Taiwan’s air force has been trying for years to acquire new additions to its existing fleet of indigenous F-CK-1, French Mirage 2000, and U.S. F-16, all of which were delivered in the 1990s. Even though the current fleet still packs a considerable punch, there is no doubt that the air force needs to refresh its inventory. The longstanding candidate has been an advanced version of the F-16 “Viper.” Although the purchase of a newer F-16 model makes sense — it would enable smoother transition in terms of pilot training and ground crew — the desired sale of 66 F-16C/D, which were originally meant to replenish the air force’s numbers after the retirement of old F-5E Tiger II lightweight fighter jets, has been on a backburner for a very long time.
Then, just as the elections were heating up in Taiwan, media began reporting on a proposed sale of AV-8B Harrier II jets by the U.S, though at this writing it is not yet clear if the reports reflect any interest on Taiwan’s part, a genuine desire by the U.S. to boost Taiwan’s defense, or simply pure speculation.
The AV-8B Harrier II is the second generation of the first operational combat plane with short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capability, introduced into British Royal Air Force (RAF) as the Harrier GR.1/GR.3 and into the USMC as AV-8A in the late 1960s. The Royal Navy adopted a modified GR.3 Sea Harrier FRS.1 in mid-1970s. While the subsonic Harrier did not impress with its limited speed, it was nevertheless an agile attack plane and its VTOL capability made it ideal for improvised airfields close to the expected battlefields of Western Europe or from the smaller decks of British aircraft carriers.
The Harrier’s moment of fame came during the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the U.K. The quickly (some would say hastily) assembled British Task Force included a complement of 24 Sea Harriers and 18 Harriers Gr.3. The heavily outnumbered Harriers managed to fend off the Argentine Air Force (AAF) and provided support for ground operations.
The AV-8B is a heavily modified version of the first Harrier generation from the mid-1980s and its primary operators were again the RAF, RN, and USMC. Since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, AV-8Bs have taken part in every major operation. British Harriers were retired in 2010 but still serve in the USMC, as well as Spanish and Italian air forces.
This was not the first time that AV-8B and Taiwan crossed paths in media reports. In 2001, the Taipei Times reported that a sale of 60 to 100 AV-8Bs was nearly concluded and that the sale would include Taiwan’s Aerospace Industry Development Corp (AIDC), which would manufacture wings for the purchased aircraft. That deal never materialized.
Proponents of that solution point to the Taiwanese air force’s continued efforts to acquire a STOVL-capable aircraft with stealth characteristics as evidence that the Harrier could indeed address one of the perceived problem that ROCAF is facing — namely, that all of its airfields are exposed to missile strikes and air attacks by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Reporting on a possible Harrier sale for Taiwan on Jan. 16, Defense News noted that:
The AV-8 would fulfill Taiwan’s much-needed vertical and/or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) requirement. China is expected to destroy Taiwan’s air bases within the first few hours of a war with its estimated 1,400 short-range ballistic missile arsenal and the Harrier’s V/STOL capability will allow the Taiwan air force to maintain air operations by hiding the aircraft in the mountainous interior.
In the scenario above, the author assumes a near-perfect execution of a Chinese first strike and also does not take into consideration the fact that runways and taxiways could be made operational within an hour after an initial strike. The newly minted People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) would be left with the dilemma of whether to keep using precious ammunition in order to keep Taiwanese air bases out of commission, or engage other important targets across Taiwan. Moreover, while an arsenal of 1,400 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles may look like an impressive number, exhausting the entire stock in order to acquire a temporary tactical advantage would be of dubious military value.
The PLAAF could naturally take advantage of the window created by a missile strike and keep Taiwanese air force bases out of order via sustained airstrikes. However, the successful prosecution of an air war would also require the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). This would be easier said than done for the PLAAF, which has no practical experience with SEAD operations. Furthermore, the dense network of Taiwanese air defenses would pose a serious challenge for the attacker. Lacking the stealth and survivability enjoyed by the USAF and its operational doctrine, the prosecution of a Linebacker II-style campaign therefore remains the PLAAF’s only realistic choice.
