U.S. Congress Pushes for Taiwan F-16s With TAMA
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI, Taiwan - Taiwan supporters in the U.S. Congress have introduced new legislation designed to push President Obama to release new F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan.
U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced the Taiwan Airpower Modernization Act (TAMA) on Sept. 12 for congressional review. The new act is an effort to force the Obama administration to adhere to "obligations" under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act "to provide Taiwan with the military equipment it needs to maintain its self-defense capabilities," said a press release issued by the two senators.
The new legislation is the latest salvo from Taiwan supporters in Congress who are pushing Obama to release an $8-billion deal for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighter aircraft. On Aug. 1, 181 bipartisan U.S. House members sent a letter to Obama urging him to release F-16s. On May 26, another bipartisan letter signed by 45 senators was sent to the White House.
The U.S. has rejected Taiwan's request for new F-16C/Ds since 2006. A $4.2 billion upgrade package for 145 ageing F-16A/B Block 20s has also been on hold by the U.S. government since 2009. The U.S. State Department plans to make a final decision on the F-16 issue by Oct. 1.
During the recent Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition (TADTE) in August, a U.S. Air Force delegation was in Taiwan to finalize the upgrade package for the F-16A/Bs. U.S. defense industry and Taiwan military sources at TADTE said the U.S. has decided to release only the upgrade package and forgo the release of new F-16C/Ds in effort to placate China.
In an odd twist, TADTE sources said Taiwan would not be able to afford both the F-16A/B upgrade package and new C/D fighters. So if the F-16C/Ds were approved, Taiwan would have to cancel the A/B upgrade program. Several TADTE sources were also skeptical Taiwan could afford to upgrade its entire fleet of 145 F-16A/Bs. A more likely scenario would be "half" of the fleet, a Taiwan defense analyst said.
If F-16C/Ds were approved by the U.S., the Taiwanese military would have to request that the legislature pass a special budget outside the regular defense budget. Part of the problem is that Taiwan's defense budget is being squeezed by $16.6 billion worth of arms released by the U.S. government since 2007.
The list is extensive: 12 P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile defense missile systems and upgrade for older PAC-2 systems, 30 AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters, 60 UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, two Osprey-class mine hunting ships, upgrades for four E-2T Hawkeye aircraft and additional Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
Taiwan is also implementing a costly streamlining and modernization program that will move the military away from conscription to an all-volunteer force. The military is also reducing the number of troops from 270,000 to 215,000 within the next ten years. Taiwan's aging population and reduced birth rate will make it difficult to fill slots in the military.
Taiwan's F-16A/Bs are in need of new radar, electronic warfare suite and cockpit. TADTE sources said Taiwan was pushing for the release of the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), rather than less sophisticated mechanical radar. The AESA competitors for the A/B upgrade bid are Northrop Grumman's Scalable Agile Beam Radar and the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar to replace the A/Bs APG-66(V)3 mechanical radar. If the U.S. government does not release AESA, Taiwan will have to settle for the Northrop APG-68(V)9 mechanical radar.
A former U.S. defense official said that there were elements within the Pentagon arguing that Taiwan could not be trusted with AESA. Fears included recent high-profile Chinese espionage cases in Taipei and the remote possibility a Taiwan F-16 pilot might defect to China with an AESA-equipped F-16.
However, the last two defections occurred in 1981 and 1989 when two F-5 Tigers flew to China for political reasons. Today, there is a high level of esprit de corps among F-16 pilots in Taiwan.
Taiwan also has some of the best-trained F-16 pilots in the world. Taiwan's 21st Tactical Fighter Squadron ("Gamblers") has been based at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., since the 1990s for training.
The TAMA legislation states that "Taiwan's air force continues to deteriorate, and it needs additional advanced multirole fighter aircraft in order to modernize its fleet and maintain self-defense capability."
The Air Force has a mix of 387 indigenous, French and U.S.-built fighter aircraft: 145 F-16A/Bs, 126 Indigenous Defense Fighters, 56 Mirage 2000-5s and 60 aging F-5E/F Tigers. Taiwan is preparing to retire the F-5s within five years and mothballing the Mirage fighters within five to 10 years due to high maintenance costs. This will reduce the number of fighters to 271 at the same time China increases its fighter strength.
TAMA cites reports of increased Chinese military modernization efforts from the recent 2011 report to Congress on "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China" and the 2010 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) preliminary assessment of the status and capabilities of Taiwan's air force.
The DIA report said that "[a]though Taiwan has nearly 400 combat aircraft in service, far fewer of these are operationally capable." The report concluded, "Many of Taiwan's fighter aircraft are close to or beyond service life, and many require extensive maintenance support."
However, congressional motivation might also be more closely connected to economic concerns than Taiwan's security. According to TAMA, the sale of 66 F-16C/Ds to Taiwan would generate $8.7 billion in gross product and more than 87,666 person-years of employment in the U.S., including 23,407 direct jobs, "while economic benefits would likely be realized in 44 states."
Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president, U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, said that the sale would "produce over $767 million in federal tax revenue and almost $600 million in additional revenue for state and local coffers through the term of the contract."
The sale would "provide badly needed economic stimulus that the American people do not have to fund through increased borrowing," he said.