In November 2018, Taiwan reportedly gave up efforts to acquire F-35s and instead turned to F-16 fighter aircraft. Apparently, Taiwan’s military had started investigating the potential of choosing the F-16 Viper “V” variant as early as August 2018. Over the past decade, Taiwan has shifted from interest in purchasing new US F-16C/D variant fighter aircraft to F-35s and recently back to the F-16V planes. As reported in The National Interest, Taiwan’s National Security Council suggests reasons for this shift back to F-16s in a report, by explaining that the F-35 is too costly and it is not yet tested in combat. There are many other advantages for Taiwan’s decision to refocus on F-16V fighter aircraft, such as faster deployment, lower cost, familiar training and maintenance, plus a higher likelihood of securing US approval to sell the new aircraft.
Taiwan is upgrading its current fleet of F-16A/B fighter aircraft into the Viper “V” variant, as well as requesting new F-16V aircraft from the United States. Upgrades include active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, new mission computers, improved avionics, and integration of new precision-guided weapons. Taiwan already took delivery of one locally upgraded F-16V aircraft in October 2018, as part of a program that will upgrade all 145 existing F-16A/Bs for USD $3.5 billion. Three others are in the process of being upgraded, and the work is being completed through Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC). Another two planes have already been upgraded by Lockheed Martin in the United States. In addition to upgrading existing aircraft, Taiwan’s new proposal pushes for the release of 66 new F-16V fighter aircraft, plus six to replace previously crashed F-16A/Bs, for a total of 72 new F-16V aircraft.
However, even advanced F-16Vs are a generation behind F-35s. Some new aspects of the F-16Vs such as the AESA radar make it comparable with similar capabilities on F-35s. Upgraded avionics and integrated precision-guided weapons capabilities would be major improvements compared to older F-16A/Bs. Unfortunately, F-16s lack the stealth capabilities of F-35s and also lack the internal weapon bays that reduce the aircraft’s radar signature.
With that in mind, there are many benefits for Taiwan to refocus its interest on F-16Vs.
Faster Deployment Timeline
In terms of production timeline, it should be faster for Taiwan to receive and deploy new F-16Vs compared to F-35s. Of course, a key consideration is the time it takes if and when the United States approves new F-16V (or even F-35) arms sales for Taiwan, but there is a wait for both aircraft even after the US approves the sale. While exact wait times for receiving new F-16 and F-35 aircraft are not publicly available, the production rhythm of both aircraft is an indicator. The manufacturer Lockheed Martin struggles to fill excess capacity of its F-16 production line into the near future, while the opposite it true its newer and higher demand F-35. An article in Defense News last year was titled: “Lockheed keeps F-16 production line going with Bahrain deal.” This is because F-16s have been in production for over four decades since 1976 and are a generation behind the current fifth generation F-35 and F-22 aircraft. The manufacturer needs to actively work to encourage countries to buy more F-16s to keep the assembly line open so the wait list is likely shorter for F-16 than F-35 aircraft.
F-16s are likely to be available earlier than F-35s considering that many countries are already in line for F-35 aircraft. Singapore is in line for new F-35. Japan previously planned to procure 42 F-35s, but will now raise that number to 147 aircraft. The F-35 program has 21 international partners and 16 foreign military sales customers that contribute to the growing list of countries waiting for new F-35s.
However, Lockheed Martin has been ramping up its F-35 manufacturing capabilities over recent years. It has made 40 percent of production increases in just the past two years. It made 91 deliveries of F-35 aircraft in 2018, and plans to deliver over 130 aircraft in 2019. The larger number of aircraft being produced is expected to lower the per unit price of F-35 aircraft from USD $89 million to USD $80 million by next year since costs are spread across more units. Despite these improvements in F-35 delivery, it is still likely that F-16 delivery could be faster because of excess capacity on the F-16 assembly line.
Another advantage for Taiwan to refocus on F-16Vs is that F-16 aircraft are more affordable compared to F-35s. The cost per unit of F-16 aircraft is around USD $17 million to USD $50 million per unit, while F-35 fluctuates between around USD $80 million upwards to USD $150 million depending on the numbers produced each year.
