Sun, Oct 13, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Will the new locally built jets justify their cost?

By Chang Feng-lin 張豐麟

The military unveiled a prototype of its new domestically made Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) named “Yung Ying” (勇鷹) — or “Brave Eagle” — on Sept. 24.

The initial flight test of the new plane is scheduled for next year, and a total of 66 AJTs are expected to be delivered by 2026. However, for Taiwan, is the birth of Brave Eagle a dream come true, or is it closer to a nightmare?

According to the Legislative Yuan’s data, the hourly cost of a US-made F-16 fighter jet is over NT$110,000, and that of a Taiwan-made Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) can go as high as NT$250,000.

Since there are only 130 IDFs in the world, the logistics maintenance of the jets is certainly expensive when the production volume is so low. If the Taiwanese manufacturer only produces 66 Brave Eagles — dubbed XAT-5 AJTs — to be honest, the hourly cost of an XAT-5 is doomed to be more expensive than that of an IDF.

The Achilles’ heel of the policy is that is the government cannot increase the production volume, the logistics cost of XAT-5 AJTs would surely become a heavy burden.

More seriously, if the cost of a single weapon cannot be lowered in the face of limited defense resources, it may no longer win the favor of government agencies in their future proposals.

It seems predictable that some legislators will definitely question in the foreseeable future why XAT-5 AJTs are more expensive than F-16 jets in terms of their hourly operating costs.

As a matter of fact, XAT-5 AJTs enjoy a major advantage in the international market, because they would be the only US-style twin-engine AJTs in the 21st century. South Korea’s T-50 AJTs and the Boeing T-7 Red Hawks, originally known as the Boeing T-Xs (which won the contract of the US Air Force) are both single-engine AJTs.

However, for the sake of flight safety, many countries insist on purchasing AJTs that are powered by twin engines. As an example, after the German Air Force decommissioned its twin-engine Alpha Jets completely, it has been searching for AJTs powered by twin engines as replacements.

Even during the current transitional period, Germany has continued its insistence on renting 35 twin-engine T-38 AJTs that are made by the US, and even the tails of the trainers still bear the US military emblem.

Since Taiwan’s Brave Eagles are not warplanes to be operated at the battlefront, there is no confidentiality at all, and the government could even consider taking production authorization as a purchase incentive.

The operating cost of Brave Eagles would only go down when the production volume goes up. The increase of production volume can then sustain the “talent pool” built for the Brave Eagle in the long run, so the local industrial chain brought by the AJTs would not collapse within a short time.

In an interview on Sept. 24, Aerospace Industrial Development Corp general manager Ma Wan-june (馬萬鈞) said that the “local content rate” of the Brave Eagle is 55 percent, which is probably the highest among the world’s AJTs.

He said that, as the manufacturer of Brave Eagles, the company is fully confident of mass production and eventual export of the aircraft.

Hopefully, the government can assist the country’s advanced aerospace industry to export its AJTs. By doing so, the industry might just have a chance of taking root in Taiwan.

Chang Feng-lin is a doctoral student.

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