Liberty Times (LT): Why do you feel confident about your ability to implement the program to build indigenous advanced trainer jets?
Feng Shih-kuan (馮世寬): I should explain this by telling you about my tenure at Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC, 漢翔航空工業).
I was the deputy chief of general staff and events developed normally, leading to my becoming AIDC chairman while holding my post at the general staff.
The program [to upgrade the Indigenous Defense Fighter] — called the Hsiang Sheng Project — was going through a rough patch; AIDC said the project could not be continued and a formal proposal for its termination was made by the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology.
After attending their briefings, I expressed my opposition to the project’s termination. It had a budget of NT$7 billion [US$226 million at the current exchange rate] and had been going on for seven years. Declaring failure at that point would have been immensely detrimental to national security and the development of the national aerospace industry, not to mention bringing official censure to everyone who had served as ministers of national defense during the project.
After two or three months, then-premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) told me to take charge of AIDC.
I began working at AIDC on May 2, 2006. On May 26 of that year, I inspected the [AIDC] hangar and asked about the status of the Hsiang Sheng Project. AIDC supervisors took me to have a look; the prototype wingtips and tails were stored in the hangar’s platforms. I ran my hands down them and found they were literally gathering dust and grime.
They told me they could not go on and the parts had been sitting idle for more than a year. Before I left the hangar, I told them sternly: “If this plane cannot fly by the end of the year, I will resign.”
After that, whenever they came to me to complain about difficulties, I told them AIDC was going to get the job done regardless of difficulties.
In 1990, when I was in the US as a military attache, then-chief of general staff air force general Chen Shen-ling (陳燊齡) visited the US military’s Central Command [CENTCOM], and he raised complaints to the Americans about our aging aircraft and our inability to obtain F-16 planes.
The then-CENTCOM commander said that the newest planes are not necessarily what Taiwan needed; he said an aircraft is a platform, and with advanced fighters, the important thing was their avionic suites and their weapons networks.
He said that if IDF was to have jamming systems, electronic countermeasures, a surveillance and reconnaissance system, a high-performance radar and beyond-visual-range missiles of superior range and precision, there would be no need for its replacement by new airframes.
This exchange was not forgotten; it was the reason why I was determined that the Hsiang Sheng Project must come to a successful conclusion.
During the missile crisis in 1995, Chinese communist fighter jets flew over the Taiwan Strait; their Su-27s held the advantage in range, altitude and weapons payload, but their air-to-air missiles were inferior to ours. When they patrolled the median line over the Strait, our IDFs stationed in Magong took off and intercepted them.
At that time, our F-16 and Mirage 2000 units were still being formed and only the IDF-equipped pilots had been fully trained; the pilots reported that although their IDFs closed to visual range with the Su-27s during the confrontation, radar locks on target were achieved long before entering visual range, and they could have shot down the Su-27s the instant the chief of general staff gave the order.
I relayed this information to then-chief of general staff Tang Yao-ming (湯曜明) and Tang went to conduct a tour of Magong.
The pilots told him: “Our radar systems are of the latest models and on par with F-16s. We got locks on the communist fighters and our beyond-visual-range missiles outreach theirs. We are confident that we could have shot them down, had we received orders to do so.”
At the time, they comprised the only IDF-equipped squadron to have completed full training. I asked them if they were exhausted by the missions and their reply was: “When we are guarding the skies, we will never get tired.” I was tremendously moved.
That is why after I became the head of AIDC, I felt that we must enhance the IDF’s capability when given the opportunity.
As such, regardless of the difficulties, AIDC eventually was able to complete the Hsiang Sheng Project with assistance from the air force and then-minister of national defense Lee Jye (李傑).
After that, the air force adopted the IDFs that were improved by the Hsiang Chan Project about a decade ago, and those IDFs still protect Taiwan’s sovereign airspace.
During my tenure at AIDC, in addition to upgrading the IDF’s performance, we systematically reviewed our business operations and engaged in lawsuits when necessary. We treated every negotiation for a contract in the US as if it was a battle.
In the first year, we turned the company around from the red to making a profit, greatly improving AIDC’s morale and confidence.
Aside from building aircraft, AIDC also invested in the Taiwan Advanced Composite Center 19, the largest facility of its kind in Asia. We won the contract for building most of the components for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet and developed business ties with Boeing Co and Sikorsky Aircraft Co.
