Does Taiwan Need More F-16s?

Expanding Taiwan’s fleet of aging fighter planes may not be the best strategy to deter a Chinese attack.

Republic of Korea F-16 fighter jets prepare for takeoff, May 7, 2008
Republic of Korea F-16 fighter jets prepare for takeoff, May 7, 2008 (Steven Weng)

Opposition lawmakers in the United States are appalled that the Obama Administration would consider not selling more and newer F-16s to Taiwan but are aircraft really what the island nation needs to defend itself against mainland China?

The White House is under pressure from Republicans in the Senate to approve additional arms sales to Taiwan after it signaled to its ally last month that a formal request for an F-16 upgrade would probably be denied. Taiwan needs to boost its air defenses as some 70 percent of its current jet fleet is set to retire over the next decade.

Last year’s arms sale of defense equipment to Taiwan soured Sino-American relations for months. Beijing continues to regard the republic as a renegade province at a time when America’s security commitment to Taiwan is becoming problematic and its economic ties with the Chinese becoming evermore important.

China has heavily invested in air and missile strike capabilities over the last decade, causing a security imbalance to develop across the Taiwanese Strait that America is unlikely to be able to mend with military force alone. In the near future, the United States will probably not be able to bring enough fighter jets to battle to offset China’s quantitative superiority. It hasn’t enough planes stationed nearby, on Taiwan nor in Japan, and could not dispatch enough aircraft carriers to the site in time to effectively repel an invasion.

The Taiwanese air force meanwhile is increasingly vulnerable to a Chinese missile attack which could destroy all of Taiwan’s airfields in a single strike, rendering its fixed-wing airpower virtually useless.

In short, the United States and Taiwan can no longer be confident of winning the battle for the air in the air.

In order to restore balance, the United States could disperse fighter planes across a larger number of bases or seek to pose the same kind of threat to China’s air force bases as it presents to those on Taiwan and Okinawa, Japan. That would require fielding hundreds of additional midrange missiles on Taiwan however which neither America nor Taiwan currently operates.

The alternative would be to make abundantly clear that an attack against Taiwan would be considered an attack on the United States but will Washington truly retaliate if the Chinese manage to disable the island’s defenses and launch an invasion within a matter of days? Would America be willing to go to war with China over Taiwan?

If the answer is “no,” a better strategy, according to Robert Haddick at Foreign Policy, would be to mimic mainland China’s missile program. “Mobile launchers, which unlike airfields could evade detection and targeting, could support both battlefield and strategic missiles that could hold targets on the mainland at risk.”

Over a thousand ballistic missiles are now aimed at Taiwan and a hundred more are added every year. The Taiwanese should field more of such weapons of their own and invest in anti-missile defenses that would prove far more effective in the event of an attack from the mainland than an expanded fleet of aging fighter planes. “Such a program could do a better job of restoring a military balance across the Taiwan Strait than would fixed-wing aircraft operating from vulnerable bases.”

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