Reassessing the Decision to Withhold Sale of the F-20 Fighter to Taiwan

Reassessing the Decision to Withhold Sale of the F-20 Fighter to Taiwan

Reassessing the Decision to Withhold Sale of the F-20 Fighter to Taiwan

Richard D. Fisher, Jr., is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and a member of the Advisory Board of the Global Taiwan Institute.

On January 11, 1982, the State Department announced the conclusion of a highly contested Taiwan arms sales policy battle. The Reagan Administration decided that it would not sell Taiwan advanced Northrop F-5G/F-20 fighters, stating, ”no sale of advanced fighter aircraft to Taiwan is required because no military need for such aircraft exists.” This rejection marked a low point, a culmination of Washington’s constriction of its military relations with Taipei started by the 1972 Nixon-Kissinger opening to China, as it provided enduring inspiration to Beijing that it can compel Washington into disarming Taiwan. Yet, thanks in no small part to a course correction by Ronald Reagan, a decade later Taiwan would start taking delivery of an “indigenous” fighter with about the same size and performance as the F-20. At about the same time, for both balance of power and domestic political reasons the George H.W. Bush Administration would approve the sale of 150 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, judged as even more threatening to Beijing by the Carter and Reagan Administrations.

But what if the F-20 sale to Taiwan had proceeded? Washington would have established much earlier in their rapprochement that Beijing could not dictate US arms sales to Taiwan, as it would have strengthened US credibility in Taipei during the painful transition to derecognition. Taiwan would have received an “F-20” performance level fighter a decade earlier and at much-reduced expense. Just as important, it would have received the high performance General Electric F404 turbofan, which could have enabled a new single or twin-engine fighter perhaps in the early 2000s, approaching the performance of a new indigenous fighter that the Tsai Administration may be seeking to build in the 2020s. In addition, an early sale to Taiwan would have ensured the success of the F-20, allowing the US to compete today in the light/inexpensive fighter market now dominated by China.

Taiwan and the Northrop F-5G Fighter

By the mid-1970s Taiwan’s air defenses rested mainly on a growing number of co-produced 11.2 ton, light-weight 2nd generation Northrop F-5E/F “Tiger” fighters and a declining number of 2nd generation Lockheed Martin F-104 and North American F-100 fighters. The advent of new US high performance and highly maneuverable 4th generation fighters, the single-engine Lockheed Martin F-16A “Falcon” and the twin-engine McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18 “Hornet,” plus the need to confront about 1,800 still-capable 2nd generation F-6/MiG-19 fighters,[1] likely prompted the Taiwan Air Force to consider a successor to the short-range air-to-air missile (AAM) armed F-5E. A key Taiwanese requirement was the ability to employ Beyond Visual Range (BVR) AAMs to engage larger numbers of Chinese fighters.

Market analysis, spurred by Taiwan’s requirement, plus the emergence of the General Electric F404 turbofan engine, led Northrop to use it as the basis of a significantly redesigned and upgraded F-5 version with most attributes of a 4th generation fighter. With 60 percent more thrust, this new jet featured a rate of climb nearly double that of the F-5E,[2] a rate of turn slightly less than the F-16A, fly-by-wire controls like the F-16A, plus a head-up display (HUD) and multi-function displays in the cockpit. It was also equipped with the 80-mile range General Electric AN/APG-67 radar, derived from the radar also used by the F-16A, which could track ten targets and guided BVR AAMs against two targets.

Northrop F-20: An Enduring Light-Fighter Performance Sweet Spot
Northrop F-20AIDC F-CK-1Chengdu FC-1KAI T/A-50




27,500 lbs /12,474 kg27,000 lbs/ 12,245 kg29,750 lbs/ 13,494 kg27,300 lbs/ 12,300 kg


1x GE F404, 17,000 lbs/ 7,701 kg)2x ITEC TFE 1042-70 9,400 lbs/ 4260 kg1x Klimov RD-93, 19,180 lbs/ 8,700 kg1x GE F404, 17,000 lbs/ 7,701 kg
Payload8,000 lbs/3,600 kg8,600 lbs/ 3,900 kg7.936 lbs /3,600 kg8,250 lbs/ 3,740 kg
Radius368 mi/592 km342 mi/ 550 km840 mi/1,352 km@500 mi/ 804 km
SpeedMach 2Mach 1.8Mach 1.6Mach 1.5
Rate of


52,800 ft/min50,000 ft/min34,450 ft/min39,000 ft/min

In a bow to the increasing controversy attached to arms sales to Taiwan due to Beijing’s pressure on Washington that it ceases major arms sales to Taipei, Northrop designated its essentially new fighter the F-5G, informally called “Tigershark.” This allowed its marketing as an upgrade to the F-5E instead of as a new fighter, an attempt to diminish opposition for a sale to Taiwan. Taiwan initially considered acquiring 160 F-5Gs.

