Air forces on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are in a frantic race to upgrade their main fighter fleets in a bid to outdo each other.
Taiwan received its first revamped F-16 Viper fighter this month, in a program spanning five years to modernize its entire fleet of 143 F-16A/Bs to the latest “V” specifications. Additions include active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, fully digitized avionics, new modular mission computers, an electronic warfare suite, and at least twice the situational awareness capability of the in-service F-16A/B.
The Republic of China Air Force expects to get as many as 28 retrofitted F-16s in V configuration beginning next year.
It has also been reported that mainland China’s People’s Liberation Army is also going to mount cutting-edge AESA radars on its J-10C and J-20 fighters in a plan to outnumber Taiwan’s F-16Vs by 2023.
The PLA’s J-10 series is a family of lightweight multirole fighter aircraft capable of all-weather operations introduced in 2006, while the J-10C is an upgraded version equipped with an indigenous AESA fire-control radar as well as PL-10 and new long-range PL-15 infrared-homing air-to-air missiles.
The PLA may already have more J-10 fighters than Taiwan’s F-16s, and after the upgrade, the PLA will have more fighters with AESA radars than its Taiwanese rival.
One more thing to worry about for the Taiwanese is that J-10C is almost in the same league with the F-16V in terms of maneuverability, and new hardware additions to the F-16A/Bs could mean greater wear and tear for the fleet’s airframe, as Taiwan’s F-16s have already been in service for almost two decades.
Veteran military commentator Andrei Chang said in his column in the Kanwa Defense Review that the J-10C could get a boost to its velocity, altitude and agility with the introduction of a new type of thrust vectoring engine.
Also, the J-16, a tandem-seat, twinjet, multirole strike fighter, together with the 24 Su-35 fighters imported from Russia, will form more formidable regiments of fighters that can also give Taiwan’s F-16V a good run for its money.
The mismatch in fleet size and capabilities means Taiwan may have to look to procure more advanced fighters from the US and elsewhere while renovating its F-16s.