While Harrier operations would not be overly affected by attacks on air bases, the aircraft’s flexibility should not be overstated. For successful combat operations, it is not enough to have the ability to land almost anywhere. Harriers would need to be refueled and rearmed and therefore their wartime operations would require pre-surveyed sites. There is no doubt that the inclusion of Harrier aircraft would strengthen the Taiwanese air force’s operational flexibility. Not only is the plane a proven surgical strike platform, it has also (in theory) decent potential for air-to-air combat, it is agile in lower tiers, and capable of using medium range AMRAAM and short-range AIM-9X missiles. Observers have pointed out the relatively high thrust-to-weight ratio of the Harrier, as well as its unique ability to conduct VIFF maneuver (Vectoring in Forward Flight) and other factors to suggest it could be a competent dogfighter.
Nevertheless, major issues in three areas offset the niche capability that the Harrier would provide: training, maintenance, and obsolescence.
Training: The Harrier’s unique STOVL capability would places an increased strain on pilot training, and the more time is devoted toward specialized training, the less flight-hours a potential Harrier pilot will devote toward air combat maneuvering. Moreover, to maximize the Harrier’s combat potential, the Taiwanese pilots would have to adjust from a traditional Energy-Maneuverability mindset to a more flexible one accommodating high-alpha and VIFF maneuvers typical for the Harrier. While possible, it would also require valuable flight hours, and further decrease the interoperability of pilots in an air force that faces a desperate shortage of them. The planned retirement of the USMC Harriers also means that joint-training at either MAS Cherry Point, Yuma or Naval Air Weapon Station China Lake would be impractical in the long run, and create an additional financial burden should a specialized program be required.
Maintenance: The Harrier has a dismal safety record. According to a 2002 report, Harriers suffered an astonishing 11.44 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, more than twice that of USAF F-16s. Investigations and a congressional report blamed the high accident rate on inadequate maintenance and insufficient attention paid to the aircraft’s unique requirements. Given that the last airframe was manufactured in 1997, almost 20 years ago, the maintenance and logistics costs are therefore bound to be substantial. Current logistics contracts for the three operators (U.S., Italy, Spain) are divided between Boeing and Rolls-Royce, a British company, which further complicates the matter.
Obsolescence: Age is a relative term in relation to modern jet fighters as they re-acquire combat worthiness via the regular upgrade of on-board weapon systems and sensors. The real problem in the present case is not the capability or the age of the Harrier, but the changing threat environment. While the unique capabilities provided by the aircraft would confer certain advantages in a dogfight, future trends in air combat — First Look, First Shot, First Kill — would require capabilities that go well beyond the flexibility of the AV-8B. As an attack plane, the inherent fragility of the Harrier’s nozzle design, which makes IR-missiles easier to track, makes the aircraft ill-suited for operations in any high-threat environment.
Aside from some of the more specific issues facing the adoption of AV-8B, the Taiwanese air force already operates three different types of jet fighters and each of them has dedicated spare parts. Four different types would mean four different teams of specialists keeping the planes airworthy. Keeping ground staff working on four completely different jets would risk spreading the quality of maintenance thin. Even if Taiwan retires the Mirage 2000, maintenance staff that was working on the Mirage could not easily transfer to work on Harriers.
The Taiwanese air force is no stranger to “widow makers,” as epitomized by its unpleasant experience with the F-104 toward the end of its operational service. This served as a prime example of the difficulties in acquiring suitable parts and the compromised safety standards that had to be paid with the blood of Taiwanese pilots. The possible adoption of Harriers has every potential to evolve into a similarly nasty outcome.
Harriers would serve well as long as they would be able to keep flying, and that is the major problem with their potential acquisition. Considering how demanding the task was for the USMC, it is hard to see how Taiwan could do any better. Granted, Taiwan still needs new planes and the F-35B that Taiwan desires is not going to be available anytime soon. However, just as the U.S. was not willing to sell F-16s in the 1980s — only to approve the sale of 150 planes in 1992 — Washington could very well find itself in a situation where the sale of F-35s to Taiwan would become possible, if not even desirable.
Adopting Harriers as a stopgap measure comports costs that outweigh the marginal benefits the plane could offer. The tactical niche that the Harrier’s STOVL capability holds for Taiwan’s defense needs is perhaps marginally useful, but it is far from crucial or irreplaceable.
This article was originally published on Thinking Taiwan, February 15, 2016.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan specialist, a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, a member of CIMSEC, and an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat. Michal tweets @michalthim. Liao Yen-Fan is a Taipei-based analyst for the Cyber Security firm Team T5, specializing in cyber security, air power and the Taiwanese military.