However, by early 1978 the Carter Administration was emphasizing “normalization” with Beijing over arms sales and thus sought to limit “new” arms sales, ensuring that they were defensive. Carter was also limiting US conventional arms sales to discourage regional arms races. On this basis the Carter Administration rejected sale of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, F-16 and F/A-18 to Taiwan. By mid-year it approved the sale to Taipei of Israel’s new Israeli Aircraft Industries “Kfir” (Lion) fighter, a French Mirage-5 also powered by a US General Electric J-79 turbojet, but Taipei lost interest as it was not a US system.

Apparently by the later part of 1978, both the State Department and the Pentagon had approved the sale of the F-5G to Taiwan. But by October, President Carter himself rejected its sale after having become convinced that this would be too provocative to Beijing, and because it was not in US service. By early 1980 Carter would reverse himself, allowing a less capable J-79 turbojet powered F-16 and the F-5G—fighters the Pentagon was not prepared to buy—to be marketed under its “FX” or Fighter Experimental Program.

Reagan’s Tigershark Rejection

While Northrop had good reason to hope that Reagan’s sympathy for Taiwan might revive the prospects for an F-5G sale to Taiwan, its sale was immediately controversial and his administration would go full circle in its decision concerning the advanced fighter sale. By November 1981 it appeared that Taiwan fighter sales supporters had advanced the possibility of selling the F-5G after the sale of more F-5Es. But Reagan’s desire to build anti-Soviet cooperation with China had also empowered Taiwan arms sales opponents like Secretary of State Al Haig, who would use the threat of Beijing downgrading relations to help Reagan to decide against the F-5G sale. In his memoir, China Hands, the late Ambassador Jim Lilley relayed that a key factor weighing against a sale, even for those who were sympathetic like Lilly, was a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment he requested, concluding that China’s military threat did not justify the sale that would “needlessly complicate” relations with China.[3]

Political Impact of the F-20’s Rejection

Though an administration’s policy decisions are often couched in broad terms, their specificity and extent can be further defined by battles, like the F-5G sales decision. Reagan’s ultimate decision to reject the F-5G sale essentially affirmed the Carter Administration’s policy of prioritizing rapprochement and strategic cooperation-building with China over meeting Taiwan’s requests for new military capabilities. Indeed, Reagan backed-up his determination to enlist Chinese cooperation against the Soviet Union with significant military technology sales to the former.

But the Carter Administration’s refusal of the F-5G sale, then affirmed by Reagan, likely also signaled to Beijing that it could compel Washington to go further and meet its demands for the eventual curtailment of all arms sales to Taiwan.[4] Such pressures likely spurred Haig to advance China’s goal of seeking a specific date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, which was rejected by Reagan,[5] resulting in the unspecific US commitment to reduce the “quantity and quality” of arms sales in the August 1982 US-China Communiqué. But this experience would come to trouble Reagan, who in July 1982 would have his famous Six Assurances delivered to Taiwan, effectively undermining the intent of the August Communiqué. It also led to the August 17, 1982 National Security Council (NSC) memorandum interpreting the August Communique which stated, “… it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided to Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC.”[6]

Military Impact of the F-20’s Rejection

Having sought to “fix” the August Communiqué, Reagan was also determined that Taiwan should receive a new fighter, but was willing to settle for the compromise that it not be a US-made system. By late 1983 or early 1984, over State Department opposition that it violated the August Communiqué, the Reagan Administration decided to move ahead with a Taiwanese initiative from around 1980 to develop an “indigenous” fighter. This would become the Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) of Taiwan F-CK-1 “Ching Kuo,” or Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF).[7] While assisted by F-16 designer General Dynamics, the IDF would be a unique fighter platform but also utilize components of the F-5G, like its radar;it would feature a cockpit inspired by the F-16, but would also use a unique turbofan to achieve a performance almost the same as the F-5G. It would be armed with the self-guided TC-2 medium range AAM similar to the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM. But instead of the $10-15 million apiece price tag for the F-5G, Taiwan would pay $25-$30 million for the IDF and it would not start delivery to the Taiwan Air Force until 1992.

