Assessing the Utility of New Fighter Aircraft for Taiwan’s Defense Needs

Assessing the Utility of New Fighter Aircraft for Taiwan’s Defense Needs

Assessing the Utility of New Fighter Aircraft for Taiwan’s Defense Needs

Apple Daily broke the news last week that Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has submitted a formal letter of request (LOR) to the United States for new fighter jets. Although Apple Daily reported that the request was specifically for 66 new F-16Vs, MND denied that. According to the head of Air Force Command’s Planning Division, “The F-15, F-18, F-16, and even the F-35, are all among our options, as long as the jets help to strengthen our air defense capabilities. […] We are still awaiting a US response on what kind of aircraft it is willing to sell us before we evaluate if that model fits our needs and if we can afford it before making a final decision.”

MND has long had a stated requirement for new, modern fighter aircraft and has been seeking to purchase them from the United States since President George W. Bush’s second term. The requirement has been a controversial one, less so in Taiwan than in the United States, where some see new fighters as a waste of money and apparently question MND’s ability to conduct honest, thorough assessments of Taiwan’s defense needs.

Christopher Twomey, a well-respected professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, was quick to disparage Taiwan’s Air Force following news of the LOR, tweeting: “Note to ROCAF: the 1990s called and they want their net assessment of the [military balance] across the Taiwan Strait back. Taiwan needs a thicket of mobile SAMs to defend air sovereignty. Don’t play the PLA’s game. Go porcupine or go home!”

The so-called “porcupine strategy” was first popularized by US Naval War College professor William S. Murray in a 2008 article in the Naval War College Review. Professor Murray described the strategy in this way:

More affordable, more effective, and less destabilizing means of defense against precision bombardment, invasion, and blockade are nonetheless available, but to take advantage of them, Taiwan must rethink its defense strategies. Rather than trying to destroy incoming ballistic missiles with costly PAC-3 SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], Taiwan should harden key facilities and build redundancies into critical infrastructure and processes so that it could absorb and survive a long-range precision bombardment. Rather than relying on its navy and air force (neither of which is likely to survive such an attack) to destroy an invasion force, Taiwan should concentrate on development of a professional standing army armed with mobile, short-range, defensive weapons. To withstand a prolonged blockade, Taiwan should stockpile critical supplies and build infrastructure that would allow it to attend to the needs of its citizens unassisted for an extended period. Finally, Taiwan should eschew destabilizing offensive capabilities, which could include, in their extreme form, tactical nuclear weapons employed in a countervalue manner, or less alarmingly, long-range conventional weapons aimed against such iconic targets as the Three Gorges Dam.

By adopting such a strategy, Taiwan “would be able to thwart a decapitation attempt,” and thus deter Beijing from making the attempt in the first place. Put another way, Taiwan would make itself impossible to swallow, thus making invasion and occupation an unappealing option for the People’s Republic of China.

Unfortunately for proponents of the “porcupine strategy,” invasion and occupation are not the only, or perhaps even the most likely, option for a Beijing that determines that a resort to force across the Taiwan Strait is necessary. Nor do their assumptions about how a war would go necessarily hold up to close scrutiny.

Consider, for example, an increase in Chinese military pressure that falls short of violence, such as repeated transgressions of the median line in the Taiwan Strait and incursions of Taiwan airspace by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force fighter aircraft. If Taiwan were to depend on surface-to-air missiles to defend its air sovereignty, its only option in such a scenario would be for SAM batteries to light up the offending aircraft with targeting radar. Such is a highly escalatory step, which would risk inviting Chinese strikes on those batteries. It would be far better for Taipei to instead dispatch fighter jets to intercept, warn, shadow, and, if ultimately necessary, lock on to Chinese fighters. In this case, Taiwan’s Air Force (Republic of China Air Force, or ROCAF) fighters provide Taiwan with the ability to respond proportionately to the PLA offense and to more gradually escalate the engagement.

Importantly, Taiwan’s fighters must be able to match their Chinese counterparts in speed and combat power. If they do not, Chinese pilots will not take Taiwan’s warnings seriously. Indeed, a mismatch in capability would invite Chinese hot-dogging, in which PLA pilots have previously indulged, particularly over the South China Sea. Hence, the need for a modern fighter jet.

Fighter jets would likewise be useful in more stressful scenarios, like during an air or maritime blockade. A Taiwan military that relied predominantly on land-based missiles to defend itself during such operations would, again, have limited options to respond and to escalate and it would, in fact, invite more widespread Chinese strikes on the island in a scenario in which Beijing apparently prefers to minimize escalation.

