Commentary: Obama Administration Notifies Taiwan’s F-16 A/B Upgrade Program To Congress

September 21, 2011

The Obama Administration Notifies Taiwan’s F-16 A/B Upgrade Program To Congress
Where Are The F-16 C/Ds?

(Arlington, Virginia, September 21, 2011)

Commentary by Rupert Hammond-Chambers

The US-Taiwan Business Council welcomes the news that the Obama Administration will proceed with a commitment to upgrade Taiwan’s present inventory of F-16 A/Bs at a possible cost of US$5.3 billion, the continuation of the Luke Air Force Base training program at a potential cost of US$500 million, and a requisition for up to US$52 million in parts for Taiwan’s F-16 A/Bs, F-5s, C-130s and IDFs. The congressional notifications are attached.

The Council welcomes the Obama Administration’s partial commitment to supporting Taiwan’s efforts to upgrade and modernize its air power capabilities. As we noted in our 2010 report “The Balance of Air Power in the Taiwan Strait”, Taiwan certainly needs to implement a robust mid-life retrofit/modernization program for its existing fleet of F-16 A/Bs. The FMS programs notified to Congress today will help Taiwan address diminishing manufacturing sources and obsolescence issues, improve reliability and maintainability, improve survivability, and update aircraft capabilities to remain abreast of current mission requirements.

Upgraded F-16 A/Bs Are Not Enough to Face the Threat from China
A recent U.S. Department of Defense report states that “China has continued to develop a wide range of weapons and capabilities designed to provide credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.” The report goes on to note that the military threat posed by China to Taiwan continues to grow rapidly.

The Taiwan Air Force is therefore in dire need of a robust and modern fighter fleet in order to prepare for all possible contingencies. The upgrade of Taiwan’s F-16 A/Bs will go some way towards moving the Taiwan Air Force in the right direction, if the upgraded fighters are equipped with modern systems and munitions.

However, with the Taiwan Air Force retiring its obsolete F-5s and prohibitively expensive Mirage 2000-5s, Taiwan will still fall perilously short of the airframes it requires to maintain an adequate air defense force, even with the scheduled upgrade. This shortfall is inherently destabilizing, and if not addressed it will threaten the military balance in the Taiwan Strait and encourage Chinese adventurism in the coming years.

Unnamed Obama Administration officials have been stating – as they did in the Wall Street Journal yesterday – “Taiwan gets them quicker and they are cheaper than C/Ds”. This is a false statement. The upgrade program is comprehensive, but spans almost 10 years with the first upgraded A/B coming as late as the 6th year of the program. If the Obama Administration were to accept a Letter of Request for 66 F-16 C/Ds now, the entire tranche of new fighters could be delivered before Taiwan receives any of its upgraded F-16 A/Bs.

Secondly, the Obama Administration is suggesting that the choice was between either the F-16 A/B upgrade or the F-16 C/Ds. Again, this is a false choice. It is not either but both programs that are required. The correct approach would have both programs running concurrently, so that as new F-16 C/Ds are delivered to Taiwan – before Taiwan starts pulling front line F-16 A/Bs out of operations – there will be no degradation of Taiwan’s fighter strength. As presently structured, Taiwan will actually see a reduction in the number of operational F-16s over the next 10 years.

F-16 C/Ds are the Solution to the Airframe Shortfall
The solution to this shortfall is the sale of 66 F-16 C/D fighters to Taiwan, as a follow up and in addition to the announced upgrade of Taiwan’s existing fleet of A/Bs. Together, these two programs would help Taiwan adequately fill the fighter gap, and would ensure that Taiwan has an air force capable of deterring China from provoking or attacking it. A fighter force able to handle all of Taiwan’s many contingencies.

The United States agreeing to sell F-16 C/Ds to Taiwan is an appropriate and prudent response to China’s ongoing force expansion and military modernization. In addition, it would conform to the legal requirements in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) –which puts the onus on the United States to help ensure that Taiwan maintains an adequate defense – while at the same time such a program would positively contribute to the U.S. job picture and to the U.S. economy.

The Obama Administration’s admittance that today’s announcement is designed to address the equities of Taiwan, the U.S. Congress, and China relations is admittance that the F-16 C/D decision was made not in response to the Chinese threat to Taiwan but over U.S. concerns regarding China’s reaction to the sale. The Taiwan Relations Act explicitly states that “The President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan.” The Obama Administration is making clear that the F-16 C/D non-decision was calibrated to ensure that China’s interests were taken into consideration.

If the Obama Administration continues to balk at providing Taiwan with replacement fighters, it will represent a capitulation of America’s obligation to provide Taiwan with defensive arms based solely on Taiwan’s needs. The U.S. has the obligation to provide Taiwan all that it requires, not only that which is politically expedient. China will have effectively involved itself in an important U.S. decision on American interests in the Asia Pacific, and will then seek to incrementally downgrade the U.S. commitment to Taiwan by drawing “red lines” around less significant equipment in the future.

While the Obama Administration has notified to Congress significant dollar value Taiwan defense programs, it is important to note that no new systems or platforms have been released to Taiwan since 2007. The programs that have been notified represent decisions made up to 10 years ago. The Obama Administration has not released a single new platform or system to Taiwan.

In short, while the US-Taiwan Business Council welcomes the announced upgrade to Taiwan’s fleet of F-16 A/Bs, the upgrade program does not do enough to address Taiwan’s current air defense needs. It is imperative that the Obama Administration also act on Taiwan’s request for F-16 C/Ds.

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