As a result of our work, Taiwan’s aerospace industry maintained the capability to build both civilian and military aircraft. I am therefore highly confident for the current push to locally manufacture the next generation of advanced trainer jets.
We are grateful to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for her policy of self-reliance in national defense and her goal to manufacture military aircraft locally.
This is exciting news for our armed forces and the local aerospace sector. AIDC and the Chungshan Institute will do the utmost in accomplishing this mission.
LT: What are AIDC’s plans and timetable following the program’s launch on Feb. 7?
Feng: On Feb. 7, President Tsai attended the announcement event and emphasized the government’s commitment to self-reliance in national defense and to manufacture an indigenous advanced trainer.
She gave us two core missions, one of which is to nurture the Taiwanese aerospace industry’s human resources. The Chungshan Institute hired 900 professionals and its Aeronautical Systems Research Division hired 200 people following Tsai’s inauguration last year.
The other mission is to enhance links to the manufacturing sector.
Since the Tsai administration took office, the institute’s technology research budget has increased 21 percent. The institute aims to share its research with the private sector, thereby strengthening the link between military and civilian manufacturing sectors, promoting technological upgrading in the civilian sector, developing the economy and augmenting competitiveness.
More than 150 companies from Taiwan and abroad participated in the launch event on Feb. 7. In addition, AIDC has been pushing for the Industry 4.0 program: We organized all key players in the national defense industry and made plans for the items that must be purchased internationally.
Furthermore, the air force last month re-establish the Aeronautical Research Center, a major policy step. Qualified personnel will be trained at the Chungshan Institute, which will collaborate on the development of locally made advanced trainers and plan for the development of next-generation fighters for the air force.
The air force is to oversee the fulfillment of contractual obligations, and to manage the program’s timetable and its implementation in detail. According to the timetable, two prototype jets are to be delivered by the locally made trainer project team in 2019, test flights are to be completed by 2020, and all orders are to be delivered in 2026.
The seamless replacement of advanced trainers will complete a major landmark in our national aerospace industry.
LT: To what extent do you estimate this project will benefit the economy?
Feng: We predict it will generate NT$96 billion of economic activity in the first five years. On a long-term scale we can attract other manufacturers to mass produce the aircraft. That, combined with logistics and maintenance, will generate more than NT$200 billion over the course of 20 years in a conservative estimate. However, this will require the confidence and cooperation of Taiwan’s aerospace industry.
LT: Working from the foundation of the advanced trainer jets, what will the next long-term goal be?
Feng: In my second year at AIDC I proposed a 10-year military aircraft development plan, but at the time there was no government policy regarding the domestic development of defense [technology].
After the advanced trainer jets are complete I hope to promote domestic development of basic trainer aircraft. Of course, we hope to develop new generation fighter jets, but given the speed with which aerospace technology advances, I think the development of new platforms is also very important.
For example, if our airports were to be damaged to an extent that aircraft could not take off or land, then even the newest fighter jets would be useless. However, imagine if we had new platforms like uncrewed aerial vehicles or blimps armed with anti-aircraft missiles connected to a command center on the ground. These are pretty good asymmetrical combat ideas, but they rely on incessant technological development and continuous revisions to keep pace with the enemy’s movements.
LT: What is the US’ reaction to Taiwan being a decade behind in executing this plan?
Feng: We listened to all the advice that was given on the last visit by US representatives. I have told them the reason there has not been a war in the Taiwan Strait for the past 70 years is not only due to the possession of precision weaponry, but also the sacrifices and contributions of Taiwanese, as well as the resolute determination of our military to defend the nation. This determination has allowed the maintenance of peace across the Taiwan Strait. Even more so it has been the greatest contributor to peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region. This also benefits the US’ policies in the region.
We thank our American friends who have for all these years supplemented the limited weapons that Taiwan had for its defense, allowing us to maintain regional peace.
However, I also told them: “In the past you sold us fish, now we hope that you will help us learn how to fish ourselves. Please help us develop our own fighter jets and submarines.”
As a defense minister I will also employ the full extent of my abilities in seeing this project through.
Translated by staff writers Jonathan Chin
and William Hetherington
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