Beijing has stepped up its sabre-rattling since day one of Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency, as the Democratic Progressive Party leader is perceived as having a penchant for independence – not the “1992 Consensus”, an amicable, de facto armistice agreement between Beijing and Kuomintang that enshrined the “one China” policy.
So, Tsai would not be a stranger to the H-6K jet bombers that have been flying across the Taiwan Strait at will, more than 17 months after she was swore in.
On many occasions these China-made attack planes, capable of carrying cruise missiles with a long range standoff offensive in air combat, have traversed Taiwan’s airspace to as far as the island’s east coast, deep in the island’s air defense zone.
Former Taiwan Premier Tang Fei, an airforce commander-turned politician, told local media that the island had the capacity to down these mainland bombers but the consequences of any such belligerence could be “catastrophic”, given the yawning mismatch in military capabilities of the two feuding governments and the likelihood that an angry Beijing would want revenge.
“These powerful mainland bombers carry a clear message from Chinese President Xi Jinping, that his government won’t sit idle if Taiwan secession is in full swing,” Tang said.
“And strategic bombers like H-6Ks may not be needed even if Beijing mounts a war as a last resort to take over Taiwan, since the island does not have any hedge or buffer that has to be dealt with by such bombers in the scenario of a full-blown showdown. The island is just so vulnerable – even elastic defense is impossible,” Tang told the Taipei-based Frontline Aerospace Defense magazine.
That said, the mainland had no intent for further provocation. “So whenever there is a Chinese bomber in our sky, we just need to send a fighter jet or our own bomber to intercept and escort it out of our air defense identification zone.”
“Buzzing” foreign aircraft that fly over Taiwan used to be a routine mission for the island’s fighter pilots, Tang revealed, noting that Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 turboprop bombers once plied air routes off Taiwan’s east coast.
Buying US F-35s would be ‘naive’ and ‘impossible’
Beijing’s menacing stance could be said to justify Taiwan purchasing the F-35A Lightning II multirole fighters from Washington, the US Force’s fifth-generation planes that were ready for deployment in August last year as tactical airpower for coming decades.
But Tang dismissed any idea of procuring such cutting-edge fighter jets – the staple of a US Air Force arms upgrade – as “wishful thinking”, and said buying just one type of warplane to beef up Taiwan’s defense would be “naive”.
Washington would also be wary of a backlash from Beijing over arms sold to Taiwan, plus the price of an F-35 and maintenance costs are prohibitive: US$96 million for one such fighter, and maintenance could cost twice as much, Tang said.
“The best and most realistic strategy is to keep what we already have, like the F-16, in the best, combat-ready condition,” he said.
Rely on indigenous jets, not Washington
Nonetheless, Washington has supplied jets and missiles throughout past decades, and that has led to the demise of Taiwan’s own defense industry, as evident in the fate of the indigenous fighter AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo, named after the late President Chiang Ching-kuo.
The made-in-Taiwan fighter was modeled on the F-16, after technicians were poached from the US to rev up development back in the 1980s.
But soon after the prototype’s successful squadron flight and comment that it was the most advanced fourth-generation fighter in the Asia Pacific, then US President George HW Bush hastily approved the sale of 150 F-16s to the island, forcing the Lee Teng-hui administration to slash procurement of the F-CK-1 Ching-kuo from 250 to 130.
Tang urged President Tsai to resist buying US armaments and instead press ahead with Taiwan’s own R&D for jets and other advanced weaponry, saying Washington is privy to its military technology and the price of its arms always comes with a fat mark-up.