Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2014-08-11 04:40 PM
Senior military officers point out that Taiwan’s military has not made a major purchase of new fighter aircraft for 20 years and continues to rely on the locally-developed IDF, the French Mirage and F-16 fighters from the US as the three mainstays of its air defense. With all three types of fighters already flying past their extended service life of 20 years, looking for replacements for the jets has become a top priority. One very real possibility is that the island’s current force of F-16A/B fighters could be upgraded to a level where their performance would match those of the F-16C/D version.
Sources in the Air Force note that at one time Taiwan was considering whether to move on to a new generation of fighters with either the F-16C/D or possibly the F-15, but never managed to win an agreement from the US, largely due to considerations related to China. Now decades later, with the so-called "transitional period" for the change-over already in the part, even if the US were to agree to sell new F-16C/Ds to Taiwan, Taipei would not want them.
Officials in the Ministry of National Defense (MND) have complained that the US is not being forthright in what will be made available to Taiwan and at what cost after Congress axed the budget for upgrading the US’s own force of F-16s under the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES). That program would have included Northrop Grumman’s scalable agile-beam radar and other systems which add considerably to the combat performance of the F-16 platform.
The ROC Air Force source points out that in modern warfare the fighter jet functions as a combat platform more than anything else. The key elements in a fighter’s effectiveness these days are the types of weapons packages it can carry such as advanced radar systems and missiles that can strike targets well over the horizon. The age of the fighter launching the weapons has become less critical to the success of the overall combat system.
Senior officials say that current arms sales talks with the US deal mostly with the procurement of advanced missiles with better offensive capabilities.
The upgrades now under consideration would not require that the fighters be flown to the US for modification. Instead, the aircraft manufacturer Lockheed would carry out the modifications in Taiwan. In addition, Lockheed has F-16 fighter aircraft in the US which can be used to train pilots. The US would first upgrade aircraft in the US for use in training and then would send technicians to oversee upgrade work in Taiwan.
Air Force brass are not optimistic about the chances of upgrading the performance of the island’s fleet of Mirage fighters. Noting that "the French love face" as much as anybody else, they point out that France was forced to pay out more than NT$20 billion to compensate for bribes in connection with the sale of Lafayette frigates to the Navy, a court ruling which still raises hackles on the French side. Thus the Air Force has not made any active overtures toward the French regarding the sale of upgrades or weapons systems.
A source adds that with the purchase of additional Mirage fighters highly unlikely at the moment, the ROC Air Force has begun cannibalizing aircraft that are not airworthy for spare parts and maintenance.
As used to keep the Mirages flying, this approach uses parts from an aircraft that is not capable of being flown to supply parts needed for an aircraft that is flyable but needs replacement parts. Then when a shipment of parts from France is received, the new materials and parts are then used to restore the cannibalized aircraft to flying condition.
Insiders say that when relations between Taiwan and France were good, for some small parts, you could simply go to Paris, pick them up and drop them in your pocket or suitcase and fly back. Now, however, with relations strained it is a matter of putting in procurement requests and waiting for needed parts to arrive.