US President Donald Trump has ended years of uncertainty with his informal approval on August 19 for the US$8 billion sale of 66 F-16V jets to Taiwan, although the craft still lags behind the fast new “fifth-generation” fighter jets that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is developing.
The issue of new fighter aircraft has become particularly pressing, given that China’s air force and navy have been circling the island in ever-shorter intervals, with vastly superior aircraft.
The Taiwan air force describes the F-16Vs as a newer version of the air force’s existing F-16 A/B jets, with greater thrust, longer range, a more streamlined airframe, and more-advanced radar and attack systems. Taiwan had initially wanted new F-16s, but the request was turned down by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in 2011.
The Taiwanese then temporally expressed interest in the much more advanced F-35 instead, only to be forced to again settle for F-16s after the US signaled there wouldn’t be a nod for an F-35 deal.
Opinions on the usefulness of the new F-16Vs differ, according to an Asia Sentinel survey of the defense expert community. Part of the problem is that the new fourth-generation F-16s would have to go up against craft like the PLAAF’s Chengdu J-20, a fifth-generation all-weather stealth fighter with a top speed of 1,305 mph, which is not yet available in large numbers, or the Shenyang J-31, Gyrfalcon, also a 5-G jet under development. Also a stealth craft, it is capable of 1,367 mph.
In Taipei, Tzeng Yisuo, a research fellow in the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, recommended deploying the F-16Vs at Taitung Zihang Air Force Base located in Taiwan’s southeastern corner, calling them a good pick partly because they could be hidden in mountain underground hangars.
“In peacetime, the F-16V fighters would create substantial deterrence towards those PLAF fighters passing through Taiwan’s eastern coast while circling Taiwan,” Tzeng said. “In wartime, Shihzihshan
provides underground hangars for the preservation of F-16V fighter capacity, ensuring that the fighters survive and offer local air superiority during counterattacks upon the completion of the rapid repair and recovery of the runways in the aftermath of the PLA’s surface-to-surface missile attacks.”
What really matters for Taiwan's air force is the supply of skilled pilots and, more importantly, repair and maintenance systems, Tzeng said. New Taiwan-made trainers in the pipeline are also important to the success of the new aircraft.
“After all, it takes a whole village to bring a new fighter fleet up to fight a good fight,” he said.
At the other end of the spectrum in views on the deal stands John Pike, director of the U.S.-based Globalsecurity.org think tank who basically describes them as sitting ducks. He pointed out that South Korea decided in favor of the F-35 versus the F-15, while Japan and Singapore and Australia are deploying the F-35.
“In the face of China’s J-20 and J-31, the F-16 is just a target, so if Taiwan is serious about defending itself, it must buy the F-35,” Pike said. “The main problem is the very unfavorable exchange ratio [the ratio of planes shot down] once the planes are in the air – even if it is only 5:1, the PLAAF would lose only a few dozen aircraft in the process of shooting down the entire Taiwan Air Force.”
The general theory is that several 4th generation aircraft, like the F-16Vs, would be lost for every 5th generation aircraft lost by the PLAAF.
“So, even with an optimistic ratio of 5:1 in clashes between Taiwan’s F-16 and China’s J-20, all 400 or so of Taiwan's fighters would be shot down while the PLAAF loses 80 J-20s,” Pike said. “At the moment there do not appear to be an appreciable number of J-20s, but by 2025 there might be a hundred and several hundred by 2030.”
Timothy R. Heath, Senior International Defense Researcher at the U.S.-based RAND think tank, thinks that the new F-16Vs will be useful for patrolling Taiwan’s airspace, responding to incursions by Chinese aircraft and providing a deterrent in the event of a naval crisis near Taiwan.
The F-16Vs could also provide a strike option against Chinese amphibious and naval ships in a war, although China’s overwhelming superiority would probably limit the effectiveness of such strikes in a major conflict.
“The F-16s also provide an important political benefit, as the acquisition of the aircraft clearly signals ongoing US support for the island, despite Beijing’s furious opposition,” Heath said. “Related, Taiwan’s willingness to spend for the aircraft helps maintain the goodwill of US authorities, who might be more inclined to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf against a Chinese attack than if Taiwan did not invest resources to improve its defense. Finally, the F-16s would also elevate the modern profile of Taiwan’s air force, raising the morale and pride of service members.”
That said, Heath also subscribes to the notion that the J-20s and J-31s outclass the F-16 due to the former’s stealth characteristics and longer-range missiles. He predicts that if somehow the Chinese and Taiwanese planes could get within visual range of each other, the odds might be evened due to the F-16’s highly effective and reliable infrared homing AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, although this is difficult to do given the capabilities of modern beyond visual range missiles.
“Moreover, in combat, Taiwan’s F-16s also face the challenge of confronting large numbers of highly capable J-10 and J-11 fighter aircraft and operating in an environment featuring a robust Chinese integrated air defense system and a large inventory of short-range ballistic missiles capable of knocking out the Taiwan Air Force’s runways,” Heath said.
“In sum, the F-16s help provide a modest boost to Taiwan’s warfighting capabilities and a larger peacetime and strategic benefit,” he added.