Following text is update of February 2013 post Taiwan’s Air Force: Inventory and Procurement Options. Text will be updated on a regular basis. Liao “Kitsch” Yen-Fan assisted with research.
Taiwan’s air force aka Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) has four types of jet fighters currently in the service: 144 Lockheed F-16A/Bs, 56 Mirage 2000D/Es, 126 F-CK-1 A/B Chiang-Kuo, and 30 F-5E/Fs (Source: Jane’s Defence). However, F-5E/Fs Tiger II were mostly relegated to training duties. That is also true for part of F-CK-1. However, the latter would perform regular defense duties if need be. According to U.S.-Taiwan Business Council’s report published in October 2012, from 144 F-16s, 90 (or 70%) was operational, and only 26% of rapidly ageing F-5s was operational. In total, from 388 combat planes only 247 was operational. The operational readiness at 70% for F-16s may sound alarming, however, it should be stressed that these figures reflect peacetime operational conditions where the priority is given to sustain the force over long period of time. Should war break out in the Taiwan Strait, all (or nearly all) fighter jets in service would be prepared for fight. Below is Taiwan’s air force order of battle (ORBAT) as of September 2015.
READ: Don’t Write Taiwan’s Air Force Off Just Yet (co-authored with Liao Yen-Fan for The Diplomat)
Let’s briefly introduce F-16, Mirage 2000, and F-CK-1:
- General Dynamics F-16A/B Fighting Falcon Block 20
Sale of 120 F-16A and 30 F-16B was approved in 1992 and first planes become operational 2 years later. It was highly welcomed acquisition since throughout 1980s ROCAF had become rather obsolete air power. Acquisition of advanced F-16s altogether with Mirage 2000-5 once again gave Taiwan counterbalancing force against People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) that just boosted its modernization with acquisition of air superiority Russian-made fighters Su-27 that were subsequently produced in China under license agreement as J-11.
F-16 is a multirole fighter aircraft that proved to be highly capable platforms for air-to-ground strikes conducted by US Air Force and Israel Air Force among others. However, its primary mission as a part of Taiwan’s Air Force is air defense mission, task that is closer to original purpose of F-16s as a lightweight fighter jet. Provisions in the Taiwan Relations Act – US domestic law that governs unilaterally relations between United States and Taiwan – state that US will provide Taiwan with “arms of a defensive character”. This has prevented Taiwan in the past to acquire modern platforms that were considered to be of offensive nature and is likely one of the (although not the major one) factors for long-stalled decision on sale of 66 F-16C/D.
In September 2011, administration of President Obama approved US$ 5.8 billion upgrade package for standing fleet of F-16A/B that will bring existing fleet up to F-16V standard. Upgrade is truly impressive. F-16s will be equipped by Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) developed by Northrop Grumman, and modern weapon systems including latest generation of AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) laser-guided bombs. The latter will give F-16A/B advanced ground strike capability. On a downside, upgrade does not really address problem of ageing frames and weaker engines compared to the latest F-16 variants. The arms sales package from September 2011 included design study on replacing existing F100-PW-220 engines with F100-PW-229 engines. Whichever direction that went, F-16s won’t be getting new engines. Overall, upgrades will greatly enhance F-16s situational awareness by providing better detection, targeting, and tracking capability in air-to-air combat. This will be achieved not only by the new AESA radar but also with additional equipment such as Sniper targeting pods.
Last year, upgrade program was put in doubts after US Air Force cancelled CAPES program for its own fleet of F-16s. However, this proved to have only small impact on Taiwan’s F-16 program. According to KMT legislator and chairman of Legislative Yuan defense committee Lin Yu-fang (林郁方), before USAF cancelled CAPES, R&D for SABR radars was finished and units for Taiwan were already slated for production to start in late 2014. Taiwan also covered its part of R&D costs. Modernization program is scheduled to start in 2016 and will take approximately 10 years. That means that at any point during that period part of the most capable combat platforms of the shrinking ROCAF will be out of service. Resulting capability gap will be partly addressed by return of the upgraded F-16s into service.
Of the total number of Taiwanese F-16/A/Bs, 16 is based for training purposes in the US at Luke AFB, 12 F-16A and 2 F-16B at Luke AFB. 1 F-16A and 1 F-16B at Edwards AFB.
- Dassault Mirage 2000-5
Taiwan had ordered 60 Mirage 2000-5: 48 Mirage 2000-EI and 12 double-seated Mirage 2000-5DI. Currently, 47 Mirage 2000-5EI and 10 Mirage 2000-DI is still in service. This trade marked the so far last order of advanced fighter jets. It is planned that Mirage 2000 will be slowly phased out mainly due to high maintenance costs. According to US-Taiwan Business Council’s report: “Based on FY2010 budget figures, the O&M cost per flight hour for the Mirage 2000-5 was approximately US$26,670 (NT$784,630), compared with US$5,340 (NT$157,100) for the F-16A/B Block 20 and US$8,340 (NT$245,360) for the F-CK-1A/B Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF).” (p. 29) Thus, Mirage 2000 alone consume app. 60% of Taiwan Air Forces’ fighter jet budget.
