Taiwan - F-16 C/D - 2011
Taiwan's military equipment is growing old and obsolete. Particularly worrisome is the state of the ROC Air Force. Its inventory includes 56 Mirage 2000, 145 F-16 A/B, 126 IDFs, and 60 F-5E/F fighters. According to a 2011 Defense Intelligence Agency study, many of these warplanes “are incapable of operating effectively.” Another report estimated that “by 2020, Taiwan’s fighters would drop in number by 70% without new F-16s, and by 50% with 66 new F-16s.” It is clear that Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC had not been maintained.
Taiwan had been attempting to submit a letter of request [LOR]for 66 F-16 C/Ds since 2007, and successive administrations refused to even accept the LOR.
Taiwan first asked to buy new F-16s in 2007 after approving substantial funding for the aircraft. In mid-2007 Washington seem worried about President Chen Shui-bian's plan to call a referendum on Taiwan's joining the United Nations under its own name. Washington was reported to have been so concerned as to cancel a planned sale of F-16C/D fighters to Taiwan.
Taiwan's current fleet is 16 years old. The planes are increasingly obsolete and spare parts are increasingly difficult to obtain. China has built increasingly advanced fighters, therefore Taiwan's air superiority capability is at a serious disadvantage." "Taiwan's determination to defend itself is indisputable. Taiwan has been trying for 12 years to buy F-16 C/D models built by Lockheed Martin Corp of Bethesda, Maryland. The U.S. government is required by a 1979 law to provide Taiwan sufficient arms to defend itself. Successive U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have managed the weapons flow to minimize fallout with China.
On October 18, 2007, President Chen Shui-bian was interviewed by The New York Times. He said that "The government of Taiwan made a request for military procurement during the Clinton Administration regarding submarines, P3C anti-submarine fixed-wing aircraft, and PAC-III missiles, but the Clinton Administration did not approve the request. It was not until the new administration, that is, the Bush Administration, came into power, that the arms sales package to Taiwan was approved. As for the F-16C/D fighter aircraft, we can understand why although we have the budget ready, the US government has yet to issue a letter of offer and acceptance, and that it seems likely that we will have to wait until the new administration comes into power and the new US president takes office before the deal can be approved. This follows the same pattern as that seen with the three previous procurement items, so it is not a surprise to us."
In a speech before the Association for the Promotion of National Security, Ma Ying-jeou said on February 26, 2008 that "In terms of concrete issues, we think the F-16C/D procurement is particularly important. In the 1990s, Taiwan steadily purchased or self-manufactured advanced fighter planes, but for more than ten years now we've been stuck with a weak air force. The problem is getting worse and worse. It is imperative to replenish air power by supplementing or replacing existing hardware with newer and more advanced aircraft. But President Chen Shui-bian's pernicious use of the "Join the UN under the Name Taiwan" plebiscite has been preventing us from doing so. Last year we submitted several letters of intent to the United States on the matter of F-16C/D fighter procurement. We asked about the price and the possibility of purchase, but every one of these letters was rejected. This is what happens when a party puts its interests first and sacrifices national security. That's no way to govern a nation. The KMT has always had a powerful resolve to maintain a strong military. We vigorously supported the F-16C/D procurement bill in the Legislative Yuan. If elected, we will endeavor to persuade the United States to approve this procurement, for we believe that a Taiwan Strait bridged by a balance of power will be a peaceful and stable Taiwan Strait."
The National Defense Report of the ROC, May 2008, stated that "The acquisition of F-16C/D fighters, long-range early warning ultra high frequency phased array radars, and the construction of the Regional Operations Control Center will ensure our counter-air superiority in the Taiwan Strait, in coordination with C4ISR system integration aiming to elevate the overall effectiveness of our joint counter-air operations."
In its final years, former President George W. Bush's administration would not accept a formal request for the advanced F-16s. The head of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Timothy Keating said on 16 July 2008 that US policymakers saw no pressing need to sell advanced arms, such as the F-16 fighter, to Taiwan. US decision-makers "have reconciled Taiwan's current military posture, China's current military posture and strategy that indicates there is no pressing, compelling need for at this moment arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we're talking about," the Hawaii-based commander said at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "I'm more comfortable today ... than I was 15 months ago, that my belief is well founded that it is very, very, very unlikely that there will be conflict across the strait," Keating said.
