Taiwan’s ongoing quest for the F-35B Lightning II has recently been revisited during policy discussions in Taipei and Washington. Most notably, in April, Japan Time’s report led the discussion by speculating that the Trump administration’s upcoming arms sales to Taiwan includes F-35Bs. This was followed by Taiwan’s announcement to propose that acquisition as early as July, and echoed by an expert opinion during a recent panel. The importance of acquiring F-35Bs was further highlighted by the recent conclusion of the annual Han Kuang-33 exercise designed to test and verify the strategy outlined in the 2017 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).
The computer-simulated portion of the Hang Kuang 33, which employed the Joint Theater Level Simulation (JTLS) system, has revealed significant challenges for Taiwan’s ability to maintain air parity across the Taiwan Strait. The result of the air portion of the exercise indicated that while the blue team (Taiwan) was successful in denying air superiority to the red team (China), it was unsuccessful in providing critical ISR support. This led to other branches, such as the Taiwan (ROC) Navy, failing to counter the PLA carrier groups deployed at 1,500 kilometers to the east of Taiwan.
During the discussion and evaluation portion of the exercise every morning, both teams and the visiting US delegation headed by General (ret.) Edward A. Rice Jr. agreed that the inclusion of F-35Bs would tip the balance in Taiwan’s favor, and enable the air force to fulfill its secondary mission of supporting other branches instead of being tied down in the skies over northern Taiwan.
Over the course of Taiwan’s longstanding quest to acquire the F-35B, two key characteristics remain consistent: stealth (low observable tech) and short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL). It is worth tracing and examining the evolution of these two requirements.
In the early 2000s, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) already recognized the role stealth would play in the future contest for control of the air, and tasked the NCSIST with the development of a stealth upgrade for the F-CK-1 indigenous fighter code-named Lushan Project (廬山計畫).
The NCSIST team went as far as conducting a visit to US companies in December 2002 surveying potential useful techniques in adopting Radar Absorbent Materials (RAM), which culminated in the testing of a RAM-coated AT-3 trainer. While the project was later abandoned, stealth remained a key goal and became a requirement, as early as 2002, for Taiwan’s third generation fighter. Stealth, as a requirement for Taiwan’s next-generation fighter, was also documented in the first ever released Quadrennial Defense Review in 2009. Stealth persistently appeared in the Legislative Yuan record during sessions with succeeding Air Force chiefs of staff, and other defense officials through 2013. The next QDR reaffirmed the same requirement.
The quest for STOVL was similar to the stealth requirement, however with a much more apparent sense of urgency. As early as 2002, rumors of Taiwan’s interest in the STOVL-capable AV-8B emerged, with officials even raising the issue during the annual arms sales talks. While the Air Force officially denied such pursuit, the prospect of acquiring AV-8B was soon confirmed in a 2003 legislative session, when the Aerospace Industrial Development Company (AIDC) was instructed to prepare to refurbish the airframe. STOVL continued to make appearances in the intervening years alongside stealth, with rumors of Taiwanese interest emerging both during the retirement of Britain’s Harrier fleet and in 2016 when the US expressed tentative interest in providing the platform. However, by then Taiwan had already lost interest in AV-8B as a potential platform, while the STOVL requirement persists.
Stealth and STOVL continue to appear together as requirements for Taiwan’s next generation fighter in official documents and legislative records. The Ministry of National Defense unequivocally stated in April 2017 that “any platform that possesses both Stealth and STOVAL capabilities is the one we want.“
Stealth and STOVL
The acquisition and employment of any weapons system is a complicated task, requiring a detailed assessment of the current force structure, deployment, and tactics that influence the mission. This assessment will then inform the various desired capabilities and key performance indicators associated with the platform. In the context of a Taiwan contingency, the suitability of the F-35B would involve numerous qualitative and quantitative analyses based on the evolving paradigms of various fields. Analyses will cover factors as narrow as the rise of high-alpha maneuvers in agility studies, to the overall shift of China’s strategic intent following the PLA reorganization into five theater commands. Regardless of the F-35B’s suitability, it is clear from the legislative records that the Taiwan Air Force’s determination to acquire a platform possessing both STOVL and stealth capabilities has been consistent for more than a decade. However, currently, only the F-35B satisfies both requirements.
The pursuit of these two intrinsic capabilities raises the question of their utility within Taiwan’s war plan. The utility of low observable tech in combat and its role in compressing the kill chain was further validated by the high kill ratio demonstrated through dissimilar air combat Training (DACT) and joint exercises like the Red Flag. However, the necessity of the STOVL requirement is less clear and it comes with a significant performance trade-off. From information made public so far, we know that the F-35B sacrificed much to accommodate STOVL, including a higher wing-loading, a lower thrust-to-weight ratio, a significant reduction in transonic acceleration performance, and compromised endurance. These are all considered key performance parameters (KPPs) that inhibit Taiwan’s ability to achieve air dominance, a top level requirement.
Earlier studies conducted by the federally-funded research center RAND indicate that China has the potential ability to simultaneously incapacitate all existing Taiwanese runways and taxiways through multiple volleys of PLA rocket force (PLARF) ballistic missiles armed with maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) warheads. Nevertheless, the window of opportunity between incapacitating runways and their repair would be a short one, perhaps too short for a fledging air power such as the PLAAF. Fairly limited suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) capability makes the PLAAF situation more complicated. With relatively low investment, the window could be made shorter by boosting the existing rapid runway repair capacity and readiness rate, along with additional volleys for the existing SAM batteries.
Determining whether the trade-offs the F-35B experience as a result of incorporating STOVL capability are mission critical or not would depend on data still outside of the public domain. However, if Taiwan’s armed forces focuses on acquiring STOVL capabilities without first exhausting the lower-end solutions to mitigate potential runway denial, it could compromise the first order requirement of a weapon system which is meant to redress the qualitative balance across the Strait.
The last chance for Taiwan to become a part of the original Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program was in 2003. If it was an original participant in the program, Taiwan could have secured the possibility of shaping a platform more suited to its needs, as a security cooperation partner alongside Singapore and Israel. However, both political and financial circumstances prevented such an eventuality.
With Germany’s recent interest in the F-35, it is increasingly likely that, even if Taiwan were to secure a sale, the delivery horizon may well stretch beyond 2025. Such concerns over delivery schedules should be tempered by possibilities for negotiation with partners facing lower threat levels. Alternatively, a temporary loan of USM airframes following the precedent set by the AH-64 Apache case could be considered.
The real challenge facing the Taiwanese defense planners is not the meticulous calculation of equipment KPPs or quantitative models for the hardware balance.Instead, it is maintaining vigilance as to the quality and quantity of air force personnel, as demonstrated by operational readiness rate, cockpit ratio, flight hours, and the strategic and tactical initiative of Taiwan’s military leadership. People will ultimately determine the effectiveness of conventional deterrence.
The main point: Taiwan’s quest to acquire F-35B Lighting IIs has gained renewed vigor with the Trump administration. However, the decades-long focus on a STOVL-capable third generation fighter may have neglected lower-end solutions to potential runway denial. Considering the timetable and available options, F-35Bs combined with an improved readiness rate remain the most likely candidates for a redress of cross-Strait air imbalance.