- AIDC F-CK-1A/B Chiang-Kuo
F-CK-1 also know as IDF (Indigenous Defense Fighter) is a result of a program that started in early 1980s with technical assistance of several US companies and introduced to ROCAF in mid-1990s. Program was result of US refusal to sell F-16s or proceed with development and sale of F-20 Tigershark. IDF is a light-weight defense fighter with relatively weak engines, resulting low payload and endurance. Currently, IDFs are undertaking mid-life upgrades (MLU), 71 planes have been upgraded so far, most of them are part of 443rd Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) based in Tainan. Upgrades include new radar software, avionics and electronic warfare capabilities, and substantially enhanced ground strike capability when equipped with locally developed Wan Chien joint standoff weapon (JSOW).
Upgraded F-CK-1 are often designated as C/Ds but that is probably result of confusion between planned extensive upgrade to C/D version and eventually implemented, less ambitious, MLU.
IDF program demonstrated Taiwan’s ability to produce relatively advanced combat with adequate foreign assistance.
ROCAFs arsenal includes broad range of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. This is result of having mixed fleet of US F-16s, French Mirage 2000s and indigenous F-CK-1. Development of indigenous air-to-air missiles was part of IDF program, partly caused by US reluctance to allow IDF’s integration with US-made missiles. Taiwan’s air-to-air missile program resulted in short-range Tien Chien (Sky Sword) TC-1 and medium range TC-2. TC-1 is an equivalent of AIM-9M/P4 Sidewinder and TC-2 is similar to AIM-120 AMRAAM. US air-to-air missiles are represented by short-range AIM-9 Sidewinder, medium-range AIM-7M Sparrow and AIM-120C AMRAAM. Mirage 2000 is equipped with medium range MICA and short-range R550 Magic 2.
ROCAF air-to-ground capability consists of various versions of AGM-65B/G/G2 Maverick. Important part of ROCAF missions is to attack enemy on the sea which purpose its planes could carry AGM-84B Harpoon and domestically developed version of Hsiung Feng HF-2 anti-ship missile. In 2014, Taiwan revealed its indigenous Wan Chien standoff missile with range around 200 km, primarily equipped with cluster ammunition suitable for air base attacks.
Taiwan air force allegedly acquired antiradiation version of TC-2 missile dubbed TC-2A, after it unsuccessfully tried to purchase US-made AGM-88 HARM.
Future Procurement Options
- Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon
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 was still stalled although the political environment in the US appeared to be favorable in 2011 and 2012 when bipartisan effort in Congress gained new impetus after the Administration had failed to include the sale in package approved in September 2011. As of 2015, situation remained unchanged despite regular efforts by the US Congress to pressure the Administration to move forward with F-16C/D sale.
- Lockheed Martin F-35A & F-35B Lightning II
Out of the three F-35 variants, F-35B with VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) ability would be a desirable item on the shopping list. VTOL capability is particularly interesting due to Taiwan’s airbases exposure to missile and air-to-ground attacks. However, F-35 in any version would not be available to Taiwan for many years to come also due to pending orders by countries that were directly involved in F-35 development. Cost of the 5th generation stealth plane also appears prohibitive. Despite that Taiwan’s government seems to be considering scrapping F-16 purchase and issue a request for F-35B. However, that is simply not viable option now, and not one that would solve Taiwan’s forthcoming fighter jet shortage.
READ: Why F-35 is an ideal choice for ROCAF.
These advanced fighter jets are on the paper good alternative to what US would offer. However, it is not very likely that any European state would sell modern fighter jets to Taiwan, step which would certainly make Beijing furious. Hypothetically, from the above options, JAS-39 Gripen would be an optimal option due to its ability to take off and land on short runways (or provisionally on highways) and also affordable option with price for unit between USD50-60 million (2009 prices) whereas cost of Eurofighter Typhoon may be double that price (*).
READ: Why JAS-39 Gripen would be good addition to Taiwan’s fighter fleet.
- Boeing AV-8B Harrier II
Interesting proposition for ROCAF is the idea to purchase AV-8B Harrier which are currently in U.S. Marine Corps service. It is not fighter jet option, the most suitable mission for Harrier is ground strike. However, VTOL ability allows it to operate virtually from any place and it would be an excellent bridging platform should Taiwan ever be able to buy F-35Bs (which would not happen earlier than late 2020s). However, as of 2015, hypothetical AV-8B sale is in realm of pure speculations. AV-8B are set to retire from USMC earlier than planned.
- Indigenous Production
Should Taiwan ever decide to proceed with domestic development of advanced fighter, Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) would be most certainly tasked to do the job. AIDC has experience from IDF development and is currently involved in indigenous UAV program. However, development of complex combat platform, such as advanced jet fighter that would be competitive against latest and forthcoming generation of Chinese fighters, would surely stretch AIDC’s capacity and Taiwan’s financial resources. It is also questionable how much of an experience AIDC still retains from IDF program in terms of human resources. Under what conditions would Taiwan decide to go this complicated path? The main factor would be failure to acquire fighter jets from external source, most notably US F-35.
AIDC is currently bidding for next ROCAF trainer jet with two separate proposals.
(*) Prices of any modern fighter jets are difficult to compare from open sources as it is not always clear what is included in price. One of the ways is to take flyaway cost which basically includes just cost of production, excluding research & development, equipment, or maintenance. Following analysis of India’s Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) bid provides flyaway estimates for some of the jets mentioned above: https://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/mirage-2000s-withdrawn-as-indias-mrca-fighter-competition-changes-01989/.
The problem is that nobody will sell nothing to Taiwan,let alone a Sopwith Camel or Fokker Triplane.