C/Ds and an upgrade program for older F-16A/Bs. Combined, the programs add up to $10 billion in new U.S. arms deals to Taiwan, but reluctance by Washington to anger Beijing continues to stall the deal.
Taiwan's request for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters for $5.5 billion and for an upgrade package for 146 F-16A/B Block 20 fighters for $4.5 billion has been on hold since 2007 and 2009, respectively.
There is also intense debate within the U.S. government as to whether the programs should include the active electronically scanned array radar, which some in Washington fear could end up in Chinese hands if Taiwan reunifies with the mainland. The alternative is the older APG-68 mechanical radar.
Taiwan also faces hurdles over an engine replacement with some in Taiwan's defense community suggesting that the current Pratt & Whitney F-100-PW220 engines be rebuilt, rather than replaced, due to budget concerns.
"The A/B program should be ready for notification next year even if Obama balks at sending it to the Hill," said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council. "However, the P&A [price and availability] data remains stuck at the State Department.
"At the Taiwan end, the view seems to be to wait until a call has been made on the new buy [C/D]," he said.
Hammond-Chambers said Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou had serious reservations about doing just the upgrade program.
"They view the new buy and upgrade program as a single effort working sequentially," he said. "The delay in the P&A data might be useful, too, as it'll keep it out of a tight 2012 [Taiwan defense] budget."
The Taiwan Air Force has 126 Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDF), 56 Mirage 2000s, 146 F-16A/Bs and about 60 F-5E/Fs. The F-5s, largely used for training and reconnaissance, are scheduled for retirement within the next five years. The Mirage 2000s are suffering from maintenance problems and will be mothballed within the next five to 10 years.
Taiwan's state-run Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC) is upgrading 71 IDFs with delivery expected in the 2013-14 timeframe.
Should the U.S. not release the F-16C/D fighters, Taiwan will not be able to replace the 116 fighters (F-5/Mirage) to be phased out within the next 10 years. F-16A/B fighters and the remaining 55 IDFs that are not upgraded will also begin to lose operational capability as they age further.
Taiwan is also facing problems identifying a replacement for its older AT-3 jet trainers. The U.S. no longer builds a lead-in fighter trainer, and neither the Europeans nor the South Koreans are prepared to anger China with the sale of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 or the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 Golden Eagle.
A KAI official said that Taiwan Air Force officials had visited KAI several times in an unsuccessful effort to secure the release. A plan by Taiwan's AIDC to build an indigenous replacement, the AT-5, ended in disaster several years ago due to a lack of support by Taiwan's Air Force, a Taiwan defense industry source said.
Taiwan is facing continued threats from China, including new fighter capabilities such as the recently unveiled J-20 stealth fighter and a new DF-16 medium-range ballistic missile in development. Taiwan is facing more than 1,300 short-range ballistic missiles and despite continued improvements in cross-Strait relations between China and Taiwan, there has been no reduction of missiles aimed at the island.