A stroll through the halls of last month's Taipei Aerospace & Defense Technology Exhibition (TADTE) served to highlight the combat fleet renewal challenges facing Taiwan's Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF).
Only a handful of major aerospace defence firms were in attendance: ITT, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney, Raytheon and Sikorsky. More conspicuous were those absent. Boeing, Dassault, Eurofighter, Saab, Sukhoi, Thales and many other air show stalwarts failed to appear.
An executive at one western aerospace firm with significant commercial interests on the Chinese mainland says the subject of Taiwan is "toxic" within his company. As Beijing's power of influence continues to grow, many foreign diplomats probably take this view as well.
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Against this backdrop, Taiwan urgently needs new fighters. Its Lockheed F-16A/Bs, Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) F-CK-1 indigenous defence fighters (IDF), Dassault Mirage 2000s and Northrop F-5s are increasingly outdated compared with newer types being acquired by the Chinese air force.
"The ROCAF's key challenges include the procurement and sustainment of modern airframes," says Michael Stokes of Project 2049, a think tank specialising on China. "The current fleet, consisting of four fighter variants, is ageing and increasingly difficult to sustain. Other challenges include air base survivability, although significant steps have been taken to enhance rapid runway repair capabilities."
Beijing, meanwhile, views Taiwan as a breakaway province and it is determined to get it back. It prefers a peaceful reunification, but has never ruled out force. China's air force is steadily upgrading its squadrons with advanced types such as the Chengdu J-10A and J-10B. Photographs of a test J-10B equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar have appeared on Chinese websites.
China also has a powerful force of Sukhoi Su-27s and its local clone, the J-11B. Early this year it stunned the aviation world when images and videos of the developmental Chengdu J-20 emerged.
"As recently as 10 years ago we led them by quite a large margin in military aerospace," said a Taiwanese industry source at TADTE. "But now they are developing their own fighters."
A report published by Rand in early 2011 painted a stark picture of a theoretical Chinese air attack on Taiwan between 2015 and 2030. Rand foresees Chinese ballistic missiles overwhelming Taiwan's air defences and air bases. US Air Force bases in the western Pacific would receive similar treatment, in addition to attention from dozens of aged Xian H-6K bombers carrying long-range cruise missiles. Crucially, the USAF has few back-up options owing to simple geography: it is forced to operate from a vast ocean with scattered, far-apart airfields. China meanwhile has tremendous strategic depth, with numerous airfields and plenty of space to hide mobile missile launchers - greatly complicating the counter-strike mission for Taiwanese and US forces.
With Taiwan's air defences knocked out and USAF bases disabled, Chinese fighters would establish air corridors that attack aircraft could use to approach Taiwan at low altitude. Ultimately, its air force would establish aerial supremacy over the east coast of Taiwan using long-range fighters such as the J-11B as well as the J-10, which would require aerial refuelling at this range. This would prevent US airborne warning and control system aircraft from peering at shipping in the Taiwan Strait, thus opening the door for an amphibious invasion.
This scenario is extreme, but in any conflict the ROCAF's role would be to put up a credible defence, providing the island's political leaders breathing space in which to deal with Beijing's demands. It is exactly this mission that will be undermined if its combat power continues its relative decline against that of its Chinese counterpart.
China is well aware of the stakes: during a visit to the USA earlier this year, Chinese army chief Chen Bingde urged his hosts to cease arms sales to Taiwan, and review the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which requires the Washington to sell Taiwan arms of a defensive nature.
Taipei has been requesting 66 F-16C/D fighters since 2006. Apparently concerned about irritating China, Washington has prevaricated on approving the deal. China's sensitivities have gained increasing prominence in recent years, as it holds over $1 trillion in US government debt at a time when the US and other western economies appear to be heading into another recession.
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China's air force is steadily upgrading its squadrons with advanced types such as the Chengdu J-10A and J-10B
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has said she will make a recommendation about the F-16C/D sale on 1 October: an odd choice of date, as this is China's national day. Industry sources at TATDE said they were doubtful that the deal would go through. After the show, a media report quoting sources emerged saying that the USA plans to turn down the sale and offer an enhanced upgrade of the F-16A/Bs instead. The USA and Taiwan immediately denied this, saying a decision had yet to be made.
If, as many believe, the requested F-16C/D deal falls through, it could become a political issue in next year's US elections. Lockheed has said that it plans to stop production of the type by the end of 2013 if no additional commitments for the aircraft emerge. A report by US research firm The Perryman Group says an F-16C/D deal for Taiwan would generate $8.7 billion in output for US industry, yield $768 million in federal taxes and $593 million in local taxes. Amid a challenging US jobs market, the Obama administration could be wary of the perception that it sacrificed American jobs in favour of China's sensitivities.
Taiwan also seeks to upgrade its almost 150 active F-16A/Bs. Delivered in the early 1990s, these are the backbone of its air force. The core of any upgrade package would involve the retrofitting of AESA radars, either the Raytheon advanced combat radar (RACR) or Northrop's scalable agile beam radar (SABR). A source at TADTE said Taiwan would most likely end up with the AESA radar eventually selected by the USAF for its own F-16 upgrade programme. Any local upgrade would also include improved electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. At TADTE ITT promoted its ALQ-211 pod-housed EW suite.
The other dominant type filling out Taiwan's squadrons is the IDF. AIDC announced the mid-life upgrade of 71 of the aircraft in late June, when it delivered the first six upgraded examples.
The contract is worth New Taiwan dollars (NT$) 17 billion ($588 million). It will be completed in two to three years and the air force is in the process of deciding whether it will upgrade its remaining 50 of the type. C H Lee, AIDC's vice-president of military business development, is confident the service will also modify this second batch of aircraft, as it would simplify the future logistics burden of supporting the type.
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Under the programme the IDF's digital flight computer will be improved and a colour display processor added. The aircraft's GD-53 Golden Dragon pulse Doppler radar, an indigenous version of the General Electric APG-67, receives upgrades to help it better deal with electronic countermeasures. The work also doubles the number of Tien Chien-II Sky Sword air-to-air missiles the aircraft can carry, to four. AIDC is proposing a further upgrade, including an active jammer and data link.
Taiwan also operates about 50 Mirage 2000-5 fighters. Air force officials declined to comment on the state of the aircraft, but industry sources have said that sustainment is an issue. One source says France, eyeing commercial contracts on the mainland, is even more wary of offending China than the USA. The pricing of Mirage spares has also been an issue, the source adds.
Rounding out Taiwan's fighter fleet is handful of F-5s. These are largely obsolescent and being phased out. Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies Military Transformations programme, said these aircraft probably should have been retired 10 years ago. "There is only so much you can do with an airframe that is 30 to 35 years old," he says.
In Bitzinger's view, the outlook for Taiwan's fighter force depends on the F-16. He is doubtful the C/D sale will go through, but adds that the likely upgrade package for the in-service F-16A/Bs would bring them to nearly a Block 60 standard.
"The F-16 upgrade is a very good consolation prize," Bitzinger says. "And even if Taipei doesn't get the F-16C/Ds, they can always ask again."