TAIPEI - A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessment that points out weaknesses in Taiwan's air power and air defense capabilities seems to support Taiwan's case for new F-16s.
Delivered to the U.S. Congress on Feb. 16, the report, DIA-02-1001-028, says that while Taiwan has nearly 400 combat aircraft in service, "far fewer of these are operationally capable."
The report is mandated by Congress under the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act.
Since 2006, Taiwan has had a standing request for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters, but the United States has repeatedly rejected a letter of request for price and availability for the aircraft. The most critical problem is aging F-5E/F Tiger squadrons now used for training. The F-5s have "reached the end of their operational service life," the report says.
Taiwan claims it operates about 60 F-5s, but the report says "the number of operationally capable aircraft is likely much less, possibly in the low 30s."
The 126 Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDF) have "limited combat range and payload capacity restricts [the aircraft's] effectiveness in air-to-air combat," according to the report, which acknowledges the Air Force is making some efforts to modernize a "portion" of its IDF fleet.
The Air Force's 56 Mirage 2000-5 fighters suffer from high maintenance costs and lack required spare parts. They are "technologically advanced, but they require frequent, expensive maintenance that adversely affects their operational readiness rate." There are also "chronic difficulties with the aircraft's turbine fan blades" that have "severely hampered the fighters' readiness rates."
The Air Force is considering mothballing the fighters and "focusing resources on a more sustainable aircraft," according to the report.
Taiwan's 146 F-16A/B Block 20 fighters are in need of upgrades that improve avionics, survivability and combat effectiveness, the DIA report says, but "the extent of the upgrades, and timing and quantity of affected aircraft is currently unknown. The F-16A/B can be armed with the AIM-120C [AMRAAM] active-radar air-to-air missile." Taiwan has 120 AIM-120C-5 and 218 AIM-120C-7 missiles in its F-16 inventory.
"Despite the operational capability of Taiwan's fighter force, these aircraft cannot be used effectively in conflict without adequate airfield protection, especially runways," the report says. "Taiwan's ability to protect its aircraft and airfields from missile attacks and rapidly repair damaged runways and taxiways are central issues to consider when examining Taiwan's air defense capability."
Though Taiwan's request for new F-16C/Ds is not mentioned in the DIA report, the conclusion of the assessment points to the need for new fighter aircraft.
One U.S. defense industry source cautioned that the option of selling F-16s to Taiwan has a de facto deadline.
"If Taiwan is to have some credible air deterrent, then they need new, replacement aircraft. There is really no alternative to the F-16C/D. At some point this year, the F-16 supply chain will begin to shut down as there are no new orders and the U.S. and its allies switch to the F-35," he said.
"Once this happens … it is cost-prohibitive to restart the line. This industrial time constraint will force the political decision either to sell the aircraft to Taiwan or not. If no, for all intents and purposes, the island will have no real means of defending its airspace."
Taiwan legislators are pushing hard for the United States to release F-16s. In December, 24 legislators signed a letter addressed to four members of the U.S. Congress asking for the release of F-16s.
The letters were addressed to two members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and ranking minority leader Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; and two members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., and ranking minority leader Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
The bipartisan letter urged the follow-on procurement of F-16s to Taiwan, describing the issue as one of "utmost importance to our country."
The Taiwan legislators wrote, "Our nation has attempted to purchase follow-on F-16s since 2006 to upgrade our national defense by replacing our aging F-5s … and thereby respond to the growing threat that the People's Republic of China (PRC)" poses to the "peace and security in the Taiwan Strait."
The letter acknowledges improved economic and diplomatic relations between China and Taiwan over the past year, but adds, "we face a significant threat from the People's Liberation Army Air Force." China has a "lethal fleet" of advanced fighters and is "developing a fifth generation fighter" that will be deployed in 2017.
"Our air force is badly in need of replacement aircraft to maintain a viable deterrent fighting force to ensure a balance of power. Our military must be able to defend our airspace as a further deterioration in the air balance across the Strait will only encourage PRC aggression," the letter states.
It warns that "if America softens its support for our country at this critical time, we believe it will have an adverse effect on cross-Strait relations as Taiwan's negotiating position is weakened and the PRC may then seek to capitalize on our situation."