The United States "has an obligation to assist Taiwan to maintain a credible defense of its air space, which includes modern fighters," said U.S.-Taiwan Business Council president Rupert Hammond-Chambers. The Ministry of National Defense (MND) expressed cautious optimism that the U.S. government will eventually give its approval to the sale of F-16C/D fighter jets to Taiwan to help maintain air power balance over the Taiwan Strait. In September 2008 there were media reports that the former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration never made the request for purchasing a shipment of the fighter jets.
As of late 2008, according to the MND's latest arms procurement plan, F-16C/D fighter jets were to be part of the "seven plus one" arms deal. The other items on the shopping list include anti-tank missiles, Apache helicopters, Patriot PAC-3 missile batteries, diesel-powered submarines, P3C anti-submarine aircraft, sea-launched Harpoon missiles, and Black Hawk helicopters. Taiwan is seeking to buy 12 P3-C anti-submarine aircraft, 8 conventional submarines, 6 PAC-III anti-missile batteries and 60-66 F-16 C/D jets from the U.S.
On 03 October 2008 the US Defense Department notified Congress that it had approved the sale of a US$6.46 billion package of weapons to Taiwan. The sales would cover some of the $12-billion package approved by President George W. Bush in 2001. That package was held up by debate in Taiwan's legislature. The Bush Administration approved the sale of a package of weapons to Taiwan that included 330 advanced capability Patriot (PAC-3) missiles worth up to $3.1 billion, and 30 Apache attack helicopters valued at $2.5 billion, along with 32 Harpoon sub-launched missiles, 182 Javelin guided missiles, and four E-2T system upgrades. The US did not, however, approve diesel-electric submarines and Black Hawk helicopters that Taiwan had sought.
President Ma Ying-jeou lauded the sale as "signaling an end to the turmoil of the past eight years and the beginning of a new era of safety and peace, as well as of mutual trust between Taiwan and the US." Since President Ma Ying-jeou's inauguration on 20 May 2008, his administration had been endeavoring to rebuild mutual trust between the Republic of China and the United States. Taiwan believed that the U.S. decision not only marked the end of turmoil and confusion of arms purchase in Taiwan in the past eight years, but also symbolized the beginning of the new era of mutual trust between the two countries.
The sale drew a strong protest from China, which reacted by suspending military-to-military exchanges and nonproliferation talks with the United States. The Chinese suspended military-to-military activity in response to the US announcement of arms sales to Taiwan. And in March 2009, five Chinese ships surrounded and harassed the USNS Impeccable surveillance ship as it operated in international waters.
Ma's administration was still seeking UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters built by United Technologies Corp's Sikorsky unit and design work on modern diesel-electric submarines. These two items were cleared for release to Taiwan by Bush as part of a landmark arms offer in April 2001, but left out of the October 2008 notification to Congress. The deals were held up for years, largely by partisan hurdles to funding in Taiwan. The Bush administration had told Taiwan that it was not denying it any of the weapons approved in 2001, but would leave the decision to Obama.
On 16 February 2009 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton affirmed that there will be no change in Washington's policy on arms sales to Taiwan under the new administration of President Barack Obama. Clinton, who departed Sunday for a four-nation Asia visit, made the remarks in an interview during her flight to Japan, her first stop. Clinton said U.S. policy with respect to Taiwan "remains as it has been" because it is based on Washington's long-standing "one China" policy, the three communiques with China and the Taiwan Relations Act. "And under the Taiwan Relations Act, there is a clear provision that the United States will provide support for Taiwan's defense. And that is why there have been, over the many years, the sale of defensive materials to Taiwan," Clinton said. In March 2009 Legislative Yuan speaker said the U.S. government declined to make a long-awaited sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan for fear of upsetting China. The White House blocked the US$4.9 billion deal for 66 advanced F-16s in 2008 and there was little hope of it being revived in 2009, said Wang Jin-pyng, president of the Legislative Yuan. "The U.S. doesn't want to give them to us," Wang said. "They wouldn't name a price. It's mainly because mainland China would oppose the sale," Wang added.
