Serious implications for the US as guarantor of security in Asia*
Taipei for years has been requesting brand-new F-16C/D fighter jets from a reluctant Obama administration in Washington, DC, which is said to have shied away from authorizing the US$5.5 billion deal for fear of offending Beijing.
The only alternative for Taiwan appears to be the prospect of a punchy midlife upgrade of its existing fleet of F-16A/Bs. But according to recent media reports, the upgrade won’t happen anytime soon, If that proves true, Taiwan will in all likelihood have to wait till the 12th of never for the newer F-16C/Ds.
The repercussions are considerable if America’s allies start to doubt Washington’s commitment to security in the region. Without new fighters and upgrades, the island’s air force will be no match against China’s fighters within the next decade.
Washington decision whether to continue keeping Taiwan’s air force at reasonable strength has significant, some say enormous, strategic implications – even in a time when cross-strait relations are arguably at their best ever.
Some analysts argue that if Washington hadn’t adequately provided advanced weaponry to Taiwan, the recent cross-Strait détente would have never come about in the first place. They also say that without continued US support, Taipei’s relations with Beijing would quickly veer from their currently steadily improving path.
“In the coming several years, the pressure on Taiwan to engage with China – not only on economic issues but with political and military talks as well – will quickly rise,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the president of the US-Taiwan Business Council. “If Taiwan lacks a credible defense, and China calculates that the US lacks resolve, the possibilities for miscalculations soar and tensions in the Strait will rise dramatically. While arms sales may cause short-term difficulties in bilateral relations with China, they have always returned again to a solid baseline. If America succumbs to the short-term expediency of not providing Taiwan with much needed and meaningful capabilities, the chance of Chinese adventurism rises.”
Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes in their book on China’s rise and the challenge to US maritime strategyRed Star Over The Pacific, write that:
“For years, American strategists insisted that Taiwanese air superiority was the ultimate trump card against Chinese invasion and coercion. That is because without air cover, the PLA surface fleet and amphibious assault forces would be completely vulnerable to attack from above, making any cross-strait invasion a risky if not suicidal endeavor.”
For the PLA, air superiority is thus critical especially during the early phases of any projected campaign against Taiwan. The formula is simple: If Taiwan’s fighters become obsolete within 10 to 15 years, the PLA could gain the confidence needed trying to transport a significant number of ground troops across the Taiwan Strait.
According to a report published by the conservative Washington Times, the Obama administration’s outgoing US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg – reputedly a pro-China diplomat with little sympathy for Taiwan – made the White House rethink the US$4.5 billion upgrade program for the 146 F-16A/Bs, warning that Beijing would immediately break off US-China military relations as it did in early 2010 over another major arms package for the island’s forces.
According to Defense News, apart from Steinberg’s initiative, there is yet another reason speaking against the F-16A/B upgrade. The authoritative magazine points to intense debate within the US government as to whether the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar can be entrusted to the Taiwanese as planned. Allegedly, there are fears that the technology, which allows ships and aircraft to broadcast powerful radar jamming signals while still remaining stealthy could end up in Chinese hands in the event of cross-strait unification.
In response to the reports, the US State Department denied that the F-16 upgrades are being delayed. Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs also said that the ministry was not aware of the reported delay, while Taiwanese Premier Wu Den-yih said in a speech to the Taipei Foreign Correspondents’ Club that, “as opposed to the maybe-yes, maybe-no in regards to the sale of F-16C/Ds, the F-16A/B upgrade is a done deal.”
Information differs on the technical nature of the upgrade to the US-made fighters, which were delivered to Taiwan between 1997 and 2001. It’s clear, however, that to deal with China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s technological advances, the F-16A/B needs better electronic-warfare gear and longer-range radar. According to Defense News, next to the radar replacement, equipping the craft with AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, new internal electronic countermeasures jammers and advanced targeting pods, the computing power of the aircraft’s avionics and weapon systems would likely be upgraded. This would improve situational awareness, air-to-air capabilities, targeting accuracies and information for the pilots.
