There has been a growing undercurrent of discussion in Taiwan over whether the nation should proceed with its long-standing request for purchase of F-16C/Ds fighter jets, or seek F-35 fighters instead.
Taiwan’s official position is that it needs new fighters that are more advanced than the upgraded F-16A/Bs currently in the pipeline.
Taiwan’s media focusing on the F-35, however, belies political reality: The US is highly unlikely to sell the F-35 to Taiwan in the foreseeable future.
Therefore, it is necessary to focus on what is doable.
Taiwan’s air force, the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), has an immediate requirement to replace its obsolete F-5 fleet and there is an expanding gap between the fighters on hand and the number necessary for the most minimal deterrent.
Congress, especially, should not be distracted by the terms of the debate in the Taiwanese media. The F-16C/D, properly configured, meets Taiwan’s needs. It is more advanced than the upgraded A/B models, and available in a reasonable time frame.
The ROCAF currently fields the F-16A/B, Mirage 2000-5, Ching-kuo Indigenous Defense Fighter, and, until recently, the F-5E.
The 150 F-16A/Bs are the backbone of the ROCAF. These aircraft incorporated a number of improvements at the time they were built, referred to as the mid-life update. At the time they entered into service with the ROCAF, they were roughly comparable to F-16s, then in NATO service.
These F-16A/Bs are equipped with a 83km-range radar and a mechanically-scanning system — which is a physically moving radar emitter — that allows the aircraft to employ an advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile.
Last year, the Obama administration agreed to upgrade Taiwan’s F-16A/B fleet. The most important element of this upgrade is the incorporation of an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system, which allows for electronic — rather than mechanical — scanning through manipulation of the radar signal.
This type of radar system allows for track-while-scan engagements, simultaneous ground and air scans, and an improved capacity for engaging multiple targets. Such radars are also harder to detect due to frequency spread, improving the survivability and capability of the aircraft.
However, it cannot overcome several salient facts:
‧ The F-16A/B airframes are nearly 20 years old. The F-16A/Bs sold to Taiwan were manufactured in the early 1990s. The upgrades will improve the electronics aboard these aircraft, but they will not rejuvenate the planes. Given the high stresses placed upon them through 20 years of air combat training, metal fatigue will eventually show, affecting their flight operations.
‧ The number of aircraft available for duty will be reduced for an extended period. The upgrading of F-16A/Bs is extremely complicated from a technical perspective and will involve unprecedented effort.
As of now, for example, no F-16A/B has had its radar and avionics as thoroughly modified as planned in this upgrade. Consequently, it is likely that this will be a protracted process.
The first upgrades will not be complete for more than five years, and the retrofit of the entire fleet will probably take at least 10 years.
During this time, it is unlikely that China will be slowing down its modernization.
‧ Obsolete aircraft will not be replaced. The F-16A/B upgrade will not affect the other three parts of Taiwan’s air fleet: the Ching-kuo fighters, the Mirage 2000-5s, or the F-5Es.