TAIPEI - Taiwan's defense minister intends to continue newly elected President Tsai Ing-wen's pledge to develop indigenous weapon systems and wean Taiwan off its dependency on US-made arms.

Newly appointed minister Feng Shih-kuan and other ministry officials emphasized that policy once again during the minister's Dragon Boat Festival banquet on June 13.

Of particular interest to Feng is the local production of a new fighter-trainer to replace the aging AT-3 Tzu Chung attack/trainer, produced by the state-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) in the 1980s. Feng served as AIDC chairman from 2006-2008, and his expertise in industrial defense manufacturing was a key factor in his appointment as the new defense minister.

The replacement for the AT-3 has been dubbed the XAT-5 advanced jet trainer, nicknamed the "Blue Magpie." The air force has a requirement for 66 aircraft for two training bases: one in Taitung to replace the aging F-5E/F Tigers and the other in Kangshan to replace the AT-3s. The XAT-5 is a derivative of the AIDC-produced Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) built during the 1990s.

According to an internal defense industry briefing, produced by AIDC consultants and obtained by Defense News, the budget for the XAT-5 is $2.3 billion, minus research and development roughly estimated at $300 million. The first prototype is scheduled for 2019 with a final operational clearance (FOC) in 2024. "That is earlier than the US Air Force's TX program, which has an IOC [Initial Operation Clearance] of 2024 and an FOC of 2034," the briefing states.

US defense-industry teams, including Boeing/Saab Northrop Grumman and Raytheon/Alenia, still have an opportunity to participate in the bidding for the XAT-5 program if they can meet the requirements. The Raytheon/Alenia T-100/M-346 attack trainer program’s performance and schedule does meet Taiwan’s requirements, but "costs are an uncertainty," the briefing states. The Boeing/Saab design is still classified, but if the vendors can "finish all document preparation by the end of 2016," then they should send a team to Taipei no later than August to meet with air force officials, legislators and AIDC officials, the document adds.

At present, the XAT-5 program is broken down into indigenous and external participation. The goal is to have the entire airframe made domestically, 50/50 percent foreign and indigenous participation on the engine, and 20-30 percent domestically sourced work on equipment such as avionics and radars, according to the briefing. That means that US companies have a "great opportunity" to participate in the program.

There are some critics of the government's approach. A former Taiwan Air Force flag officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, contended the XAT-5 program has flaws because it is based on the Indigenous Defense Fighter's 1990s technology, it lacks a radar or afterburner, and AIDC's engine-production capability is not entirely assured.

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