In an unprecedented move ordered by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on Monday last week, the air force dispatched F-16 jets to escort a chartered plane carrying Taiwanese team members back from the Asian Games in Jakarta, with the jets launching flares to welcome them.
The move sparked heated discussion on the Internet over how many tax dollars were burned up by sending the fighters.
One newspaper reported that, according to data published by the Ministry of National Defense, fuel costs per hour to fly an E-2K Hawkeye early-warning plane are more than NT$270,000 (US$8,778) and NT$110,000 for an F-16.
Welcoming the Asian Games team cost more than NT$1.37 million, the newspaper said — which, to be fair, is quite economical in terms of air force expenditure.
Among the air force’s mainstay fighters are the F-16, the Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) and the Mirage 2000.
Legislative Yuan data show that IDF flights cost NT$250,000 per hour in fuel burn.
The hourly fuel cost for a Mirage is much higher, NT$800,000, and it costs NT$14 million per year to maintain and repair one of the France-made jets. Only about 600 Mirage 2000s have ever been built, so their exclusive spare parts are expensive.
Two decades ago, the Mirage was the most capable of the nation’s second-generation fighters. The version that France sold to Taiwan was the newest available at the time — the improved Mirage 2000-5.
The fact that the French Air Force had just been re-equipped with the same version showed that its combat capabilities were top-notch.
However, nothing and nobody can escape the ravages of time, and Taiwan’s Mirages, like its F-16s and IDFs, need to have their lives extended and their systems upgraded. However, China’s strenuous efforts to reduce Taiwan’s international space make this almost impossible.
Fighters generally need to be upgraded after 15 years of service.
Taiwan asked France to upgrade its Mirages in 2012, but France, under pressure from China, forced Taiwan to withdraw its request by demanding a sky-high price.
Until Taiwan’s other two mainstay fighters have completed mid-life upgrades, the air force will have to go on loving its Mirages for their capabilities, even if it hates their high operation and maintenance costs.
Under the Phoenix Rising Project, Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs are to be retrofitted to the F-16V standard by 2022, while the IDFs have completed their mid-life upgrade under the Hsiang Chan Project. Both jets can carry air-to-air missiles with a range of up to 100km.
However, Taiwan cannot upgrade its Mirages or buy new weapons for them, which makes their age show even more.
Taiwan’s F-16s were long ago armed with AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missiles, whose range exceeds 105km, while IDFs carry Tien Chien II (“Sky Sword,” TC-2) missiles with a range of more than 100km, giving them beyond-visual-range engagement capabilities.
However, the MICA medium-range missiles used on Mirages have a range of just 50km, much shorter than their rivals.
The Mirages would be no match in air-to-air combat involving China’s PL-12 Pi Li (“Thunderbolt”) fighters, which have an effective range of 100km.
Considering all these problems and the resources consumed by the fleet of Mirages, the ministry should carefully consider phasing them out.
Chang Feng-lin is a senior military officer.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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