The decision by the administration of US President Barack Obama to deny Taiwan the F-16C/Ds it has been requesting since 2006 has implications that go well beyond Taipei’s inability to procure modern aircraft, as it raises questions about the utility of almost every other arms sale the US has agreed to in recent years.
Over the past decade, the balance of air power in the Taiwan Strait has steadily shifted in Beijing’s favor. During that period, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) launched a dramatic aircraft modernization program, with the result that it now enjoys a clear quantitative and qualitative advantage over Taiwan in air combat capabilities.
Meanwhile, the number of short and medium-range ballistic missiles the Chinese Second Artillery Corps aims at Taiwan — including its airbases and airstrips — has also increased, reaching about 1,500 this year. Consequently, the number of Taiwanese aircraft likely to survive an initial volley and be able to take off from operational airstrips has diminished.
As the 66 F-16C/Ds sought by Taipei were to replace aging F-5E/Fs, failure to acquire them means that the Taiwanese air force will find itself with fewer aircraft, a shortfall that the US$5.3 billion upgrade to Taiwan’s 145 F-16A/Bs notified to US Congress on Wednesday will not make up for, even if it includes joint direct attack munition (JDAM) laser-guided bomb kits, more powerful engines and Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.
Taiwan can no longer hope to achieve air superiority against the hundreds of increasingly modern aircraft that have been added to the PLAAF in recent years.
This leads directly to the second problem confronting Taiwan as it seeks to adjust its defense strategy. In his seminal study The Age of Airpower, military historian Martin Van Creveld wrote that “the old lesson, which had been demonstrated so often since 1939 as to become axiomatic, [is] that no large-scale conventional campaign is feasible in the teeth of enemy command of the air.”
Unable to ensure command of the air, Taiwan cannot hope to defeat China by conventional military means, and yet its defense structure remains largely conventional. Not only that, but the billions of US dollars in weapons that Washington has agreed to sell Taiwan since 2001 are also part and parcel of a conventional defense strategy. As such, Taiwan is spending billions of dollars on platforms that, absent a credible air force, will only marginally enhance its defensive capability. Such an outcome either stems from US failure to take a long-term view of Taiwan’s defense requirements, or a cynical approach to arms sales that puts profit and job creation above its commitment to defend an ally.
Viewed in isolation, the major platforms that have been cleared for sale to Taiwan in the past decade are impressive. They include the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile defense system, UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters. Those items alone constitute an investment by Taiwan of about US$12 billion, a very hefty check for the political symbolism attached to US arms sales.
Had those armaments been complementary to a strengthening of Taiwan’s air force, the investment would have been worth it. However, on their own, they are mostly sitting ducks, and costly ones at that. The highly expensive PAC-3, for example, provides only limited area coverage (Taiwan is seeking a total of six fire units), and given the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan, it would be easily overwhelmed, especially as China introduces maneuverable ballistic missiles and warheads equipped with multiple bomblets. The 60 Black Hawks and 12 P-3Cs Taiwan has requested (US$3.1 billion and US$1.3 billion respectively) are slow and have no ability to defend themselves against fighter aircraft. As for the Apache helicopters, of which Taiwan has requested 30, for a total cost of US$2.53 billion, they are superb combat platforms, but their best use is to hide behind hills or mountains, emerge briefly to launch their missiles at approaching ground or surface targets, and immediately go back into hiding. Without air cover, they, too, are sitting ducks, unable to defend themselves against aerial assault.