If anyone had doubts about Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, a report released by the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) recently is sure to turn those into nightmares.
The agency’s assessment painted a bleak portrait of Taiwan’s Air Force, with quasi-obsolete Mirage 2000s and F-5s likely to be mothballed, while the aging fleet of F-16s and Indigenous Defense Fighters are in dire need of refurbishing. In fact, even if those models were upgraded, their limited capabilities put into question Taiwan’s ability to achieve air superiority against the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), which in recent years has rapidly transformed and modernized — thanks largely to sales and technology transfers from Russia.
The report’s message is therefore loud and clear, if not self-evident: Taiwan will need, soon, advanced fighter aircraft in sufficient quantity to consolidate one of the principal pillars in its defense strategy: denying its airspace to the PLAAF.
The Air Force’s dwindling resources, however, are only part of the problem. As the DIA states in its report, Taiwan’s aircraft will only be effective if airports and runways are sufficiently protected — and that, too, remains a big if. China has greatly enhanced the quantity, sophistication and accuracy of its ballistic and cruise missiles, which means that the PLA has enough missiles to overwhelm Taiwan’s air defense systems. As the Project 2049 think tank, discussing Taiwan’s Quadrennial Defense Review, noted last year, by “employing runway penetrating submunitions in SRBM [short-range ballistic missile] attacks against Taiwan’s airbases, the PLA’s 2nd Artillery can prevent Taiwan’s Air Force from defending its skies, which raises the question of the aircrafts’ wartime utility.” In other words, the aircraft could be rendered unusable before an actual invasion.
Aside from hardening hangars and the ability to quickly repair runways, Taiwan’s airbases rely mostly on PAC-2 and PAC-3 missile interceptors for protection against a missile attack. Not only are the missiles costly (about US$9 million each), but the two-to-one ratio to ensure the interception of an incoming SRBM makes it doubly so. Still, the bulk of US arms sales intended for Taiwan in recent years — at least in dollar terms —consists of such missiles. The PAC-3 missile fire units and 330 missiles approved by the US government in 2008 are scheduled for delivery in August 2014. That is more than four years from now, a period during which the 2nd Artillery and the PLAAF will continue to widen the military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait.
The expensive PAC-3 sales make sense only if they are intended to protect systems that are critical to Taiwan’s defense. Aside from command-and-control, those systems are the Air Force. This means that absent substantial investments in the modernization of its fleet of aircraft — more advanced F-16s or some alternative — Taiwan would be spending billions of dollars on a missile defense system that, in the end, would be close to worthless. Washington didn’t need the DIA report to know this, and yet it continues to stall requests for F-16s. Should it continue to do this, it could be accused of selling an old lady a prohibitively expensive baseball bat to protect herself against a squad of Mafiosi equipped with tanks and machine guns.