Since 2006, the Taiwan government has attempted to submit a Letter of Request (LOR) to the United States, asking to purchase 66 new F-16 C/Ds to replace its aging Vietnam War-era F-5s and its Mirage 2000s. On three separate occasions between 2006 and 2008, the U.S. government refused to accept the LOR and to consider Taiwan’s request, thereby leaving the matter of selling new F-16s to Taiwan as a burgeoning strategic and political issue affecting U.S.-Taiwan-China relations.
In the summer of 2011, Senator John Cornyn of Texas blocked confirmation of President Obama’s pick for Deputy Secretary of State in response to the lack of progress on all of Taiwan’s legitimate airpower modernization needs. That included the upgrade of Taiwan’s existing fleet of 145 F-16 A/Bs, as well as the purchase of additional fighters. In a deal worked out directly with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Cornyn secured a commitment to have the issue of Taiwan’s airpower needs assessed and a public decision the on arms sales reached.
In September of 2011, the Obama Administration notified to Congress a package of arms sales to Taiwan that included an upgrade program for Taiwan’s existing 145 F-16 A/B. However, the issue of selling new aircraft to Taiwan was left unaddressed. Many analysts and members of the media have posited that it was a choice between one or the other, with the U.S. choosing upgrades over new aircraft. This is, however, incorrect; Taiwan requires both upgraded fighters as well as new fighters to maintain a credible air force.
In February of 2012, a U.S. Department of Defense official wrote to Senator Cornyn, laying out a case that suggested the Obama Administration believed that the actions taken to that date were sufficient to address Taiwan’s needs. Senator Cornyn then placed a hold on a second nomination by President Obama, this time holding the confirmation for a new Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. On April 27, 2012, in exchange for lifting the hold, the White House agreed in a letter to Senator Cornyn that Taiwan had a legitimate fighter gap opening up, and that a part of the solution was the sale of new fighters.
On July 13, 2012, the governments of the United States and Taiwan signed a US$3.8 billion Letter of Offer & Acceptance (LOA) to upgrade Taiwan’s 145 F-16 A/B fighters. This deal will provide Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16 A/Bs with important enhancements by means of a contract spanning nearly a decade of work (2012-2021). The agreement provides for Taiwan adding advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar to its fighters, as well as for making structural upgrades, improving avionics, and expanding electronic warfare suites.
In Taiwan, the demand for new fighters has waned somewhat since the F-16 A/B upgrade program got underway. Taiwan’s budget is being squeezed, and with defense spending at only 2.2% of GDP, this is placing political pressure on the Ministry of National Defense and their requests for further military modernization programs.
The U.S. presidential election in the fall of 2012 is likely to push any resolution of Taiwan’s effort to buy additional fighters into some time after November 6, 2012. Nevertheless, whoever wins the election will be confronted with this ongoing challenge, which will not disappear.
The Air Gap and Taiwan’s Needs
Effective air defense is a crucial component if Taiwan is to mount a viable defense of the island. Taiwan’s current air defenses comprise 18 fighter squadrons with a nominal strength of 387 combat aircraft of U.S., French, and indigenous origins: 145 F-16A/Bs, 126 F-CK-1A/Bs, 56 Mirage 2000-5s, and 60 F-5E/Fs. All of these are reasonably modern “Fourth Generation” fighters with BVR AAM capability, with the F-5s – which are mainly used for operational conversion training with only a secondary combat role – as the exception.
Block obsolescence is a clear and present challenge to the Taiwan Air Force (TAF). Its F-5 fleet is nearing the end of its useful structurally-permitted service life, and is slated to retire by 2014. In addition, the actual number of airworthy twin-seat F-5Fs was reduced to just four aircraft in 2009. This shortfall is impacting lead-in fighter training (LIFT) for new pilots, and could erode pilot quality and operational readiness over time.
Taiwan’s Mirage 2000 fleet suffers from very high Operations & Maintenance (O&M) costs and chronically low availability rates. The TAF poured substantial funding into addressing the Mirage issues, leading to improvements in material readiness. But a tight O&M budget situation will almost certainly ensure a relapse into low Mirage material readiness over the next few years. Taiwan may resort to mothballing part of the fleet to conserve resources, and the combination of F-5 obsolescence and strained Mirage supportability will create a substantial shortfall of fighter aircraft for the TAF.
It is important to clearly understand the grave issues faced by Taiwan’s air forces after 2016. In the latter part of that year, the Taiwan Air Force will start to withdraw up to a squadron (24) at a time of F-16 A/Bs to undergo upgrades and modernization. With 16 fighters permanently allocated for training at Luke Air Force Base, and with an operational rate of 70%, Taiwan will then have as few as 73 F-16 A/Bs operational at any one time – half of its existing fleet. In addition, these remaining fighters will not yet have been modernized, and will be required to fly more missions to attempt to maintain control over Taiwan’s myriad defense and security scenarios.
This is simply not enough to handle all of Taiwan’s many needs, whether at war or while at peace, as Taiwan will then no longer have the number of combat aircraft necessary to meet the requirements for defending its air space. Indeed, removing F-16 A/Bs from the front line to be upgraded actually makes Taiwan’s 2016-2021 fighter gap that much wider.
A review of the operational scenarios indicates that Taiwan’s current air defense forces are only marginally capable of meeting the island’s air defense needs. With effective fighter strength weakened by a combination of obsolescence of the F-5E/F fleet, low material availability of the Mirage 2000-5 aircraft, and the upgrade program for its F-16A/Bs, Taiwan’s ability to defend its air space against likely threat scenarios can be expected to significantly deteriorate.
Moving ahead with the F-16 A/B upgrade program is an important initial step in Taiwan’s effort to play its role in the region. Nevertheless, this action does not offer a complete solution, and Taiwan’s requirement to also purchase new fighters is just as serious and urgent as the U.S.-supported modernization programs for Australia, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan.
TAF urgently needs to procure new combat aircraft to compensate for the significant loss in operational fighter strength projected over the next several years. The fighter gap, if not bridged in a timely manner, could solidify cross-Strait military imbalance in favor of China. That would both undermine deterrence and expose Taiwan to Chinese political extortion as the two sides move towards political dialogue.
A suitable candidate aircraft has to possess sufficiently high performance, BVR capability, and payload/range characteristics to conduct Taiwan’s CAP/DCA and maritime-strike/anti-invasion missions. Such aircraft also need to be supportable beyond 2025 and be export-releasable to Taiwan.
There are some who argue that the F-35B – the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the new U.S. fighter – should be the focus of Taiwan efforts to modernize its fighter fleet. In 2011, press reports indicated that a U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress highlighted a STOVL aircraft as the best solution for Taiwan.
Certainly a STOVL variant would meet many of Taiwan’s needs, and if it was available that could be an attractive option. However, the F-35B will certainly not be made available to Taiwan in the next decade. It therefore fails to meet Taiwan’s fighter gap needs between 2016 and 2021. In addition, the F-35B is significantly more expensive than the F-16 C/D – it represents a new airframe and therefore a new supply chain to keep it operational through training, upgrading, and maintenance. The F-35B would therefore create even greater budgetary pressures for Taiwan’s already under-funded defense establishment.
Given these criteria, the aircraft best suited to Taiwan’s current needs is the F-16C/D.
The US-Taiwan Business Council urges the U.S. & Taiwan governments to put a plan in place as soon as possible to address the projected and destabilizing air defense gap, and recommends moving forward with a program to sell F-16C/Ds to Taiwan.