On Oct. 29, a Northrop F-5 crashed into the sea north of Taitung County’s Chihhang Air Base, killing its pilot, 29-year-old Captain Chu Kuan-meng (朱冠甍).
After the crash, media talking heads immediately began to call into question the more than 40 years service age of Taiwan’s F-5E/F fleet and attributed the cause of the crash to the fleet’s age, without waiting for the outcome of an investigation.
The day after the crash, Minister of National Defense Yen De-fa (嚴德發) told a news conference that F-5s have an estimated service life of more than 14,000 flying hours, while the average for the fleet of F-5s operated by the Seventh Tactical Flight Wing, where Chu was stationed, is 7,825 flying hours — well within the recommended limits. The speed with which Yen rebutted the false reports deserves praise.
Yen also said that within the next three years all F-5s operating out of Chihhang Air Base would be replaced with indigenous advanced jet trainers (AJT).
The Ministry of National Defense originally planned to retire the F-5s in two phases as the next-generation AJTs are rolled out starting later this year, splitting the first batch of the new jets between several bases, including Chihhang and Gangshan Air Base in Kaohsiung.
However, on Oct. 30, Yen said that in light of the incident, he would prioritize replacing the 33 F-5s based at Chihhang.
After more than 40 years of service defending Taiwan’s skies, the nation’s venerable F-5 “Tiger” fighter jets will finally enter retirement and make way for a worthy successor.
However, the ministry also needs to address its fleet of 20 Hercules C-130 transport aircraft. Taiwan has the world’s fifth-largest fleet of Hercules, with the first batch of 12 entering service in 1986. By next year, they will have been in service for 35 years.
A proposal for a capability upgrade to the fleet by Lockheed Martin states that the aircraft type’s airframe is rated for a maximum of 40 years. This means that next year the ministry must either initiate a program of airframe structural reconditioning or replace the fleet with new aircraft.
In 1978, the air force imported 12 Beech 1900C executive jets, which are now nearly 40 years old.
According to an air force study, a 19-seat Beech 1900C jet costs NT$215,000 per hour of flying time. By comparison, a 56-seat Fokker 50 costs NT$192,000 per hour of flying time. The Beech 1900C has a per person sortie cost that is 3.5 times higher than the Fokker 50.
Aside from concerns over the aging jets’ safety, they are uneconomical and a drain on the air force’s limited budget.
During the 2010 national defense budget legislative review, a procurement proposal for new transport aircraft was listed for the first time. However, the proposed budget allocation ended up being chipped away at by other procurement projects. In subsequent review meetings, the budget for new transport aircraft disappeared and no alternative was proposed.
Meanwhile, neighboring countries have been either upgrading or replacing their fleets of transport aircraft. The Japanese Self Defense Force intends to introduce 40 Kawasaki C-2 transport aircraft; South Korea completed an order for four US-made C-130J uper Hercules in 2014; and three European-made EADS CASA C-295 transport aircraft entered into service with the Philippine Air Force four years ago.
The ministry must ensure that aircraft are renewed in a timely manner. Air force personnel work tirelessly to keep the public safe; the least we can do is to ensure they are kept safe while doing their jobs.
Chang Feng-lin is a university lecturer.
Translated by Edward Jones
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