Even in the invasion scenario, fighter jets have a role to play. “Porcupine strategy” adherents generally argue that the PLA will target bunkers, aircraft shelters, and runways in the early stages of a conflict—many jets would be destroyed on the ground and those that survived would be unable to take off. Certainly, this would be a PLA priority.

The Project 2049 Institute’s Ian Easton, however, persuasively argues in his book, The Chinese Invasion Threat, that this is not such a simple task for the PLA and that even PLA commanders believe they will ultimately have to contend with ROCAF fighter jets taking to the sky. On the one hand, Easton admits, “No one in Taiwan’s defense planning circles harbors any illusion that the air force could emerge from ballistic missile and cruise missile attacks in the same fashion it went into them. […] Early losses are expected to be heavy.” [1] But not so heavy as to effectively eliminate the air force as a factor in the fight [2]:

Steps taken during the mobilization and force preservation stage of the anti-invasion plan are intended to ensure that China would stand little chance of seizing air superiority in the first days of conflict. In the minds of even optimistic PLA planners, the ROC Air Force represents a fleet-in-being, a vague menace whose full strength and wartime role cannot be calculated out of the equation. Only the most foolish of generals disregards a mighty air force hiding dispersed and deep in the mountains, waiting to strike out at a time and place of its choosing.

And strike out they would. In addition to striving to deny PLA air superiority, Taiwan’s fighters would be tasked with striking airfields, docked ships, ground transportation infrastructure, logistics, and radars in China as well as amphibious assault ships, escort vessels, minesweepers, and helicopters approaching Taiwanese shores. Fighters would not be alone in those tasks, with surface-launched cruise and ballistic missiles, capital ships, small missile boats, submarines, attack helicopters, multiple launch rocket systems, and drones all contributing to the fight. This diversity of strike options vastly complicates PLA planning in a way that a predominant or sole reliance on land-based missiles would not.

Despite the real military requirement for fighters, a common refrain of the “porcupine strategy” crowd is that Taiwan seeks the aircraft purely for their symbolic value. While this is patently not the case, it is important to consider that symbolic value is, in fact, value. Indeed, Taiwan’s purchase of new fighter aircraft from the United States would serve a couple of important symbolic purposes. Most obviously, an American decision to make the sale would be a clear statement of American commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Indeed, it is worth considering that the sale would include not only the aircraft themselves, but logistical support and pilot training—which means that ROCAF pilots would be flying ROCAF fighters on American air bases alongside US airmen. This would make for undoubtedly useful signaling at a time when Beijing seems increasingly eager to snuff out Taiwan’s de facto independence.

American commitment is useful for shoring up morale among Taiwan’s armed forces and in its broader society. The aircraft themselves serve a similar purpose. The general population is unlikely to grasp the complex intricacies of the island’s defense needs. Investments in SAM batteries and decoys, reinforced concrete, and other passive defenses, as crucial as they are, are unlikely to instill Taiwan’s population with confidence in the island’s ability to defend itself. On the other hand, everybody knows what a fighter jet is. Everybody knows what a fearsome air force can do. Big-ticket items serve to boost morale and societal self-confidence and that, in turn, enhances deterrence. A people that believes it can win a war is a people that will fight to win a war.

Unfortunately, Taiwan cannot simply get by with the aircraft already in its inventory. Taiwan’s F-5s serve only in a training role, spare parts for its Mirage-2000s are difficult to come by, and its Indigenous Defense Fighters are soon to be outdated. Retirement of the F-5s and Mirage-2000s is imminent. Taiwan is upgrading its F-16A/Bs, purchased from the United States in 1992, but that represents a stopgap measure. If Taiwan is to have an air force to speak of, new aircraft is a necessity.

Taiwan’s LOR is likely to reignite old debates about whether Taiwan really needs fighter aircraft. Hopefully, those debates do not permeate the US Defense Department, which should consider the request a priority for the island’s defense and work efficiently, in cooperation with MND, to settle on an appropriate airframe. After all, ensuring that Taiwan can defend itself is not only required by US law, but is essential if the United States seeks to lower the risk of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

The main point: Taiwan has a legitimate military need for new fighter jets and the United States should approve MND’s request to purchase such aircraft.

[1] Ian Easton, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (Arlington, VA: The Project 2049 Institute, 2017), 214.

[2] Easton, 214-215.