In rejecting the F-5G sale, Washington also handicapped Taiwan’s future fighter development prospects. Had this sale proceeded, it is likely that sale of its General Electric F404 engine might have helped justify sale of the increased 22,000 lbs thrust F414 turbofan. This engine could have formed the basis for a new single or twin engine stealthy indigenous fighter by the early 2000s, to counter China’s new Russian-made Sukhoi fighters and new Russian technology-assisted fighters like the Shenyang J-11B and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation J-10.

Finally, the rejection of the F-5G for Taiwan sealed the fate of this efficient and economical fighter. Redesignated “F-20” in 1982 to emphasize that it was a “new” fighter, it was not purchased by the US military or any other air force and after a $1.2 billion corporate investment Northrop cancelled the program in 1986. Consequently, for about 30 years the United States has been unable to compete in the market for light-weight and low-cost supersonic fighters. This market is now dominated by China, which can offer three modern supersonic fighters like the Chengdu FC-1/JF-17, costing about $35 million, to the Guizhou FTC-2000G likely costing less than $15 million.

Looking Forward

Long gone is the era of the 1970s and 1980s, when US strategic superiority and well-tailored Taiwanese local military superiority could allow Washington the luxury of limiting Taiwan’s military options in order to pursue strategic cooperation with Communist China. Yet, an enduring legacy of the F-5G/F-20 controversy is that Beijing continues to believe that it can successfully bully Washington over Taiwan arms sales. Today there is little incentive for Washington to concede. China barely conceals its ambition to challenge US primacy and its desire begin restraining universal values more forcefully from undermining its Communist Party dictatorship. China’s quite visible preparations to conquer democratic Taiwan, with growing prospects for success into the 2020s, also puts to rest the old policy consensus based on the expectation that China will “resolve peacefully” its differences with Taiwan. For that matter, China’s duplicity resulting in its enabling North Korea’s nuclear missile threat makes problematic prioritizing “cooperation” with China over defending from its growing and varied threats.

In this period, when China is beginning to constrict Taiwan’s military freedom with increasing air and naval exercises around its island, it is time to make sure that Ronald Reagan’s August 1982 NSC memorandum takes policy priority over the August Communiqué concerning arms sales to Taiwan. Today, Taiwan requires a 5th generation fighter and has informally expressed its desire for the Lockheed-Martin F-35B. But not being able to afford a large number these, plans to initiate development of a new indigenous fighter in the 2020s. Perhaps it is necessary now to enable this program by selling Taiwan the required design assistance plus engine and sub system technology. For example, selling Taiwan the 26,000 lbs thrust GE F414EPE engine might enable two generations of manned and unmanned combat aircraft development. Furthermore, Washington should abandon the pretense that some non-US system will somehow mollify Beijing and should allow US combat aircraft concerns to offer U.S. designs for co-development and co-production, which these firms potentially could then offer to meet future US and allied requirements.

The main point: If the United States had sold Taiwan the Northrop F-5G/F-20 in the early 1980s, Washington would have established much earlier in their rapprochement that Beijing could not dictate US arms sales to Taiwan. It would also have strengthened US credibility in Taipei during the painful transition to derecognition. The major policy lesson contained here is: let Taiwan arms sales be determined mainly by China’s threat.

[1] “Chinese Airpower: An Obsolescing Goliath,” Air International (June 1979): 307.
[2] Roy Braybrook, “From Claws to Jaws: Tiger to Tigershark,” Air International (March 1982): 138.
[3] Ambassador James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley, China Hands, Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage and Diplomacy In Asia (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), 233-234.
[4] Ibid., 241.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Lilley, 248.
[7] For an excellent analysis of this fighter see, Jon Lake, “Ching-Kuo: The Indigenous Defense Fighter,” World Airpower Journal 26 (Fall 1996): 28-41.