How do the features of Taiwan’s fighter aircraft stack up against China’s fighter aircraft? What is the current cross-Strait fighter aircraft balance in numbers? How will Taiwan’s fighter aircraft survive kinetic conflict, such as waves of preemptive missile strikes? These narrow questions overly focus on the cross-Strait balance while neglecting the broader regional perspective of Taiwan’s requirement for new fighter aircraft.
While the outlook for Taiwan’s fighter aircraft is indeed bleak in the context of China’s military modernization, Taiwan’s advanced fighter aircraft are still critically important for their peacetime role, and they are also likely to survive a cross-Strait conflict with the right preparation. The regional perspective also takes into account the hope of support from Taiwan’s security partners such as the United States and US allies in the region. While my previous Global Taiwan Brief article addressed the advantages of F-16V for Taiwan compared to its previous interest in purchasing F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, this article will look at the utility of new advanced fighter aircraft for Taiwan beyond a narrow cross-Strait view, instead assessing this within a broader regional context.
Narrow Cross-Strait Perspective
Military analysts three decades ago spoke of a cross-Strait military balance, but there is no longer such a balance considering China’s military modernization and its greater numbers of military equipment. In quantitative terms, Taiwan’s 420 fighter aircraft now face China’s 1,490 total fighter aircraft. Aside from the number of aircraft, while Taiwan owns four destroyers China has 28 of them, and Taiwan’s 140,000 active duty military are up against China’s 915,000 active duty military personnel. These elements form China’s new anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities, which are a mix of aerial defense and surface-to-air capabilities used to keep the United States out of China’s periphery. For these reasons, questions about matching numbers of Taiwan’s versus China’s aircraft are futile.
Aside from numbers, there is also a qualitative difference between Taiwan and China since Taiwan’s F-16s, Mirages, and F-5s—all purchased over three decades ago (though upgraded more recently)—would have to face aircraft such as China’s newly developed stealth fighters, the J-20. However, it is difficult to know the full scope of capabilities and performance of each side relying solely on publicly available sources.
Given the analytical limitations of focusing on the capabilities of individual aircraft for determining their utility in a potential conflict, the focus should be on the roles of each aircraft in conjunction with the roles of missiles and naval assets in joint military operations. Modern militaries operate jointly in their connections between military services such as air force, navy, and army; and they are networked through communication between military platforms. The role of each piece of equipment in the military is misleading when examined in isolation from the other pieces. It is therefore important to look at the entire system, or “systems of systems” of military interconnectedness, to include military hardware as well as training for an overall “net assessment” when speculating on scenarios and possible outcomes.
Furthermore, with over-the-horizon radars and longer range advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAM) in modern warfare, it is less likely that fighter aircraft will get close enough to face off with one another as it happened during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Fighter aircraft would now engage targets beyond visual range. Surface-to-air missiles can take out fighter aircraft before those aircraft can engage them. In this sense, Taiwan’s and China’s individual aircraft would not necessarily rival one another in the air during a future conflict the way that analysts envisioned decades ago. For these reasons, questions that are overly focused on the specific capabilities of Taiwan and China’s aircraft can be misleading.
Peacetime Interdiction Role of Fighter Aircraft
While the cross-Strait fighter aircraft imbalance is bleak, there are still critical roles for new advanced fighter aircraft in Taiwan’s inventory. The classic RAND Corporation report Air Defense Options for Taiwan dismisses the utility of new advanced fighter aircraft for Taiwan, finding that such expensive platforms are not a good investment since they would not be survivable against missile attacks against the island. The authors instead recommend that Taiwan spend its limited defense budget on a great number of cheaper interceptor missiles in support of Taiwan’s air defense. However, their findings hold merit only in the context of kinetic conflict across the Taiwan Strait, since they neglect the valuable roles that fighter aircraft play during peacetime.
Fighter aircraft play an important role in peacetime interdiction. When an adversary’s aircraft flies too close to the center line along the Taiwan Strait, or encircle Taiwan, Taiwan’s fighters are the one entrusted to fly out, identify, and escort those aircraft to make sure they do not veer into Taiwan’s airspace. Missiles do not do that. UAVs could be too threatening since they could be mistaken for cruise missiles. It takes manned fighter aircraft for peacetime interdiction and escort.
There is a fundamental question of whether Taiwan’s fighter aircraft could survive an intense offensive air environment considering the potential adversary’s robust radar and missile coverage over the entire Western Pacific. With regard to this question, as long as Taiwan can successfully hide its aircraft in underground tunnels such as those publicly known to be in the Hualien mountain area, and hopefully others with unknown whereabouts, those aircraft will be useful again if and when Taiwan and its partners manage to re-establish air superiority. Even during a conflict, they can be hidden away from airstrips and instead take off and land on automobile highways already designed for this purpose. Either attempt is arguably better than the passive and fatalistic alternative of giving up on fighter aircraft options entirely.
Broader Regional Perspective
Beyond a narrow cross-Strait perspective and differentiation of peacetime versus wartime missions, there is the broader regional perspective. Although there is no longer a cross-Strait military balance, there is a robust regional military balance today. To compare with China’s total of 2,550 military aircraft in its inventory, the United States Pacific Fleet naval component has 2,000 aircraft, the Pacific Air Force possesses 300 aircraft for a total of over 2,300 aircraft at the US Indo-Pacific Command and around the region. These numbers come closer to matching each other. The United States also has a total of 325,000 military and civilian defense personnel in the Indo-Pacific region. Add to these numbers the military personnel, aircraft, and naval vessels of US allies such as South Korea, Japan, and Australia, and the military balance becomes even closer.
Though the idea of hundreds or thousands of troops, aircraft, and naval vessels on each side facing off against one another appears to show the region headed toward impending conflict, on the contrary, the theory of realism expects balancing to be a stabilizing force. Specifically, defensive realism explains how countries balance against threats because “they place their survival at risk if they fail to curb a potential hegemon before it becomes too strong.”  This means that those hundreds of thousands of personnel and equipment, though counterintuitive, maintain peace in the East Asia region.
To recognize the regional military balance is to look beyond assessing Taiwan’s capabilities purely in a cross-Strait contingency, but instead consider Taiwan in a regional context with the strong likelihood of receiving military support from the United States and possibly even from US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia. Therefore, while it is important for Taiwan’s military to be as strong and well-trained as possible, international partnership is critical as well.
For policymakers to dismiss Taiwan’s efforts to acquire new fighter aircraft based on the cross-Strait military imbalance would be a mistake. As Taiwan upgrades its existing fighter aircraft and expresses interest in buying new aircraft, focusing too much on the numbers and capabilities of fighter aircraft on both sides of the Strait would be misleading, since they play a major role in peacetime interdiction short of kinetic conflict. Even in conflict, Taiwan’s aircraft could be survivable with certain preparations and temporary hideaway in tunnels. While there is no longer a cross-Strait military balance, Taiwan’s fighter aircraft are a part of a robust regional military balance. There is also the strong possibility that its security partners such as the United States and US allies could intervene.
The main point: Taiwan’s advanced fighter aircraft play an important interdiction and conventional deterrence role during peacetime. Attempts at making them survivable during conflict are also possible. Yet, due to the growing fighter aircraft imbalance across the Strait, Taiwan’s partners such as the United States and its allies in the region would play an increasingly critical role during conflict through a regional balance of power.
 Stephen Walt, Origins of Alliances (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 18.