Whatever happens in the next few months — and expect the whole thing to become highly politicized — it is clear that Taiwan has an urgent need to close the fighter gap vis-à-vis growing Chinese airpower.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) on March 6 announced it had submitted a formal request for the purchase of new combat aircraft from the U.S. The request, which it is speculated involves the acquisition of as many as 66 U.S.-made F-16 “Viper” aircraft, signals Taiwan’s intention to better defend itself against Chinese threats and pressure. But don’t bring out the champaigne just yet: the sale is not a done deal, and the process of acquisition is likely to become politicized due to the general elections in January 2020 as well as a complicated geopolitical environment.
Taiwan had previously signalled its intention to request the F-35. Ian Easton, a fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, says that while the F-35 is the desired option for Taiwan, the F-16V will still strengthen Taiwan’s ability to deter an attack from China. The F-16V — or an equally advanced aircraft — is needed to supplement Taiwan’s fighter gap due to the obsolescence of the F-5 as well as to potentially retire the French Mirage-2000, whose maintenance costs have become exorbitant. One advantage to acquiring the F-16V is that Taiwan’s air force already has pilots who are experienced with the F-16 platform and who have trained in the U.S. In 1992, the George H. W. Bush administration sold 150 F-16A/B to Taiwan. The Taiwanese air force is currently upgrading its F-16s to F-16V-equivalent capability.
According to unconfirmed information reported in Taiwanese media, the price tag for 66 F-16Vs could reach US$13 billion (NT$400 billion), or about US$242.4 million per aircraft.
Normally, Taiwan would submit a Letter of Request (LOR) to the U.S. for a price and availability (P&A) update, which would provide Taiwan with a quote on prices. Based on this information, Taipei would then decide what to purchase. This time, however, Taiwan has reportedly submitted an “expedited LOR” for a Letter of Offer and Acceptance. By doing so, Taipei would obviate the quote-and-pick process and result in the U.S. sending Taiwan a list of the defense articles the U.S. is willing to sell. A Letter of Offer and Acceptance signed by Taiwan is what is needed for the U.S. government to sign contract with arms producer like Lockheed Martin to start production.
Politics, politics, politics
Political factors, both domestic and external, could delay progress on the acquisition of new combat aircraft from Taiwan. Chief among them is the likelihood that China will be angered by U.S. efforts to help Taiwan bolster its defense capabilities. Progress on a major arms request could have to wait to avoid alienating Beijing amid difficult trade talks.
A special budget could be passed by Taiwan’s legislature as early as this summer, as there will be a time crunch in the latter half of the year due to the January 2020 presidential and legislative elections. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) controls both the Legislative and Executive branches of government, which should facilitate the passage of a special budget. Nevertheless, while the move will be consistent with the Tsai administration’s efforts to foster closer ties with the U.S., the DPP will have to combat claims by the opposition — and more China-friendly — Kuomintang (KMT) and a conservative press questioning the purchase as well as public opinion against increased spending. KMT Legislator Wang Hong-wei has accused the DPP administration of overspending and using arms procurement as a tool to boost its electoral prospects in 2020 ahead of the 2020 election.
Given the U.S.’ risk-averse attitude, Washington will likely maintain a hands-off attitude lest it be accused of interfering with democratic processes. This careful posture was reflected by American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) spokesperson Amanda Mansour, who in a brief statement deferred questions on the finer details of a potential arms sale. It is in the U.S. interest to keep a potential arms sale as low-profile as possible, boosting Taiwanese defense capabilities in real terms without causing unnecessary diplomatic tensions.
So far, party heads have refrained from speaking publicly about a possible deal. But as the 2020 elections approach, it is likely that more political heavyweights will weigh in on the topic.
Another aspect that will need countering is the popular narrative that the U.S. has not been providing Taiwan with cutting-edge weaponry and merely dumping “old, outdated, and used equipment” to make profits off Taiwan. This view is misguided, as Taiwan itself knows what it can and cannot get from the U.S. and what it needs to strengthen its defense capabilities.
The skepticism over U.S. arms sales, and arguably some of the anti-American sentiment that underlies this skepticism in Taiwan, originate from a fundamental insecurity over the U.S.-Taiwan relations. Despite engagement, contact, and defense exchanges between Taiwan and the U.S., official diplomatic relations remain more at the level of “friends with benefits” than allies. Initiatives such as the Taiwan Relations Act (1979), Reagan’s Six Assurances (1982), the Taiwan Travel Act (2018) and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (2018) have all benefited Taiwan and signaled a continued U.S. desire to stand by its democratic partner. Still, the U.S. has never formally pledged to help militarily in case of a Chinese invasion. This “strategic ambiguity” is different from codified U.S. mutual defense treaties signed with other East Asian allies along the Pacific island chain, such as South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.
Whatever happens in the next few months, it is clear that Taiwan has an urgent need to close the fighter gap vis-à-vis growing Chinese air power, a challenge that has been highlighted by the US-Taiwan Business Council as well as the MND. To achieve this, U.S. technology is indispensable.
Top photo: SP’s Aviation
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