On Aug. 19, after US President Donald Trump approved a deal to sell Taiwan 66 F-16V Block 70 warplanes, nicknamed “Vipers,” Stephen Bryen, a former US deputy undersecretary of defense for trade security policy under former US president Ronald Regan, published an article in the Asia Times titled “Taiwan’s new F-16s boost regional role of US.”
Bryen’s analysis includes an assessment of what could happen in the event of a fourth Taiwan Strait crisis and the significance of the acquisition of the new jets to Taiwan’s national defense.
In 1996, during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, Bryen, former CIA director James Woolsey and US Navy admiral Bud Edney spent two weeks in Taiwan to assess the likelihood of China launching an invasion. They proposed that then-US president Bill Clinton send two aircraft carrier groups to defend Taiwan, which resolved the crisis.
Taiwan’s Phoenix Rising upgrade program for its 144 older F-16A/B aircraft will provide the jets, designed in the 1970s, with the same modern electronic warfare suite as the F-16V variant. This includes active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, cockpit avionics and helmet-mounted display and communication systems, which would allow them to be interoperable with the newer F-16Vs and other modern fighters.
With the upgrade program currently able to convert 24 F-16A/B airframes each year, this means that it would take until 2023 to upgrade the entire fleet, at a cost of NT$164 billion (US$5.28 billion).
However, the F-16V — the latest version of the aircraft — comes with redesigned and enlarged fuel tanks and a built-in electronic warfare pod, and is capable of carrying more missiles. It is also fitted with a new engine capable of providing nearly 30,000 pounds of thrust. The total outlay for 66 F-16Vs is estimated to be NT$248 billion.
The military originally intended to purchase US-made F-35B stealth jets, which are capable of short take off and vertical landing. However, Bryen said in the article that the F-35B is unsuited to Taiwan. Not only is the unit price of the aircraft extremely high, but supporting the new aircraft would present maintenance and logistical difficulties, and the F-35B is not yet a mature platform.
Additionally, as the F-35B is designed as an attack aircraft, its sale to Taiwan would contravene the terms of the US’ Taiwan Relations Act, which stipulates that the US may only sell defensive military equipment to Taiwan.
However, this does not mean that the F-35B would not have a role to play in the defense of Taiwan’s airspace. This is because the F-16V’s AESA radar supports network-enabled weapons (NEW), which allows one aircraft to lock on to a target and assign another NEW-compatible aircraft or weapons system to attack it. This means that Taiwan’s F-16s would be able to effectively coordinate operations with US aircraft types operating out of bases in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 and F-35.
Furthermore, Taiwanese pilots are to receive training on the new F-16s at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona alongside the US’ F-35B pilots. This would mean that Taiwanese pilots will be trained at operating side-by-side with their US counterparts.
Put simply, the US’ F-35B stealth jets would be able to act as airborne forward command posts for Taiwan’s future force of 200 F-16V jets in combat.
The 66 new F-16Vs and the Phoenix Rising upgrade program would allow Taiwan’s military to plan and train for joint combat operations with the US and its regional allies, and Taiwan would be able to effectively integrate F-35Bs into its air defense umbrella, but without paying the eye-watering price tag.
Whichever way you look at it, it is excellent value for money.
Jack Jeng is a US-based retired aeronautical engineer.
Translated by Edward Jones
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