Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou had requested the US to sell F-16C/Ds to Taiwan so many times that he must have lost count. Even the warmest cross-strait ties haven’t led the advanced aircraft to be taken off his list of wishes. Still. Over fears of infuriating Beijing, Washington didn’t risk more than offering Taiwan the upgrade of the island’s long serving F-16A/Bs. What at the first glance seems like a less-than-ideal solution is far from being a toothless tiger since some of the items that are to equip the aging Taiwanese fighter planes can’t by no means be called of purely defensive nature. The upgrade of Taiwan’s 146-strong fleet of F-16A/Bs will effectively turn the planes from fighters into fighter-bombers and is thus to have an impact on cross-strait military balance.
However, although Taiwan is to possess that many F-16A/Bs packed with sophisticated US weaponry, the Taiwanese are far from being grateful. They believe not only that a war with China is not going to happen, but also that the Americans will eventually backtrack on their promises anyway, as they’d done many times.
“Some of the weapons on the list do have so-called offensive capabilities, but in the end I think the US, as always, will only provide scaled downed versions”, says Professor Alex Chiang of Taiwan’s National Chengchi University’s Department of Diplomacy in an interview with Asia Times Online. “An overwhelming majority of the people in Taiwan think a war with China is highly unlikely, and we have seen just too many instances where the US did not keep its promises in terms of arms sales”, as Chiang expounds the lack of Taiwanese enthusiasm.
The arsenal of weapons the US has promised to supply Taiwan’s F-16A/B models bought almost two decades ago with is impressively advanced. GPS-guided smart bombs, as deployed by the US military itself, will improve Taiwan’s attack capability on the ground substantially. Unlike bombs that are simply dropped from the air, smart bombs are accurate, and, with a likelihood higher than 90 percent, will end up hitting their targets. As another major plus, satellite guidance brings about that the weapons can be employed in all weather conditions. If the bombs are additionally equipped with laser-guidance, both moving and fixes targets could be attacked. The most striking aspect, however, is that since any Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan were rather to involve sea and air battles than engagements on land, GPS-guided smart bombs don’t quite fit in the category of purely defensive weapons; installed at a F-16A/B, their prime objective would likely to be the usage in a Taiwanese attack against the Chinese coast.
The other topnotch weapon system on the list is the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The short-range, heat-seeking missiles are relatively inexpensive and of a reliability so high that they are predicted to remain in US Air Force inventories throughout the rest of the century. The version Taiwan is to get comes with helmet-mounted displays and 3D control systems that are much superior to traditional control surfaces. A pilot can simply point the AIM-9X seeker, “lock on” by simply looking at his target, and has therefore his hands free for air combat maneuvers. Another of AIM-9X Sidewinder’s advantages that could be of particular good use to Taiwan’s air force is that the system can be modified relatively easily. It is likely that the Taiwanese will opt for technical changes of the fire control system that allow for the targeting of warships and even of armored vehicles on land. Again, just as the GPS-guided smart bombs, also the AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles can’t be called a defensive weapon.
Naturally, the US is expected to consider Beijing’s reactions. As a likely concession to sooth Chinese anger over the equipping of Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs with smart bombs and AIM-9X Sidewinder, the planes’ combat radius won’t be extended to 1000 km, and also AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles, contrary to what had earlier been speculated, won’t be included in the deal. Nonetheless, even with a relatively small combat radius, China’s southeast coast, Shanghai and other important industrial areas will be in range of bombing campaigns by Taiwan’s air force.
That the upgrade could come rather sooner than later has to do with the phenomenon being described with the catch-phrase “US reengagement in Asia-Pacific”. Countries along China’s eastern boundaries, such as South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia have been drawn to the US ever closer as a reaction of China’s recent clumsiness in issues of security and territorial disputes. The US, which under the Bush administration sacrificed much of its role in Asia due to its preoccupation with the “War on Terror” fought in the Middle East, has been responding to the cries for help by diplomatic initiatives and jointly held military maneuvers.
If in future conflicts China’s ambitions in the Pacific had to be stopped militarily by the US and its allies in the region, it had to happen along the so-called “First Island Chain”, which runs roughly between Korea and Japan’s western coasts, through the Taiwan Strait, along the northern half of the Philippines and ends at the Indonesian island of Sumatra. This maritime line, which originally has been thought up byChinese strategists as a geographic basis for China’s maritime defensive perimeter, has to the US and its allies already become a “Containment of China Chain”.
China’s navy has in recent times been crossing the First Island Chain in ever shorter intervals, and also China’s air force has through advances in the aerial refueling of its aircrafts extended its combat radius. The prospect that the US Navy will as a consequence have a harder time sailing near to China’s shores does its share in making almost all of China’s neighbors feeling uneasy. About the only exception, however, is Taiwan where, as opposed to the situations in the other countries, interest in renewing ties with the US is shrinking. Whatever future cross-strait relations will bring, it’s not going to be war, so Taiwanese mainstream perception.
But, through its geographical location, Taiwan happens to be the most important link in the First Island Chain, and is therefore crucial for any attempt to contain China militarily. As long as the island doesn’t fall into China’s hands, the US and its allies will have an advantage over China as significant as the powers fighting Nazi Germany in World War 2 had through their ability using Britain as a base for bombing campaigns against German cities as well as for the D-Day invasion; an island so close to the enemy’s shores is an asset of strategic importance that can’t be overestimated. To make sure that China can’t speed up the already rapid process of cross-strait approximation by pressuring Taiwan through Chinese military superiority, the US has no other choice than risking significantly straining ties with Beijing through the resumption of substantial weapons sales to Taiwan.
Another country that had once contemplated giving its fleet of F-16A/Bs a comparable overhaul is Israel. The Israeli Air Force eventually dropped those plans and thereupon decided to gradually phase out the aging planes. Presumably, there were reasons other than simply cutting down costs that made the Israelis opting for the purchase of new planes. Unlike Taiwan, however, Israel doesn’t have a hard time purchasing those kinds of weapons it wants.
Apart from lack of public interest and the strong believe that the Americans will break their promises, there’s yet another reason Taiwanese observers show strikingly little enthusiasm for the F-16A/B upgrade. Just as Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the China Politics Division of Taiwan’s National Chengchi University tells Asia Times Online. Ding might have similar thoughts as the Israelis. He drily implies that Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs could simply break apart carrying GPS-smart bombs, modified missiles and 3D helmet-mounted displays. “After 14 years of service of the F-16 A/B in Taiwan’s air force inventory, I am rather worried about material fatigue of the planes’ frame”, so Ding.