On 26 March 2009 it was reported that Taiwan was looking to buy US "fifth-generation" fighter jets featuring stealth and vertical takeoff capabilities. Taipei had plans to buy an F-35 modification with vertical takeoff to provide support to naval infantry operations. There were two main reasons Taipei wanted to buy F-35s. First, the existing fleet of Taiwanese fighters can be easily destroyed with Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missiles deployed in mainland China. Second, F-35s will make Taiwan less dependent on airfields in the event of an armed conflict. The fighter needs a runway of 300 meters or less to take off. Washington did not immediately react to Taipei's request. Observers attributed the US silence to fears of a critical reaction from Beijing. The US had stalled on the island's request for 66 less advanced F-16s. Taiwan first expressed an interest in F-35s as early as 2006, according to Jane's Defence Weekly.
The US Defense Department March 2009 ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS - Military Power of the People's Republic of China stated on page VIII that "Since 2000, the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has continued to shift in Beijing's favor, marked by the sustained deployment of advanced military equipment to the Military Regions opposite Taiwan. In the 2002 report, the Department of Defense assessed that Taiwan "has enjoyed dominance of the airspace over the Taiwan Strait for many years." This conclusion no longer holds true. With this reversal, China has been able to develop a range of limited military options to attempt to coerce Taipei."
On February 22, 2010, the US Defense Intelligence Agency released a report in Taiwan [but seemingly not in the United States], which stated: "Although Taiwan has nearly 400 combat aircraft in service, far fewer of these are operationally capable... In recent years, the Chinese People's Liberation Army has increased the quantity and sophistication of its ballistic and cruise missiles and fighter aircraft opposite Taiwan, which has diminished Taiwan's ability to deny PRC efforts to attain air superiority in a conflict,"
On February 25, 2010, Defense Ministry spokesman Huang Xueping said China "is deeply concerned" with the report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. "We demand the U.S. side speak and act cautiously in a bid to avoid further damage to the relationship between the two nations and militaries, and to the peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait," said Huang.
- Taiwan's force of approximately 325 modern light fighter aircraft has remained unchanged since the late 1990s. Over the same period of time, China's force of Flanker heavy fighters, has grown from about 100 aircraft to 650 aircraft [China now operates the largest fleet of Flankers in the world]. By 2010 China had added about 150 modern J-9 and J-10 light fighters. All three Chinese fighter variants remain in production, with dozens of new aircraft entering service every year.
- A rough air power balance may have existed in the late 1990s, following extensive avaition modernization by Taiwan. That balance was destroyed by China in the following decade, and absent significant improvements by Taiwan, the balance will continue to move in the favor of the mainland.
- The recent appearance of the Russian PAK-FA stealth fighter suggests that a Chinese air superiority stealth figther should be expected to debute in the near future. A Chinese force of stealth fighters, arrayed against Taiwan's non-stealthy aircraft, would further tip the air power balance against Taiwan later in this decade.
- The growing imbalance in tactical aviation is matched in other fields, such as medium range rockets and submarines, where China has overmatched and outstripped Taiwan.
- Following the recognition of Beijing, the United States has followed a policy of arms sales to Taiwan to maintain a military balance across the Taiwan Strait to discourage a military solution to the dispute.
- Over time, relations between Taipei and Beijing have improved, and the prospect of military conflict between the two has become rather remote.
- If the Obama administration declines to sell addition F-16 fighters to Taiwan, it would mark a significant American policy shift, indicating that the US was no longer committed to maintaining the cross Strait military balance, and implicitly no longer committed to maintaining the political autonomy of the Taipei government.
- Possibly the prospect for a military resolution of the Taiwan issue has become so unlikely as to not warrant disturbing American relations with China. And possibly America is no longer so concerned about the fate of Taiwan, given the altered character of the relationship between America and China.