The magazine further predicts the addition of new color multifunction displays and the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System. This would allow the pilot to point the AIM-9X seeker, “lock on” by simply looking at his target, and keep his hands free for combat maneuvers. Also new engines would be thinkable.
Chinese-language literature even goes a step further. Hong Kong and China-based authors mention all-weather GPS-guided smart bombs which would improve Taiwan’s ground attack capability substantially. They point out that Taiwan would likely opt for an AIM-9X version with changes to the fire-control system that allow for the targeting of warships and also of armored vehicles on land.
If Washington really pulls back, it would mean that given Sino-US relations the much more controversial F-16C/D deal is hardly going to happen, leaving Taiwan without credible air-to-air capability at some point in the next decade.
In an interview given to Asia Sentinel, Wendell Minnick, Defense News’ Asia Bureau Chief, explains the timelines:
“With an upgrade, the F-16A/Bs can stay on for another 15 to 20 years with the proper maintenance. Without the upgrade, it will come to 10 to 15 years, largely depending on budget issues.”
“An F-16A/B upgrade would allow it to match China’s 4th Generation fighters, like the J-10, Su-27, etc. But, of course, not the J-20,” the PLAAF’s fifth-generation stealth fighter, a prototype of which made its maiden flight earlier in the year.
None of the other aircraft in the Taiwanese arsenal is expected to play a role in the next decade. There is the old F-5, which, with no beyond-visual-range capability, will according to Minnick be “no match against 4th Generation fighters and are mainly used today for training and reconnaissance at sea.”
There is the Mirage 2000, which is plagued by low operational readiness, perhaps to be mothballed in the coming years, and finally the Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDF), which also have service life issues attached.
To make matters worse, the existing onboard weaponry doesn’t seem to be in good shape, either. At recent test-firings, US-made air-to-air Sparrow missiles fired from an F-16A/B as well as French-built anti-air, multi-target Micas launched from Mirage 2000 fighters and the locally developed air-to-air Tien Chien 2 launched by the IDF all failed to hit their targets.
Strategists interviewed by Asia Sentinel argue strongly against the alleged delays of the F-16A/B upgrade and F-16C/D sale.
“It would be unwise and ill-advised for the Obama Administration to decide against modernizing Taiwan’s existing fleet of F16A/B aircraft and to decline to replace Taiwan air force’s obsolete airframes by new F16C/Ds,” said Steve Tsang of the University of Nottingham and author of If China Attacks Taiwan: Military strategy, politics and economics. “Reducing Taiwan’s air defense capability will increase the risk of the use of force being threatened across the Taiwan Strait and the risk that this would result in an unintended escalation.”
Tsang adds that in the event of a new real Taiwan Strait crisis, if the US administration of the day decides to allow Taiwan to be taken over by the People’s Republic of China against the wish of the people of Taiwan, there will be “an incalculably huge consequence on the confidence US allies in the region will have on the USA. US national interest will then thus grossly be undermined.”
If Taiwan’s air defense capability is reduced, Tsang says, that it would make the US itself having to pay a higher price in case of conflict with China.
“The US Navy and Air force will have to get involved to help Taiwan defend itself much sooner than if Taiwan can maintain a strong and capable air defense,” Tsang added.
In Tsang’s eyes, the best way to pre-empt such a scenario is for Taiwan to have a credible air defense capability, which could deter Beijing from considering the threat to use force in its relationship with Taiwan.
“No one wants war and the modernization of Taiwan’s air defense capability is conducive to avoid a war”, he concludes.
“The US has to think about its leadership credibility in this region, said Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the China Politics Division of the National Chengchi University. “If the US really abandoned Taiwan as some proposed recently, alliances built by the US with regional countries will immediately go bankrupt. If that is the case, there is no need for the US to “return” to Asia, as heralded by Secretary of State Clinton.”