Plans by Taiwan to upgrade its F-16A and B fighters could be delayed over funding problems in the US. (AFP)
TAIPEI — Despite pains by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) to keep the F-16 upgrade program on course, the effort could be derailed by US defense budget cuts that endanger the US Air Force’s Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) program for its own F-16s.
Local defense industry sources indicate with some irony that it is the Pentagon’s turn for bureaucratic inertia and budget woes. US defense officials have complained for years about Taiwan’s sluggish response in allocating funds and keeping procurement programs on schedule for US arms deals. Now it is the Pentagon’s turn to face complaints from the MND.
Taiwan has begun the process of upgrading 145 F-16A/B fighter aircraft procured in the 1990s. In September 2011, the Pentagon released a $5.3 billion retrofit program that included options such as the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, embedded global positioning system inertial navigation system, and electronic warfare management system.
In October 2012, Lockheed Martin was sole-sourced as the contractor for the structural upgrade, valued at $1.85 billion, as well as for the high-speed databus modular mission computer.
In late July, Northrop Grumman’s Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) beat out the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR) for the AESA competition to replace the A/B’s APG-66(V)3 mechanical radar.
“The selection of principal sub-systems and sub-contractors has proceeded more or less within the expected time frame,” a Taiwan defense analyst said.
The challenge lies with managing the cost of the program, a local defense industry source said. This is complicated by the program’s relationship to the US Air Force’s CAPES effort, in that Taiwan’s Air Force requires the F-16A/B upgrade program follow the CAPES system configuration.
“The thinking is that doing so would help ensure both supportability of Taiwan’s upgraded F-16A/Bs and allow for cost economy through sharing non-recurring engineering [NRE] costs on major systems, like AESA radar and electronic warfare pods, with [the US Air Force].”
However, funding for CAPES has received lower priority amid the severe US budget environment. There are well-founded concerns at MND that the Pentagon could drop CAPES in order to save the troubled F-35 program. “If CAPES should be canceled or even just substantially delayed, the impact on Taiwan’s F-16A/B upgrade program could be dramatic and adverse,” the local defense industry source said.
Without US Air Force sharing the costs on such core sub-systems as the SABR, the cost for Taiwan’s F-16 upgrade program will almost certainly increase at a time when Taiwan’s defense budget is facing problems implementing its restructuring program and paying for $18 billion in US arms released since 2007.
Besides the F-16 upgrade, equipment in the pipeline includes 12 P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, 30 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and 60 UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters. Taiwan’s defense budget is also struggling to pay costs associated with reform policies — including a major streamlining and troop reduction — being implemented.
Now Taiwan’s Air Force faces unexpected cost increases for the F-16 upgrade. The potential schedule impact for Taiwan’s F-16 program is unclear, since the original CAPES delivery milestones were later than Taiwan’s schedule, which calls for first upgraded aircraft by 2017.
The Taiwan Air Force and MND are following the US budget situation nervously and are anxious for clarification from the US with respect to the future commitment for CAPES funding.
However, given the evolving uncertainties over the fiscal crisis and the painful choices having to be made due to sequestration, the US cannot offer any guarantees for the continued viability of CAPES. Local defense analysts and industry sources complain that even without CAPES formally collapsing, Taiwan’s F-16 upgrade program is being impacted in other ways as a result of Taiwan’s desire to follow USAF configurations.
One local defense industry source pointed to the electronic attack (EA) and electronic warfare (EW) pod upgrade requirement. The Taiwan Air Force has a requirement to upgrade its existing ALQ-84(V) pods to incorporate the digital radio frequency memory technology needed to deal with more advanced threats.
Since the US Air Force is upgrading all of its EA pods — both ALQ-184 and ALQ-131 — to ALQ-131A standards, Taiwan’s Air Force is leaning toward following the US Air Force configuration. The US Air Force has proposed an exportable version of the ALQ-131A, but cannot provide reliable price and availability information for the surplus ALQ-131 pods that would be needed for such an upgrade solution. Without the surplus ALQ-131 pods, the cost of that upgrade path could prove prohibitive enough to force Taiwan to consider other alternative upgrade solutions.
As it stands, the USAF will not be in a position to advise the Taiwan Air Force on the EA pod upgrade cost and availability until probably sometime in 2015, which could mean that at least this aspect of Taiwan’s F-16 capabilities will not be upgraded along with the main program milestones, experts say.