Sun, Feb 20, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan must weigh its options

By Gary Schmitt

There are also good reasons to want new F-16s. More than 4,000 of the planes have been built and sold not only in the US, but abroad as well, making it one of the best fighters ever built. It is a multi-role aircraft that can engage in both air-to-air combat and air-to-ground missions, and it remains one of the most highly maneuverable fighters to this day.

However, if the US is not going to sell the F-16s to Taiwan (or do so anytime soon), then it is imperative that Taiwan begin to look elsewhere for replacement jets if it does not want the air balance across the Taiwan Strait to deteriorate even further than it already has.

One possible option is Sweden’s Gripen. Like the F-16, the Saab-built jet is a fourth-generation aircraft. It was also initially designed for air defense, but has the evolved into an first-rate all-weather, multi-mission capable plane. Its top-end speed is comparable with other modern jets, like the F-18 or French Rafale. Moreover, the combination of the Gripen’s aerodynamic design and light weight give it superior maneuverability, along with shorter runway needs. Although having another plane in Taiwan’s air fleet that is not of US origin will complicate training and logistics somewhat, this is a problem Taiwan’s air force has been dealing with for years now anyway.

The unanswered question of course is would Sweden sell the Gripen to Taiwan? There is no way to answer that question for sure, until the government asks, but two things point to a favorable response. The first is that Sweden wants to continue to have its own military aviation industry. However, as things stand now, that is becoming increasingly difficult in the absence of overseas sales of the Gripen — and sales that have been slow to come.

Second, the leverage the Chinese hold over countries by threatening economic ties, is not nearly as significant in Sweden’s case as its exports to, and imports from, China are both less than 4 percent of total trade. Moreover, Swedes typically don’t like to be threatened or bullied.

Finally, by looking at alternative fighters, Taiwan can offer a sharp reminder to those outside the Obama administration — such as members of Congress from Texas where the F-16s are built — that delays in selling F-16s to Taiwan could cost the US jobs and profits at a time when the domestic economy could use all the help it can get. Indeed, if India selects a jet other than the F-16 in its bid to acquire a new multi-role fighter and the US government continues to delay the sale to Taiwan, then the production line for the F-16 will end soon. Simply put, Taiwan needs to up the pressure on Washington to make a decision.

Experience suggests that looking around for someone else to date might sometimes be the only way to get an old girlfriend’s attention.

Gary Schmitt is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.

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