On the eve of US President Barack Obama’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the Washington-based Heritage Foundation has released a detailed paper urging the White House to sell F-16C/D jets to Taiwan.
Arms sales to Taiwan are thought certain to be raised and condemned by Xi during the two-day California meeting which opened yesterday. The new paper, written by research fellow in Chinese political and security affairs Dean Cheng (成斌), says that Obama and the US Congress should “proceed with haste” in filling Taiwan’s longstanding request for the fighters.
While there is considerable US Congressional support for the sale, insiders say that Obama believes that it would not benefit Taipei enough to warrant the problems it would cause for US relations with China. And the sale — if it came soon — could end hope of Obama developing good relations with Xi.
Nevertheless, Cheng’s forceful paper may encourage Republicans on Capitol Hill to put more pressure on the Obama administration to provide Taiwan with the planes. Cheng says that within Taiwan there has been a “growing undercurrent of discussion” over whether to drop the F-16C/D request and instead seek the new F-35s which are still under development.
“Taiwan’s official position is that it needs new fighters that are more advanced than the upgraded F-16A/Bs currently in the pipeline,” Cheng says, adding, however, that the focus on the F-35 “belies political reality.”
“The United States is highly unlikely to sell the F-35 to Taiwan in the foreseeable future,” he says. “It is necessary to focus on what is doable.”
The F-16C/D, properly configured, meets Taiwan’s needs, is more advanced than upgraded A/B models and would be available in a reasonable timeframe, Cheng says.
Upgrading of Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16s — agreed to by Obama last year — improves the planes’ survivability and capability, but cannot overcome some significant disadvantages. The airframes are nearly 20 years old and although their electronics will be improved, the planes will not be “rejuvenated” and “metal fatigue will eventually show,” the report says.
No upgrade has been authorized for the aircraft’s engines and as their radar and avionics systems are being thoroughly modified, the number of aircraft available for duty will be reduced for an extended period. Also, as Taiwan’s Ching-kuo fighters, Mirage 2000-5s and F-5Es become obsolete in the near future they will not be replaced, further reducing the nation’s combat capabilities.
Cheng says that the F-16C/Ds are more capable than the A/B models, with improved air-to-ground weapons delivery capability and electronics designed to support a variety of ordnance, including the Joint Standoff Weapon, Joint Direct Attack Munitions and the Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser which allows for improved delivery of submunitions.
“This will significantly enhance the ability of the ROCAF [Republic of China Air Force] to conduct close air-support operations,” Cheng says.
Furthermore, if the air force acquired the F-16C/D Block 52, Block 52+ or Block 60 versions, the new aircraft would be equipped with F100-PW-229 engines, giving it a superior performance, Cheng says.
“Finally, there is the political and physical reality that the US will not sell Taiwan the F-35 until, at the earliest, it has equipped its own squadrons and those of its consortium partners, as well as previously confirmed customers,” Cheng says.
This means that Taiwan would have to wait behind not only the US Air Force, but also Britain’s Royal Air Force, as well as the air forces of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Israel and Singapore.
“At the earliest, Taiwan could not hope to purchase the F-35 before 2025, with deliveries likely sometime beyond that point,” Cheng says.
The report says that Obama and the US Congress should focus on the stated goal of closing Taiwan’s fighter gap.
“Filling Taiwan’s longstanding request for F-16C/Ds would do that,” it adds.