Over the past few weeks, the issue of Taiwan’s proposed procurement of more advanced fighter jets from the US has resurfaced after the military renewed its request to purchase US-made F-35B fighters from the Donald Trump administration.
Since late 2011, during the previous Ma Ying-jeou administration, Taiwan’s Armed Forces have been expressing hope of procuring the advanced F-35 fifth-generation multirole fighter from the US.
And now, the Defence Ministry is renewing the request with the Republican administration in the US after Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported last month that Washington was planning to sell Taiwan F-35s and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system.
Commenting on the arm sales issue, Wu Pao-kun head of the ministry’s department for strategy planning, reiterated in April Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan’s stance, saying that Taiwan had no need to deploy THAAD in the short term.
He, however, said that if the US were willing to sell F-35s to Taiwan, the government would welcome it.
In response to lawmakers’ questions on whether Taiwan had received related information on such arms sales, Wu said there had been no official word from Washington.
During her interview with Reuters earlier this month, President Tsai Ing-wen herself also reiterated the point. “We don’t rule out any items that would be meaningful to our defence and our defence strategy and the F-35 is one such item,” Tsai said.
Why Does Taiwan Need F-35s?
Military experts said F-35B fighters would be ideal for Taiwan’s defence needs, but also warned that a limited defence budget and political pressure might make the purchase difficult.
Chieh Chung, a senior assistant research fellow at the National Policy Foundation, a Taiwan-based think tank affiliated with the opposition Kuomintang, told The China Post that the short takeoff and vertical-landing capabilities of the F-35B would be extremely useful for the island’s forces in wartime.
In case of a cross-strait all-out war, he said, the People’s Liberation Army could use ballistic missiles to destroy local airports and airstrips. In doing so, the takeoff capability of Taiwan’s existing fighters would be seriously undermined.
“In this sense, the F-35B’s short takeoff can offset the advantages of the ballistic missiles fired by mainland China,” he said.
The stealth aircraft is also extremely powerful in performing intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions in high-risk areas and can pass collected intelligence to other aircraft to launch precision attacks, he added.
Despite Taiwan’s apparent desire to buy the jets, whether the US will grant Taiwan’s request remains to be seen.
Based on the Taiwan Relations Act, the US is obliged to provide Taiwan with weapons of a “defensive nature” to meet the growing threat from China. It remains to be seen whether F-35 fighter jets with a strong ground-attack capability will be seen by the US sides as a weapon of a defensive nature, a source familiar with the matter told The China Post.
But perhaps the most important issue at stake remains Taiwan’s limited defence budget.
Taiwan’s annual defence budget usually stands around NT$300 billion (US$10.1 billion). The money is already being used to upgrade existing missile defence systems.
The US$100 million-per-jet price tag could put a huge burden on the Defence Ministry’s budget since local Air Force would at least near 20 to 40 of them to form a combat wing, Chieh said. “The cost of the jet itself is one thing, the logistics behind them would be the major thorny issue for Taiwan’s military,” he added.
He estimated that the budget to earmark for maintaining the combat readiness of the advanced aircraft would be at last three times the cost of buying them.
Even if the US were willing to sell the jets to Taiwan, Taiwan may have to wait for 10 to 15 years to get its hands on its first F-35B, he said.
“Strategically speaking, the US usually prioritises sales of advanced arms to its diplomatic allies. But Taiwan is not among its diplomatic allies, not to mention the current uncertainties surrounding ties between the US and China,” he said.
Long Waiting Line
Chieh said the US is replacing its squadrons with F-35s itself and many of the countries’ allies, including Japan and European countries, have expressed hope of purchasing the jets as well. To his knowledge, there are currently more than 2,000 F-35s waiting on production lines.
The Trump administration would also have to first approve previous arms sales packages agreed by his predecessor to Taiwan, Chieh said. Given the fact that it seems the US leader is doing his best to please Beijing in order to keep a lid on developments in the Korean Peninsula, the analyst said this makes it unlikely that Washington would sell Taipei F-35s anytime soon.
For the time being, Taiwan will need to relay on its existing Air Force fighters, namely, the US-made F-16A/Bs, French-built Mirage 2000s and “Ching-kuo” Indigenous Defence Fighters. ___
This article is written by Joseph Yeh from The China Post, Taipei, Taiwan / Asia News Network and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.