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Taiwan Has Bold Plans To Strengthen Its Air Force

March 10, 2019

Stock image of an F-16 Fighting Falcon.

A US lobby group in Taiwan welcomed the country’s plans for buying new multirole fighters for its air force. This followed an announcement by the Ministry of National Defense (MND) that it planned to acquire a specific number of the latest F-16 variant from Lockheed Martin. But confirmation of the impending sale has yet to be released by either the Pentagon or the State Department. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), which is the agency overseeing military sales to allies, hasn’t published any details about F-16 deliveries for the island nation.

The F-16V Block 70/72 is a combat proven model that boasts conformal fuel tanks on its airframe along with an AESA radar, a cockpit with a high resolution display, and a high-speed data bus. Lockheed Martin insists the F-16V is “the world’s most successful fourth-generation fighter.”

Both the MND and ROC Air Force want to acquire 66 F-16V’s for closing the worrisome gap with China’s PLAAF, whose several hundred “modern” fixed wing combat aircraft (out of 2,300 total) include an estimated 329 J-11B’s and 92 Su-30MK2’s bought from Russia. The PLAAF is also readying airborne early warning and control aircraft based on the Y-20 heavy transport and upgraded long-range strike bombers as a possible replacement for the H-6K. The comparison to plucky Taiwan is dismal with the ROCAF being stuck with less than 500 fixed wing combat aircraft. The majority of these comprise 144 F-16A/B’s and 128 locally made F-CK-1 Ching-kuos. The latter are twin engine “indigenous fighters” that use US-made Honeywell engines.

Purchasing 66 F-16V’s is a deliberate move for enlarging the ROCAF’s current F-16 fleet to 200-strong. While this hardly threatens China, the greater number enhances Taiwan’s ability to police its own airspace when the PLAAF’s behavior in recent years is becoming more dangerous. In the event of a full-blown war across the Taiwan Strait and outlying waters, the ROCAF’s F-16A/B’s, Ching-kuos, and 55 Mirage 2000D/E’s can fly retaliatory missions over Southern China loaded with air-launched cruise missiles. But the MND later claimed that it was exploring other options aside from F-16V’s such as the F-15 and the F/A-18.

Whatever model the MND chooses, the announcement is welcome news for Lockheed Martin, whose activities in Asia have broadened this decade. Beyond Taiwan, the aerospace giant is a serious contender for India’s convoluted acquisition of a “medium multirole combat aircraft” and during the recent Aero India a rebranded “F-21” was shown to clinch the deal. Prospects are bright in Southeast Asia too, where Indonesia and the Philippines may soon place orders for F-16V’s to bolster their air forces. Meanwhile, Singapore’s medium-term plans for its military could make it the fifth Asian customer allowed to buy the F-35A JSF.

The F-35A’s prospects in the continent are admittedly dazzling and even Taiwan faces no barriers when lobbying Washington,DC for these fifth-generation stealth aircraft. Between Japan’s plans for at least a hundred F-35A’s and pending deliveries to South Korea, the platform will have a thriving reputation in East Asia for the next decade and a half, at least. It’s also within the realm of possibility for a Gulf Arab state to soon be its latest customer in the Middle East as the F-35A’s destined for Turkey are now facing troubling headwinds as Ankara pursues arms deals with Moscow. Israel, of course, will possess a growing fleet of F-35A’s in the coming years and have ample opportunities to use them.

The extent of Taiwan’s military build up can’t be ignored. Its scale surpasses even the more ambitious goals of particular Southeast Asian states and involves full participation by local companies. The secretive program to design and build a new family of dual use trainer jets, for example, appears separate from the large purchase of F-16V’s. There are ongoing efforts to accomplish the same with homegrown AEGIS destroyers and diesel-electric submarines, an anti-ballistic missile defense network, and a new generation of drones.

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