On 04 October 2010 Taiwan renewed a call for the United States to approve its request for F-16C/D fighters to help enhance its air defense capability against China's military threat. Yang Nien-dzu, deputy defense minister of Taiwan, said during the annual U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference held in Cambridge, Maryland that the security threat faced by Taiwan has not eased despite closer cooperation with China on economic issues. The situation was highlighted in July when Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie commented that Taiwan affairs were the main focus of China's military buildup, Yang said. Taiwan's need to beef up its weak air defense was also publicized in a report on China's military development released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Defense, he noted. The U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry has been held annually since 2002.
According to Yang, F-16C/D fighters, along with diesel-electric submarines, are the weapons most urgently needed by Taiwan to maintain a minimum, basic self-defense capability. Failure to obtain these weapons is like being without an important piece of a jigsaw puzzle and leaves Taiwan's defense deployment incomplete, he said. The United States has not ruled out selling Taiwan the 66 F16C/D fighters it has requested, but it has dragged its feet on making a commitment of any kind out of fear of angering Beijing. Some have speculated that Washington might opt to instead provide upgrades of Taiwan's fleet of F16 A/B aircraft.
Taiwan’s airpower situation is deteriorating and replacement of its tactical aircraft is necessary, justified and not provocative, US Senator Richard Lugar told US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton in a letter dated 01 April 2011. “Given the decrepit state of Taiwan’s F-5s, the service life issues associated with its IDF [Indigenous Defense Fighter] and a growing problem … obtaining affordable and sustainable access to spare parts for Mirages, I am very concerned that if the Administration does not act favorably on Taiwan’s outstanding Letter of Request (LOR) for sales of F-16C/D aircraft, Taiwan will be forced to retire all of its existing F-16A/B aircraft in the next decade, leaving it with no credible air-to-air capability,” wrote Lugar, a ranking member of the Committee on Foreign relations.
In May 2012 the US House of Representatives voted in favor of selling Taiwan 66 F-16C/Ds. These fighters would fill the gap, and appear to be an attractive plan for Taiwanese policymakers. The C/Ds are an improved lot over the A/Bs; however, the Ma administration had reportedly shown decreased interest in the C/Ds because Taiwan was perhaps seeking new F-35s as a more cost-effective option over the long term. Officials at the Ministry of National Defense (MND) have denied any decision to reduce Taiwan’s order of 66 F-16C/Ds due to budget issues.
Although the upgrade of F-16A/Bs will increase Taiwan’s capabilities over the long run, Taiwan will effectively be holding only half of its current combat-ready fleet by 2016 due to the retirement of Mirage 2000 and F-5 fighters, the fact that 24 F-16A/Bs will be in upgrade facilities and thus inoperable, and that 16 fighters are permanently based at Luke Air Force Base for training. Thus, Taiwan will hold only 73 operational, but not modernized, F-A/Bs at any given time (until 2021, when the first 24 upgrade jets are delivered).
The Obama Administration decided against the sale of 66 F-16 C/D fighters, despite several requests from Taipei to modernize its air force. The United States offered Taiwan a US$4.2 billion upgrade of its aging F-16 A/B fighter fleet but not the more advanced F-16 C/D fighters Taiwan coveted, the US State Department told Congress 16 September 2011. The State Department said upgrading the F-16 A/B fighter planes will be able to meet Taiwan's defense needs at the present stage. Taiwan considered the more advanced planes vital to maintaining its air defenses at a time when China is engaged in a massive military build-up.
The US decicion not to sell Taiwan the more advanced F-16 C/D jets was a victory for Beijing. China cut off military ties with Washington after President Barack Obama authorized US$6.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan in January 2010. Taiwan wants 66 F-16 C/Ds valued at up to US$4.9 billion to bolster 150 F-16A/B models it bought in 1992. Premier Wu Den-yih said 23 February 2010 that Taiwan will not forsake plans to purchase the more advanced F-16 C/D fighter jets as well as diesel-electric submarines from the United States.
In October 2018, Taiwan accepted its first delivery of remodeled F-16A/Bs from the Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation as part of its $5 billion project with the US to upgrade 24 of its jets every year. The program experienced a two-year delay as a result of "unspecified software issues," Defense News reported at the time. The expected completion date for this particular project is 2022.
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