The new F-16Vs will also replace Taiwan’s aging fleet of French Mirage aircraft, saving money in this aspect as well. The maintenance costs for the Mirage are known to be far pricier than American options. According to journalist Chang Feng-lin (張豐麟), “Taiwan asked France to upgrade its Mirages in 2012, but France, under pressure from China, forced Taiwan to withdraw its request by demanding a sky-high price.”
Furthermore, for Taiwan to get rid of the Mirages would also be a source of profit. According to a source cited by The National Interest, Taiwan plans to “resale the Mirage fighters to a third country.”
Familiar Training and Pre-Established Maintenance Processes
By keeping with the F-16 platform, Taiwan’s F-16A/B pilots would not have to be entirely retrained to fly F-35 aircraft. Some of Taiwan’s F-16 pilots already train in the United States and Taiwan would not need to start a duplicate training program for F-35s in the United States. The United States military has hosted several of Taiwan’s F-16 aircraft and pilots at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, and is set to relocate them to the US Air National Guard’s 162 Wing at Tucson International Airport. Creating a new F-35 training program in the United States alongside the current F-16 program would be a major added expense.
Taiwan also plans to develop an indigenous sustainment facility for F-16 repairs and maintenance in Taiwan that will further save money compared to sending aircraft back to the United States for repairs. Both Taiwan and the United States have agreed to prioritize the development of this facility.
More Likely to Secure US Arms Sales Approvals than F-35s
Since the United States had already sold F-16 aircraft to Taiwan over two and a half decades ago, it is conceivable that new fourth generation F-16s would be easier for US decision makers to approve than new fifth generation F-35s since the United States already has an historical precedent for F-16 transfer to Taiwan, though not for F-35 aircraft. However, since at least the early 2010s, China referred to the possibility of new F-16 sales to Taiwan as a “red line” that should not be crossed. That said, these new F-16Vs would just replace existing Mirages and aging F-5 aircraft in Taiwan’s inventory, keeping its number of fighter aircraft to pre-existing levels. By no means this would expand Taiwan’s fighter aircraft fleet, even though China’s fighter aircraft numbers have grown exponentially over the years.
The US has not approved new fighter aircraft sales to Taiwan in recent years, but it does not mean that new F-16V or F-35 sales to Taiwan are impossible. It is simply the case that US decision making is difficult to predict beforehand. When US President George H. W. Bush approved the sale of 150 F-16 aircraft to Taiwan in 1992, it was a bold move that stemmed from an earlier campaign promise. It would have been inconceivable just five or ten years before then. Compared to 1992, there are even more reasons for the United States to support Taiwan as a partner today, as Taiwan has blossomed into a vibrant democracy and a trustworthy security partner. Yet, the consequences of angering China could also be more severe since Beijing now has a stronger military to back up its threats against Taiwan, especially given Beijing’s threat that new F-16s could be a “red line.”
In refocusing its attention from F-35s to F-16Vs, Taiwan will likely enjoy faster deployment, lower cost, familiar training and maintenance, and greater likelihood of securing US approval for new aircraft compared to waiting for F-35s. For these reasons, Taiwan is not alone in choosing F-16s. Singapore is upgrading 60 of its F-16s to the “V” variant. South Korea is upgrading 134 of its F-16s. Elsewhere in the world, Bahrain and Greece are also upgrading their existing F-16s. Others, such as Slovakia are also purchasing new F-16Vs from Lockheed Martin. In purchasing new F-16Vs, Taiwan is replacing old Mirage aircraft and saving money in the process. With the similar training and maintenance facilities as its other F-16s, Taiwan’s apparent decision in favor of F-16Vs makes sense until if and when Taiwan requests, and the United States approves, fifth generation fighter aircraft such as F-35s for Taiwan’s defense.
The main point: Taiwan has refocused its attention away from its interest in purchasing F-35 aircraft in favor of F-16V. Advantages of the F-16V include faster deployment timeline, lower cost per unit, similar training to the already acquired F-16, pre-established maintenance processes, and a higher likelihood of securing US approval.