The acquisition or development of more air-to-air missiles is a small but highly important measure to improving Taiwan’s self-defense for the decades ahead.
In May 2005, Taipei-based journalist Wendell Minnick sounded the alarm in an article over Taiwan’s defense situation, noting that Taiwan had too few air-to-air missiles (AAM) in its inventory for adequate self-defense. A National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) publication made a similar observation that year.
Over a decade has elapsed since then. In that time, relatively little has been done to address the missile shortage. Indeed, owing to aging and other factors, Taiwan’s AAM situation has arguably worsened.
Considerable attention has been paid in recent years to Taiwan’s air defense, most of it aimed at improving Taiwan’s fighter fleet. Taiwan lobbied for years for the purchase of 66 new Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds from the United States (a request rejected by both the Bush and Obama administrations.) Taiwan’s air arm, the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), is modernizing its entire F-16 fleet to F-16V Viper configuration, and its Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) fleet is being upgraded as well. There has been talk of Taiwanese interest in the stealthy F-35 Lightning II, while rumors of Taipei’s pursuit of the Boeing F-15 Eagle or advanced versions of the F/A-18 Hornet went unconfirmed by the ROCAF. But such measures taken to improve Taiwan’s fighter fleet – vital and necessary though they may be – may ultimately be of little use in combat if the ROCAF’s fighters are inadequately armed.
Taiwan’s air arm, the ROCAF, operates primarily three types of fighters. The fleet’s French-manufactured Dassault Mirage 2000-5Di/Eis are primarily air-to-air interceptors while its American-manufactured Lockheed Martin F-16A/B Block 20 Fighting Falcons and Taiwanese-manufactured AIDC F-CK-1 Ching Kuo IDFs have dual air-to-air and air-to-ground functions. (For practical purposes, this article will consider Taiwan’s aging F-5E/F Tigers to be fully defunct and retired.)
Fighters in many contemporary air forces are fitted with a combination of close-range and beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles for aerial combat, and the ROCAF’s three fighter types all utilize a pairing combination of such. For close-range and BVR aerial combat, respectively, Taiwan’s F-16s employ Sidewinders and AMRAAMs/Sparrows, its Mirages employ Magic 2s and Micas, and its IDFs employ Tien Chien-1s and Tien Chien-2s. This weapons loadout philosophy follows in the footsteps of other air forces such as Israel’s Python and Derby pairing, Japan’s AAM-3 and AAM-4 combination, and Russia’s “Archer” and “Adder” mix.
On the surface, Taiwan’s air force does not lack air-to-air weaponry; there is a considerable number of AAMs in the arsenal if Taiwan’s Mica, Magic, Sparrow, AMRAAM and Tien Chien munitions are all tallied together. But on closer examination, there are several issues that could severely constrain the ROCAF in aerial combat.
The first is that the ROCAF is handicapped by a mismatched ratio of missiles to aircraft. Although Taiwan has a significant number of AAMs, a large portion of these missiles is comprised of French-made Mica and Magic AAMs (1,440 acquired originally) mated to one aircraft type only, the French-made Mirages. At 56 airframes, the Mirages constitute only a small fraction of Taiwan’s overall fighter fleet. This stockpile yields a ratio of well over 20 AAMs per Mirage. Given the severe threat environment Taiwanese fighters would face in a cross-Strait war, it is doubtful that the Mirages would even survive enough sorties to use their way through such a large stockpile, and a large fraction of the Micas and Magics could therefore sit on the ground unused and wasted.
Taiwan’s F-16 fleet, on the other hand, faces the opposite problem – a curiously low ratio of AIM-120s to fighters. Taiwan’s small inventory of AMRAAMs (300-plus) and relatively large F-16 fleet (144 jets) yields a ratio of barely two AMRAAMs per F-16. This creates a double misfortune whereby many Mica and Magic missiles may be stranded on the ground in wartime with no surviving Mirage fighters to use them, while many F-16 fighters may find themselves bereft of AMRAAM missiles to use. (Owing to incompatibility, many missiles designed for one particular aircraft nationality cannot be used by aircraft of another nationality. Taiwan therefore cannot remedy its ratio imbalance by having its American-made F-16s use surplus French-made missiles.)
The second issue is one of guidance. The AIM-120 is not the only BVR missile compatible with Taiwanese F-16s; Taiwan acquired a stockpile of AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles from the U.S. as well. But the Sparrow, a 1970s-era missile, is semi-active radar-homing (SARH), meaning that its launching platform must guide it by keeping its radome pointed in the direction of the target, enabling its radar to provide continuous illumination all the way to detonation. This is a considerable disadvantage compared to more-modern active-radar-homing (ARH) “fire-and-forget” missiles such as the AIM-120, as it greatly constrains the launching platform’s freedom of movement during aerial combat and makes it more vulnerable to enemy counterattack. The abysmal performance of the Sparrow in past Taiwanese military exercises has not inspired confidence either, to the point that a large number of them were temporarily withdrawn from active service in 2012.
The third factor is age. Air-to-air munitions do not have an indefinite service life. Mica missiles, for instance, have a service life of 25 years, and although measures may be taken to prolong the service life of the ROCAF’s Micas and Magics, these upgrades may ultimately be irrelevant if the Mirage 2000s are phased out of ROCAF service in the near future. The Sparrows are even older yet. Certain components of the American-manufactured Raytheon AIM-120 missile have a finite lifespan. In addition, many missiles can only tolerate a certain amount of “captive flight” (that is, being carried by an aircraft in flight and subjected to the accompanying physical stresses entailed therein) in their service life. The ROCAF thus faces a future decline in its air-to-air armament stocks if nothing is done to replenish them.
