Prospective PLAAF/PLAN acquisitions and Taiwan’s Air Force struggle

In two recently published pieces, The Diplomat’s author David Axe elaborates on two developments related to People’ s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’ s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ongoing modernization. First article explores limitations of carrier-based Shenyang J-15, a Chinese-built fighter that bears striking resemblance to Russian Su-33, also carrier-based jet fighter. Of course, the similarity comes as no surprise taking into consideration that China acquired one of the Su-33 prototypes (T-10K-3) from Ukraine in 2001. In the second piece, Axe discusses the true mission of Chengdu J-20, China’ s first 5th generation stealth-capable combat jet plane, after speculations appeared whether its primary purpose is air-to-ground attack or as an interceptor against the new generation of US stealth bombers. Both developments shows increasing capability of Chinese military industry to produce competitive advanced technologies although it strongly benefits from reverse-engineering of the original Russian designs as cases of J-15 and J-11B (Chinese version of licensed production of Russian Su-27SK/J-11) clearly show. The Achilles heel for China seems to be its dependence on Russian jet engines, however, improvements are being made in this area as well as Andrew Erickson and Gabby Collins examine here. Although PLAAF is shrinking in terms of number of combat planes, dropping to 2600 from 3400 just over the past year, it is becoming increasingly modern air power as older generations of planes are being phased out of the service.

In a meantime, Taiwan’ s Air force (ROCAF) struggles hard to get new fighter jets and modernize its fleet. The last advanced jet procurement goes back to early 1990s when ROCAF acquired French Mirage 2000s and US F-16A/Bs. Since then, no new procurement has been made and Taiwan has been only able to get US$ 5.3 billion upgrade package for current fleet of 145 F-16A/Bs approved in September 2011. Besides 145 F-16A/Bs and 56 Mirage 2000-5s, ROCAF flies 126 F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo IDF (Indigenous Defense Fighter), domestically built jet fighter from early 1990s that is currently undergoing mid-life upgrade, and 32 obsolete F-5E/Fs. Although IDFs are promising in terms of Taiwan’s capability to produce its own fighter jets, any new program or follow-up development would be still highly dependent on US support. The F-16A/Bs upgrade package is impressive – including state-of-the-art AESA radar, AIM-9X air-to-air missiles, or JDAM guided bombs – but it does not address other issues connected to Taiwanese F-16A/Bs, i.e. aging hulls and weaker engine than those of F-16C/Ds resulting in relatively short operation range which denies the upgraded F-16s to fully utilize some of the newly acquired weaponry. Obama administration argues that F-16A/Bs upgrade will give Taiwan capacity on the par with F-16 C/Ds.(1) However, F-16C/Ds are meant to replace Mirage 2000s and F-5E/Fs therefore the sale is rather complementary to F-16A/Bs upgrade.

US willingness to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan naturally brings us to long-standing effort to buy 66 F-16C/Ds in one of the latest modifications. F-16C/Ds were requested for the first time in 2006. Sale first fell victim to period of domestic struggles when KMT-controlled legislature were blocking ant attempt of DPP Administration to allocate procurement budget and US refusal to accept formal Letter of Request in 2006 and 2007 until standoff between legislature and administration is solved. Five years later the sale is still stalled although the political environment in the US seems to be favourable for its materialization when bipartisan effort in Congress gained new impetus  after the Administration had failed to include the sale in package approved in September 2011. However, it is again Taipei that appears to be hesitant over the issue despite the fact that Taiwan’s air force will face serious shortage by 2020 for the reasons of Mirage 2000s phase-out and F-16A/B upgrade that will begin in 2017 and is bound to take 24 planes at once out of service for 5 years until program finishes in 2027. That means that between 2016 and 2022 Taiwan can have as little as 75 frontline fighter jets at its disposal. It is clear that remaining force of F-16A/Bs and upgraded IDFs won’t be a reliable deterrent for modernized PLAAF/PLAN during critical period.

Inability to control its own air space is detrimental to security of any nation, Taiwan’s case is further exacerbated by the threat posed by modernizing PLAAF. It is not exactly the right moment to have second thoughts about the sale because Taiwan’s options are clearly limited: EU states will not sell its moder jets (Eurofighter, Rafale, or JAS-39 Gripen), F-35B is still under development and will not be available for sale for many years to come. That leaves F-16C/Ds as almost the only option (2). Naturally, proceeding with both upgrade package and F-16C/Ds sale would put limited military budget under great pressure but the imperative of maintaining credible air force should allow to allocate additional funding.

The alternative to F-16C/Ds sale appears to be twofold: (1) domestic development; and (2) asymmetrical response to Chinese threat. First option is time and resource consuming and does not address the incoming shortage although follow-up of F-CK-1 should be definitely considered. Second option requires more detailed examination, thus it will be subject of analysis in one of the future posts on this blog.

Notes:

(1) Shirley Kan from Congressional Research Service summarizes concerns about this line of argumentation: “However, the Administration’s assertions raised many questions. Taiwan would not get any additional planes to replace fighters. The cost was higher than previous estimates of about $2 billion-$4.5 billion, or perhaps 55%-65% of new F-16s. The Administration did not explain why it decided on a program for F-16A/Bs but not a program for new F-16C/Ds, if they are all vulnerable to the PLA’s missile attacks. Moreover, according to Lockheed Martin, the retrofit would take one squadron (about 24) of Taiwan’s F-16A/B fighters out of service at a time over five years. The retrofit would not start until 2017, after five years of preparatory work. The program would take three years longer than a program to sell the same number of 145 new F16C/D fighters, which would take seven years. The program did not include new engines, which if included would have increased the cost and given the F-16s better performance. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense responded that the F-16A/B retrofit and the F-16C/D procurement would meet different requirements, that the retrofit program would bring the F-16A/B’s capabilities to 80% of those of F-16C/Ds, that some capabilities will be upgraded to be better than those of the U.S. Air Force’s F-16 C/Ds, and that the cost would be budgeted over 12 years. Moreover, more of Taiwan’s Air Force would be out of service, as it has upgraded in Taiwan 71 of the 127 IDFs (for completion in 2012) and plans to upgrade the other 56 IDFs (in 2013-2017).”,  Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990, pp. 24-25.

(2) F-18E/F could be another one but familiarity of Taiwanese pilots with F-16s and limited ability of F-18 in terms of air superiority missions make F-16 preferable choice.

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