A New Air Force Procurement Strategy for Taiwan

Reducing its F-16 buys from the Americans makes sense for Taiwan.

An F-16 fighter jet in service with the Republic of China Air Force prepares for takeoff, September 30, 2011 (Al Jazeera English)
An F-16 fighter jet in service with the Republic of China Air Force prepares for takeoff, September 30, 2011 (Al Jazeera English)

It is reported that Taiwan has more than halved the number of F-16 fighter planes it requests from the United States government, from 66 down to 24.

The China Times based in Taipei quotes a supposedly authoritative military source on the matter. That source, in citing budgetary concerns as the primary reason for the reduced order, indicates that the combined cost of indigenous defense programs and other international purchases would not leave sufficient funds over the course of near term fiscal periods to accommodate a large purchase.

While the Taiwanese government has denied the report, other news outlets, citing multiple sources, have picked up on the news. In many ways, a reduction in F-16 purchases does make sense.

The continued Taiwanese drive to purchase the F-16C/D, an advanced and upgraded variant of the F-16A/B multirole attack fighter aircraft that is already flown by the island nation’s air force, comes at the end of a fiscal year that has seen extensive investment in defense infrastructure. This year alone, Taiwan has made progress with a variety of small to medium tonnage shipbuilding programs; has made procurements aimed at fortifying the capabilities of the country’s amphibious and coastal defense forces and has agreed to fund a massive $5.85 billion program purchase to have American contractors and military organizations upgrade all 146 places in the F-16A/B fleet.

That upgrade venture in itself is likely a major cause of any reticence on the part of the government of Taiwan to backtrack on the standing request for new model fighters.

The package, agreed in July, includes the installation of new components and the modernization of various parts of the legacy fighters’ airframes. Radar systems will be upgraded, something that is particularly useful for Taiwanese jets that are constantly tasked with monitoring the contested airspace between the island and mainland China, and overall performance will be improved so as to allow the Taiwanese air force to balance capabilities against those of China’s.

Taiwan does have massive incentives to continue with the purchase of at least some new model planes. On the one hand, no upgrade package for the existing F-16A/B fleet can compensate for the loss of operability that will inevitably come from Taiwan retiring its respective fleets of Mirage 2000 and F-5E fighters. Those planes will almost all need replacing by the end of this decade. On the other, new ventures, even if they are costly, will continue to breathe life into the island’s indigenous defense industry in the form of new investment and exposure to modern avionics and weapons technologies.

Two dozen newer model F-16s allow Taiwan to address both of these points in a way that enables the country’s defense forces to prepare for the future. Flying a variety of F-16C/Ds will allow Taipei to begin retirement of legacy aircraft and still give the military a parity of sorts with craft like the Chinese J-10 and J-11 fighters.

More importantly, the operation of new planes alongside the joint upgrade venture, a process being managed by Lockheed Martin and Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation, gives domestic defense contractors insight into the technologies used in modern combat platforms. Both factors will undoubtedly lead to a more robust Taiwanese capability to provide for security without reliance on international assistance.

And so, for a variety of reasons, pursuing a reduced number of advanced fighters in addition to upgrading the existing fleet makes substantive sense. Beyond merely being a politically feasible trade in the context of Sino-American relations, it allows Taiwan to balance budgetary outlays, maintain the competitiveness of its aging air force and, above all else, provides the defense establishment with the near term investment in experience and infrastructure that can continue to give the military modernization options in the future.

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