Tue, Oct 09, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: The F-16 isn't the only bird in town

Regardless of why the US government has been prevaricating on the sale of 66 F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan, it is increasingly apparent that the road ahead for weapons procurement from the US is going to be bumpy.

As China's military threat is not becoming any less severe, Taipei must find a way to pull itself out from this quandary. The solution is fairly simple -- shop elsewhere. Luckily, there is no shortage of companies and states eager to sell weaponry to countries in need.

When it comes to advanced fighter aircraft, two alternatives to the F-16 come to mind: Dassault's Rafale Multi-Role Combat Fighter and the Euro-fighter Typhoon. Both aircraft could meet Taiwan's defense needs, from air superiority to close air support. While both aircraft were initially developed for Europeans, their manufacturers have actively sought clients elsewhere.

So far, India, Libya and Switzerland have shown interest in acquiring the Rafale, which in recent years has lost out on South Korean and Moroccan bids to US-made F-15Ks and F-16s respectively. As for the Typhoon, Saudi Arabia has confirmed it will purchase 72 aircraft for ?4.43 billion (US$9.03 billion) and Japan has expressed an interest in making it its next-generation fighter aircraft, as have India and Pakistan.

But the acquisition of new aircraft involves more than just platforms. Cost, performance and interoperability must all be considered.

In terms of cost, the price tag per Rafale is approximately 47 million euros (US$66.5 million), the Typhoon is US$125.6 million, while the F-16C/D is US$45.5 million. In that respect, the F-16 has a clear advantage over its competitors.

But when it comes to performance, the latter is falling behind technologically, something that even US Air Force Lieutenant General Bruce Wright, the commander of US forces in Japan, admitted last month (Taiwan did seek the more advanced F-35, but the request was turned down by Washington).

Last is interoperability, the curveball often thrown by the US defense industry to defeat its competitors in the weapons market. With obvious exceptions, any country today that purchases weapons will seek to obtain platforms that can be seamlessly integrated with US capabilities -- something Taiwan would certainly desire in the advent of military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait.

Aware of this requirement, non-US defense contractors have ensured that their models are fully capable of operating alongside US weaponry. In other words, they are all NATO-compatible, as the successful use of the Rafale in the US-led mission in Afghanistan has shown. As such, if Taiwan were to purchase the Rafales or Typhoons rather than F-16s, interoperability with existing systems and with US systems in the region should not be a problem.

There would be other advantages to widening the list of potential defense contractors. For one, increased competition means that prices would likely go down. It would also diminish Taiwan's unhealthy reliance on the US to meet its defense needs, which puts it at risk when, as now, politics have a detrimental impact on defense acquisitions.

Lastly -- and perhaps most importantly -- the more countries that vie for Taiwanese defense money, the more complaints Beijing will have to make about the "unacceptable" sale of weapons to Taiwan. So far, it has only had to deliver complaints to the US.

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