Fourthly, it must be assumed that many missiles fired by Taiwanese aircraft in aerial combat will fail to achieve a hit. AAMs can and will be opposed by chaff, flares, evasive maneuvering, towed decoys and a variety of other defensive countermeasures. Even some advanced munitions can still be thwarted by relatively rudimentary countermeasures; an American AIM-9X was drawn away by a Syrian Su-22’s flares in combat last year. Missile defects or component failure must be taken into account as well. In addition, many Taiwanese fighters may be lost in combat before they have fully depleted their weaponry loads. (A Taiwanese Mirage shot down in combat while still carrying six missiles on its pylons, for instance, would represent the loss of not only the Mirage jet itself but also the six unused missiles.)
When all these deficiencies are considered together, the result is an AAM stockpile wholly inadequate for a Taiwanese air force that can expect to be heavily blitzed by the world’s largest military at the very outset of war.
Finally, in the event of war the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) fleet would conceivably be vast. Taiwan is already in a precarious situation, having too few AAMs in stock to adequately counter its Chinese opponent. China can also be expected to employ numerous unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), decoys and other tactics in combat that would further tax the Taiwan’s AAM inventory. The math only gets direr for Taiwan as time goes on; by the year 2030, attrition may have whittled the ROCAF’s entire AAM inventory down to only a few hundred usable BVR missiles at a time when the PLAAF may have surpassed the U.S. Air Force in fleet size. Simply put, China may field more aircraft against Taiwan than Taiwan has missiles with which to oppose them.
When all these deficiencies are considered together, the result is an AAM stockpile wholly inadequate for a Taiwanese air force that can expect to be heavily blitzed by the world’s largest military at the very outset of war. In pessimistic conditions, the ROCAF might be overwhelmed, unable to bring down any more than a tiny fraction of its Chinese foe.
Taiwan is not wholly dependent on the ROCAF for air defense; Taiwanese land-based and ship-based surface-to-air missiles (SAM) can be expected to throw their weight into the fray as well. But land-based SAMs are limited by terrain, range, and relative immobility, and Taiwanese warships that carry SAMs can be expected to have their own hands full dealing with the Chinese threats that face them.
Taiwan should place urgent priority on acquiring a substantial number of additional AIM-120 missiles, and of the new long-ranged D variant in particular, if possible. The AMRAAM will remain the BVR mainstay of Taiwan’s F-16 fleet for the duration of the fleet’s service (assuming retirement of the Sparrows) and currently numbers only 300-some missiles, as noted above — an insufficient stockpile for 140-some Fighting Falcons. It is noteworthy for comparison that Australia, a nation that operates a much smaller air force and faces a less daunting enemy air threat than Taiwan, sought the purchase of no fewer than 450 AIM-120Ds, a batch sizably larger than Taiwan’s current AMRAAM inventory.
If the Mirage 2000 is retired from ROCAF service in the near future, such a move would retire all of its associated Mica and Magic missiles with it. Assuming no acquisition of a new fighter type, Taiwan’s fighter fleet would be down to only two fighter types; the F-16 and IDF. Taiwan’s IDF fleet would have to pick up some air-to-air slack, and additional Tien Chien missiles should be manufactured for the IDFs, a move which would benefit Taiwan’s economy and indigenous arms industry as well. It would also be in Taiwan’s interest to develop a new successor to the TC-2. (Any subsequent American fighter type acquired by Taiwan, such as the Eagle, Super Hornet, Lightning II or additional F-16s, would likely be compatible with Taiwan’s existing AIM-120 and Sidewinder munitions.)
The purchase of such missiles would be an easier request for the U.S. to approve than higher-end items, as it would be an arms buy of a significantly smaller nature than the purchase of “big ticket” items such as submarines and new fighters. Taiwan’s 2007 purchase of 453 Maverick and AMRAAM munitions, for instance, ran into relatively little opposition from China as opposed to Taiwanese requests for new F-16 fighters. The very act of Taiwan requesting small-scale and large-scale US arms sales simultaneously is an important goalposting strategy, even if the bigger items are rejected by Washington, as this would stymie Beijing’s attempts to move the goalposts further and further on the arms-sales issue. By requesting large, unlikely-to-be-approved arms sales, Taiwan takes Chinese heat off of smaller, likelier-to-be-approved sales. If Taiwan were to submit only requests for small-scale weapons buys and no big-ticket buys, then Beijing could direct all of its ire onto small arms sales that would have previously been reserved only against large-scale buys, boxing Taiwan arms sales into a corner.
In the same way that certain strengths can be “force multipliers,” greatly increasing the effectiveness of a fighting force, certain deficiencies can have the opposite effect; greatly decreasing a military’s effectiveness likewise. The bad news is that Taiwan’s air-to-air missile shortage is one of its most critical vulnerabilities. The good news is that it is perhaps one of the simplest to address. The acquisition of more air-to-air missiles is a small but highly important measure to improving Taiwan’s self-defense for the decades ahead.
Top photo of F-16 by J. Michael Cole.
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