According to a report published on Aug. 21 in the Liberty Times (the sister paper of the Taipei Times), NT$100 million (US$3.4 million) of next year’s NT$366.8 billion defense budget has been set aside to upgrade six US-made E-2K Hawkeye early-warning aircraft. Once completed, the aircraft would be of an equivalent specification to the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye planes in service on US Navy carriers.
The primary difference between E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes and the older E-2K Hawkeyes is the new AN/APY-9 radar, which can scan a much wider range of frequencies. This should mean that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) much-vaunted J-20 stealth fighter would have nowhere to hide.
There is also a need for jet-powered long-range early warning aircraft. This is because Taiwan’s air force does not possess any refueling aircraft.
In the event of a surprise attack by China, the initial wave would target ground radar stations and the runways at all the nation’s airbases and airports.
Although Taiwan has repair teams armed with quick-drying concrete to repair bombed airstrips within about two hours, E-2 series Hawkeye aircraft have an endurance of only four-and-a-half hours; that is not long enough.
Once Taiwan’s ground radar stations are paralyzed, if the air force is unable to keep its E-2 early warning aircraft in the skies, it would be deprived of its over-the-horizon radar and its ability to dispatch aircraft would be critically impaired.
Moreover, E-2 Hawkeyes are turboprop aircraft, which means that their cruising speed is limited to approximately 400kph to 500kph.
At the 2018 China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, the PLA unveiled its J-20 stealth fighter and revealed that it could carry four PL-15 air-to-air missiles in its internal weapons bay, which have a range of approximately 250km.
This means that, in an invasion scenario, to stay out of range of the J-20’s missiles, Taiwan’s E-2 Hawkeyes would be forced to maintain a greater distance from the battlefield, and, in doing so, cede control of airspace to the PLA.
Finally, introducing airborne early warning and control aircraft would provide Taiwan’s military with a double layer of protection.
The data link of the military’s E-2K Hawkeye — even after the upgrade — would be sluggish and unable to communicate with the air force’s Mirage 2000 fighters.
This is not due to any technical obstacles, but rather because the US is currently unwilling to release the technology to Taiwan.
The French military’s E-2C Hawkeye aircraft have been interoperable with its own Mirage 2000 fighters for several decades, while the data link of Japan’s E-2C Hawkeye is able to share data with its domestically produced F-16 equivalent, the Mitsubishi F-2.
Fortunately for Taiwan, the international arms market is pragmatic.
A good example is the French government’s decision in early 1992 to sell Taiwan Mirage 2000 fighters. By the end of 1992, Washington had agreed to sell F-16 jets to Taiwan.
In 1999, Taiwan’s domestically produced Sky Sword II air-to-air missile entered service, and the following year, the US agreed to sell Taiwan US-produced AIM-120 air-to-air missiles.
In 2015, Taiwan’s domestically made Wan Chien air-to-ground missile was commissioned and fitted to Indigenous Defense Fighters, and two years later the US agreed to sell Taiwan the AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon, a glide bomb for use with F-16s.
Introducing a second type of jet-powered long-range early warning aircraft would force the US to provide a full-spec version of its E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft, instead of a weakened variant. God bless Taiwan.
Chang Feng-lin is a university lecturer.
Translated by Edward Jones
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