When the Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC) unveiled its upgraded version of the Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) on Tuesday, most media outlets missed the point -- as usual.
Although many reported on the new aircraft as though it was entering military service, the simple fact is this: The military does not have a single upgraded IDF in its inventory and no plans have been approved to buy any from AIDC.
The dynamics of military procurement are apparently too difficult for most media outlets to understand.
First, AIDC is not part of the military, although it is part of the defense establishment inasmuch as it is a state-owned company that builds military equipment.
So when AIDC, the company, unveils a new product, it is not the same as the air force demonstrating a new capability.
For Taiwan to purchase a piece of military hardware domestically is only slightly less complicated than purchasing, say, submarines from the US. The big difference, obviously, is that when Taiwan purchases something from another country, that country has to agree to the sale.
But otherwise, all of the same checks are in place.
In its simplest form, procurement works something like this: the Ministry of National Defense must evaluate the need for the item; the service branch the item is intended for must request that a budget be approved; the Cabinet must send the budget request to the Legislative Yuan; and the legislature must vote in favor of the budget, before the president signs it into law and the funds are released.
Only then can the item be procured.
Typically, this process takes between 18 months and three years, assuming that everyone in the decision-making chain agrees with the procurement in its broad strokes.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of points in this process that are open to sabotage by people with agendas -- either overt political goals or subtle territorial bureaucratizing.
So, despite all of the media hoopla, Taiwan has no new fighters. The upgraded IDF, the "Goshawk," has not entered service; the air force has not requested it; the Cabinet has not budgeted for it; and the Legislative Yuan has certainly not voted on it.
Perhaps the fact that the IDF ceremony was attended by the president and a host of other government officials is what confused some people. But this must all be interpreted as part of a larger policy battle, although "policy dialogue" is perhaps a more appropriate term.
When it comes to military procurement in Taiwan, there are basically two schools of thought: First, that Taiwan should cement ties with its diplomatic allies through military procurement; second, that Taiwan can only rely on itself to produce the items it needs for self-defense.
What Tuesday's ceremony at the AIDC plant in Taichung represented, then, was a marginal victory for the "domestic production" camp. AIDC -- and by extension, the president, vice president and premier, who all attended -- was in effect saying: "We can do this. We can build these on our own."
Producing a quality, relatively advanced fighter jet is no small accomplishment. Only a handful of countries are able to do so. The upgraded IDF is a sophisticated, well-designed aircraft that would fulfill a necessary operational requirement.
Still, this is only one part of the equation. Good intentions count for very little on the battlefield. There is really only one question that needs to be asked now: Will we buy them?