The Trump administration has sent to Congress an advisory notice that it intends to supply Taiwan with 66 new F-16V fighter jets.
These jets, the first new American planes to Taiwan since the 1992 sale of F-16 A/B aircraft (Block 20) by the George HW Bush administration, represent part of a strategic shift significant for the region.
The shift started with the earlier decision to upgrade Taiwan’s 144 older F-16s to the F-16V standard, a project called Phoenix Rising now underway and expected to be completed by 2023. While the older F-16s won’t have the higher thrust engines and other aerodynamic improvements of the new F-16V aircraft, both will share the same electronics, especially AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar that is compatible with the F-35s operated by the US Air Force, Navy and Marines.
And, while not finally decided, Taiwan will be training on the new F-16V aircraft in the United States, on the west coast, and learning how to coordinate their F-16Vs with American F-35s.
The F-35 is a stealth aircraft and Taiwan had asked the US for the F-35B short takeoff-vertical landing (STOVL) variant. While the F-35B does not have the range of the F-16, it would solve a problem that concerns Taiwan’s Air Force planners: what to do if Taiwan’s airfields are successfully attacked by China, putting them out of commission.
The F-35B was eyed because it could take off and land on very short runways, meaning China would be faced with a challenge in trying to liquidate Taiwan’s short airfields scattered around the island.
Taiwan’s request did not gain much traction in the United States, in part because Taiwan has long been a target of Chinese infiltration that could expose the F-35 stealth system to compromise.
Maintaining stealth coatings remains a US secret, and the F-35s and F-22s must have their stealth coatings serviced in secure locations. In the US there was opposition to transferring stealth know-how to Taiwan.
But the F-35 also could have created a number of problems for Taiwan. Supporting an F-35 program requires a lot of highly trained manpower. Taiwan is especially short on aerospace-qualified manpower.
In April this year, because of delays keeping the F-16V upgrade program on schedule, the chairman of AIDC, Anson Liao, was forced to resign. Liao said he lacked enough manpower to get the job done.
The AIDC is Taiwan’s biggest aerospace company, with revenues of almost US$1 billion and more than 3,000 employees, and is directly responsible for its military programs. The AIDC formed a partnership with Lockheed to upgrade Taiwan’s F-16s.
A second issue is availability. The US F-35 program is not yet a mature platform, and readiness and availability rates have been poor, running at about 50%. That compares with Taiwan’s F-16 availability rate that, before the upgrade program, was about 70%.
Taiwan needs to maintain at least a 70% availability rate, if not more. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis had set the target for the Pentagon at 80%.
The third problem is sustainment. Taking in the F-35 would have created a logistics headache for Taiwan, which is already supporting four different fighter platforms: the F-16 A/B and now upgraded F-16V, the F-CK-1 indigenous fighter, the Mirage 2000-5, which is very expensive to maintain, and the Northrop F-5E, and RF-5E.
While Taiwan apparently wants to phase out the Mirage and F-5E aircraft, the timetable for that is not set. The US has also been trying to restart spare parts production to help Taiwan keep its very old F-5s flying. Taiwan is also supporting existing training aircraft and the AIDC is building a new lead-in trainer that will also need to be supported.
Beyond the operational issues facing Taiwan’s Air Force and its industrial base, F-35s carry a limited amount of weapons and are mainly important for their ability to penetrate enemy air defenses.
In most US war fighting scenarios, F-35s and F-22s would be sent in against high value enemy targets, like air fields, missile defenses and front line enemy aircraft. There is less value to Taiwan in the US scenario, since penetrating China’s airspace and flattening China’s air defenses and missile launching sites is not a viable option for Taiwan.
The main purpose of Taiwan’s Air Force and other defense assets is to support Taiwan’s national security and independence. This means emphasizing the air defense and air superiority roles and the ability to support efforts to stop an invading force.
Change in defense environment
But the lack of the F-35 for Taiwan does not remove the F-35 from the game. In fact, the new F-16’s ability to work with US-run F-35s is an important advantage for Taiwan and changes the defense environment profoundly.
Instead of Taiwan relying on a far off, late arriving US aircraft carrier to bail out a Taiwan under siege, US warplanes and Taiwan’s upgraded fleet could coordinate their operations in a crisis.
The US has stealth aircraft in Japan and Okinawa. And interoperability between the F-35s and F-16Vs is straightforward because each has the same electronics and same weapons.
The technological heart is the change in the F-16s electronics. The AESA radar has much greater range and flexibility than the mechanically-scanned radars it replaces. Advanced AESA systems have four key attributes: they are resistant to enemy jamming; they make it very difficult for enemy radar warning receivers to locate them; these radars are more reliable than mechanically scanned systems because they are all solid state; and they feature real multi-mode functionality, meaning they can locate air, sea and land targets simultaneously.
When combined with fiber optic data bases and with electronic warfare systems, the F-16V radar can handle up to 20 targets simultaneously and at much greater range and higher resolution than older radars.
It can also perform as a synthetic aperture radar (SAR). SAR capability is an all-weather, day and night sensor that produces high quality reconnaissance imagery in adverse weather and under restricted visibility conditions.
Radar and weapons
But perhaps the most interesting is that the F-16V AESA radar supports network enabled weapons (NEW). Emerging NEW weapons gives one aircraft the ability to fix a target and assign another aircraft, or other system, with the responsibility to kill the target.
NEW creates a perfect storm for the enemy. Taiwan’s F-16Vs and US aircraft (F-35s, F-16s, F-15s and F-18s) share the same air to air and air to ground missiles.
In a scenario where the US needs to assist Taiwan, the compatibility of American F-35s with Taiwan’s F-16Vs means the two sides can coordinate operations effectively, where each system operates as a force multiplier for the other.
For China, this means it has much more to contend with than the arrival of a US aircraft carrier in support of Taiwan. Taiwan’s F-16V is a big step toward an integrated approach to regional defense with the United States, against an expanding and aggressive China.