Lessons and experiences from previous Taiwan Strait crises have shown that it is imperative for Taiwan to maintain a measure of qualitative superiority over China – not only to attempt to prevail in conflict, but also to reinforce deterrence, to allow Taiwan to negotiate from a position of strength, and to prevent war. However, a careful and objective analysis of the current balance of air power in the Taiwan Strait reveals that Taiwan’s current air defense forces are only marginally capable of meeting the island’s air defense needs, and that it faces real and significant future challenges in maintaining its current capabilities.
The U.S. decision in 2011 to assist Taiwan with the mid-life upgrade (MLU) of its existing fleet of F-16A/B fighters will significantly improve Taiwan’s air defense capabilities. Nevertheless, the upgrade program still does not adequately address all of Taiwan’s legitimate air defense requirements. Without additional procurement programs, a tangible and substantial front-line fighter gap will develop in Taiwan within the next five to ten years, as a significant portion of the Taiwan Air Force (TAF) aircraft inventory reaches the end of its useful service life.
Taiwan’s fleet of Mirage 2000s and the F-CK-1A/B Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) both contend with serious availability issues, and may be facing retirement after 2018. The shortfall in front-line fighters will be further exacerbated by the rapidly approaching obsolescence of Taiwan’s fleet of F-5 Lead-In Fighter Training (LIFT) aircraft. Together, this will reduce the Taiwan air defense force structure to rely primarily on a small fleet of 145 F-16A/Bs whose operational rate takes the number of available planes to approximately 107. During the scheduled upgrade program for these fighters, however, as many as a squadron (24) at a time of F-16A/Bs will be unavailable for service, further reducing Taiwan’s air defense forces.
By 2023, at the expected end of the upgrade program, Taiwan’s operationally-available fighter strength will have declined to a point where the TAF will no longer possess the minimum requisite number of combat aircraft necessary to defend its air space from Chinese aggression or military coercion. Moreover, the quantitative shortfall is certain to also erode the quality of Taiwan’s air force, manifesting in decreased aircraft performance, reduced pilot training opportunities, and lack of pilot experience.
This significant air power shortfall will emerge in Taiwan while China continues to aggressively modernize and expand its missile strike capabilities, and while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is simultaneously and rapidly introducing modern combat aircraft into service in large numbers.
The United States has both a clear legal and moral obligation to respond to the ongoing Chinese intimidation tactics and attempts at coercion of Taiwan. Under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), Washington must ready itself and Taiwan to resist that coercion. The germane parts of the TRA make it the policy of the United States:
- to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;
- to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
- to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.
Arguably the mere existence of China’s current large arsenal of ballistic missiles, land attack cruise missiles (LACMs), and fighter aircraft opposite Taiwan is “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific,” as it is undermining the long-standing, stability-enhancing military balance in the region. Clearly targeted at Taiwan, China’s standing arsenal is certainly a means of coercion even if the missiles and aircraft are never used.
The United States and Taiwan need to craft and implement counter-coercive strategies that undercut the utility of Chinese aerospace power, while demonstrating Taiwan’s ability to defend its airspace in peacetime and wartime.
Graphic: Report Cover
Graphic: The Looming Taiwan Fighter Gap