TAIPEI — Taiwan will have the opportunity to procure refurbished AV-8 Harrier Jump Jets as the US Marine Corps (USMC) begins replacing the aircraft with F-35B stealth fighters, said US government sources.
The Harriers will be offered to Taiwan through the Pentagon's Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program under the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
The AV-8 would fulfill Taiwan's much-needed vertical and/or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) requirement. China is expected to destroy Taiwan's air bases within the first few hours of a war with its estimated 1,400 short-range ballistic missile arsenal and the Harrier's V/STOL capability will allow the Taiwan air force to maintain air operations by hiding the aircraft in the mountainous interior.
A US defense industry analyst working in Taiwan said that it was a "great idea," but the USMC's AV-8s are "too worn to be of much sustainable service value, at least not without some, probably very costly, structural rehabilitation and avionics upgrade."
The Taiwan Air Force is not crazy about the AV-8 and there is tremendous pressure to continue efforts to secure procurement of the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing aircraft (STOVL) aircraft.
The spokesman's office of Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) said the Air Force wants the best operational advantage and will want advanced fighters with supersonic, STOVL, stealth, and beyond-visual-range capabilities. Though in the past, the AV-8 was considered an option, "this kind of aircraft is outdated and its performance and capabilities fail to meet future operational requirements."
Beyond V/STOL capabilities, the Harrier is subsonic and incapable of aerial dog fighting, said a Taiwan Air Force general. "According to my understanding, the Taiwan Air Force will not choose the AV-8 due to limited capabilities, refurbishment costs, and logistic support problems."
Erich Shih, a Taiwan-based defense expert, said the idea of procuring AV-8s was a "stupid and silly idea" because the "operational range is extremely short and used aircraft would be costly for maintenance and spare parts, and the engine is very complicated to work on." Though it would fulfill Taiwan's VSTOL requirement, Taiwan's Air Force wants the F-35B, he said An MND source within the policy section said that what the Air Force does not understand is that the US government's refusal to sell them new F-16C/D fighters translates to continued refusal for more complex fighters, such as the F-35s.
Nevertheless, Taiwan's Air Force continues to pursue the highly classified and complex stealth fighter, not realizing the US government will never release it, he said.
Taiwan's obsession with the F-35B is nearly total with the production of a military patch with the fighter and ROC Air Force emblazoned on it.
In 2013, this collectible patch began to appear in Taiwan with the words: "F-35 Lightning II for ROCAF [Republic of China Air Force]" and an image of the fighter aircraft and the ROC flag waving behind it.
Photo Credit: Wendell Minnick/staff
Defense News has acquired a copy of Taiwan's original 2002 Pentagon request for letter of intent (LOI) and for price and availability (P&A) data on the F-35B signed by Wang Chi-lin, then director of the Defense Procurement Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (Taiwan's de facto embassy in Washington). The letter demonstrates Taiwan's early interest in the F-35B's STOVL capabilities.
"Due to Taiwan's 'no first strike' policy, the ROCAF [Republic of China Air Force] considers initial strikes on conventional airfield to be both a priority to enemy [mainland China] offensive actions and devastating to the ability of Taiwan to defend against a surface invasion. Strikes on Taiwan air bases would neutralize existing aircraft due to their inability to perform short take-off and landings."
"The primary purpose of this acquisition is to provide a credible response capability in the event that our air bases become non-functional due to initial air, missile, and SOF [special operations forces] attacks."
A former US Air Force officer working with the Taiwan military at the time said the Pentagon provided Taiwan with a F-35 briefing and the Taiwan officers attending were described as being "impressed." However, little more was done about the request beyond that briefing.
The US ignored Taiwan's request for new F-16C/D fighter aircraft and the message was clear, said a US government source, "if they are not getting new F-16s, they are not getting F-35s." Beijing officials have described the sale of new F-16s to Taiwan as a "red line."
There could also be trouble from the AV-8s manufacturer, Boeing. The company turned down a request to comment on participating in the refurbishment of the aircraft. "As expected, we have nothing to say about potential Taiwan sales," said Ken Morton, Boeing Defense, Asia-Pacific.
Morton's response is not surprising. Past pressure from Beijing on Boeing to cease defense sales to Taiwan has been troubling. In 2006, the company closed its Taipei offices and moved them to Singapore in an effort to placate Beijing. Boeing has repeatedly asked Defense News not to print articles mentioning Boeing's sale of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to Taiwan. Boeing has significant investments and business deals in China's commercial aviation industry, and Beijing has used these dealings to influence not just Boeing, but other US companies to discontinue arms deals with Taipei.