Taiwanese defense officials say the US isn't being forthright on costs to upgrade the country's 146 F-16s with new radars. (Getty Images)
TAIPEI AND WASHINGTON — The same week that the US Air Force said it had figured out a way to get its counterparts in Taiwan new radars for its 146 F-16 fighter jets, sources at Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) are accusing US officials of lying to them and avoiding questions on the impact that the cancellation of the upgrades on the US side will have on Taiwan.
This month, after the US zeroed out the budget for the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) upgrade for 300 of its own F-16s, analysts predicted that Taiwan would have to abandon the program without the US helping to shoulder some of the cost. That included installation of Northrop Grumman’s scalable agile-beam radar.
However, the US Air Force said last week that it had found a way to make sure Taiwan still gets the needed upgrades.
The fix, according to US Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick, was found largely because the agreement with Taiwan was a foreign military sales deal, where the US acted as the procurement authority. Purchasers at the Air Force issued a number of contracts for the CAPES upgrade to Taiwan, and a significant number of those came back under budget. Because of those savings, the service was able to turn around and invest that money into paying for the radar upgrades.
However, that doesn’t mean the cost for the program won’t change.
Sources in Taiwan said the US Air Force has informed the MND that, indeed, a small increase of “tens of millions of dollars” will be added to the program for non-recurring engineering costs, but the program will not sustain the harsh “hundreds of millions of dollars in increases” that many fear later down the road.
MND officials are complaining that US Air Force officials are not giving the MND “actionable information” and ignoring “critical questions about termination liabilities.”
MND sources accuse the US Air Force of railroading them into the CAPES program in the first place and of discouraging Taiwan from following South Korea’s example of an open competition between Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems to lower costs and allow for more transparency.
When asked for comment on Taiwan’s accusations, Gulick said “We do not foresee any impact on capability or additional costs. We are in the engineering design phase of this retrofit, and there is no indication to changes in the timeline or the capabilities included in the original contract.”
William McHenry, Lockheed’s head of F-16 business development, dismissed concerns that losing the 300 US F-16 jets could drive costs up for the radars, noting that the radar is interoperable with that of the F-35 joint strike fighter.
“[Northrop] is looking at the bigger program” than just F-16, McHenry said. “So when you think about Northrop looking at 3,000 total planes, including all the F-35s, a couple hundred F-16s is really kind of insignificant.”
Watching from the sidelines and hoping Taiwan moves away from the Lockheed/Northrop pairing are BAE and Raytheon, which have been selected to upgrade 134 South Korean KF-16C/D Block 52s with a fully integrated avionics suite, including Raytheon’s high-tech radar system.
In the meantime, the US Air Force is pressing forward with planned upgrades to its F-16s and F-15s.
Specifically, the service is still committed to extending the lives of the F-16 from 8,000 hours to 10,000-12,000 hours.
Testing for the service-life extension program (SLEP) is underway. The program, which involves changes to the wings and bulkhead, is slated to receive $16.2 million in the fiscal 2015 budget, a figure that will grow as a production contract is planned for a fiscal 2017 award, followed by full-rate production in fiscal 2019.
The Air Force said 65 F-16s will go through the SLEP during the five years covered in the future years defense program.
Lockheed Martin is putting an aircraft through testing for the SLEP, McHenry said. While the US Air Force will be the prime customer, he expects international interest to be high in the SLEP.
F-15 upgrades include the APG-82(V) modernization for the F-15E Strike Eagle, which adds an active electronically scanned array radar.
That upgrade program receives $240.9 million in the budget request. Another major upgrade, titled APG-63(V), receives $117.4 million to upgrade the radar on the F-15C/D. Meanwhile, the advanced display core processor II upgrade, slated for $84.3 million in fiscal 2015, will develop a “new central computer for both F-15E and F-15C/D modernization,” according to budget documents. ■