TAIWAN — China's military modernization effort continues to drive defense procurement in Asia as Beijing develops fifth-generation fighter aircraft, procures Russian Su-35 aircraft, builds aircraft carriers, extends the range and punch of its ballistic missile force, pushes to dominate the South China Sea, and threatens to invade Taiwan and occupy the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
“China’s increased militarization of the South China Sea, and its growing animosities with Japan, are driving many in the region to think about procuring additional firepower as a hedge against a more powerful and aggressive China,” said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow and coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
China’s traditional numerical superiority is increasingly complemented by at least near technical equivalence with its main regional rivals, said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“The Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 and the Russian Su-35 will provide the basis of a capable fighter combat inventory in the 2020s,” he said. “Top tier air forces will face challenges and choices in balancing investing in platforms able to be operated in highly contested airspace or increasingly relying on standoff weapons and systems."
Regional responses to China’s bellicose behavior and North Korea’s erratic threats to develop missiles and nuclear weapons include midlife upgrades to F-16 fighter aircraft in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, the development of new indigenous fighter aircraft, such as Korea’s KF-X program and Japan’s stealth X-2 Shinshin fighter, and upgrades of indigenous fighters, such as Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Fighter.
Bitzinger said some countries are naturally worried a more modernized Chinese Air Force, especially its missile forces, could severely damage air bases or destroy them. This has led to requirements for short takeoff/vertical landing aircraft such as the F-35B fighter, refurbished AV-8 Harriers and V-22 Osprey transports.
The F-35B is now being procured by Australia, Japan and South Korea, with expected purchase by Singapore in the not-too-distant future. Taiwan has also requested the F-35B, but for political reasons related to Beijing’s lobbying efforts in Washington, this might be impossible.
The US denied Taipei’s procurement requests for Block 50/52 F-16C/D fighters to replace aging Mirage 2000 and F-5 fighters, and analysts doubt Washington would anger China by releasing a more advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter, like the F-35. Instead, US government sources indicate Taiwan will be offered refurbished AV-8 Harrier jump jets to fulfill the vertical requirement.
The vertical requirement in all four countries is in response to China’s growing arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. In the Taiwan scenario, China has allocated about 1,400 short-range ballistic missiles to pulverize air bases, destroy command-and-control nodes and eliminate ground-based air defense batteries. The only option to maintain a credible air power deterrence is procurement of either the F-35B or refurbished AV-8s, which can be hidden inside Taiwan’s mountainous interior.
China’s threat to offshore islands has also created an interest in vertical landing aircraft capable of transporting troops and supplies long distances at high speeds. The tiltrotor Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey is on order by the Japanese military, and South Korea and Singapore have expressed interest. The Osprey will be on display at the Singapore Airshow from Feb. 16-21.
The ballistic missile threats from not just China, but North Korea, have expanded interest in ground-based air defense missile systems, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system for South Korea and new Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) batteries for Japan and Taiwan.
Taiwan recently installed an advanced long-range early warning radar along its west coast that can peer deeply into China’s interior and monitor not only missiles but the activity of fighter aircraft. Japan has been beefing up its signal intelligence (SIGINT) and radar facilities along the Ryukyu Island chain.
Taiwan has one of the most advanced SIGINT networks in the world, with a joint US National Security Agency (NSA) and Taiwan National Security Bureau (NSB) high-frequency/direction-finding antenna facility on Yangmingshan Mountain, just north of Taipei, and NSB antenna farms in Linkou in the north and Betel Nut Village in the south.
A retired NSA source who worked at Pingtun Li said the US gathers about 70 percent of its signal intelligence on China from Taiwan facilities.
Air show officials indicate that by 2018, defense budgets across the Asia-Pacific are expected to grow by more than 19 percent to about $612 billion.