The National Interest
Date: August 23, 2020
By: James Holmes
From the author: "It is incumbent on President Tsai and her advisers to mull the opportunity costs of the looming F-16V purchase. What Taipei spends on Vipers cannot be spent on something else, barring a major increase in the fraction of GDP allocated to defense. If $8 billion would buy platforms and weapons with greater operational and strategic heft, budgeteers should redirect funding to procure them."
Editor's Note: Scholar Dean Cheng the Heritage Foundation has also written for us about this important topic. You can find his essay here.
Last week the Trump administration informally approved a sale of 66 F-16V Viper fighter jets to Taiwan, presumably to replace the elderly contingent of F-5E/F Tiger II fighters flown by the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF). The sale was bundled into a $62 billion contract award to defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Taiwan’s share of the deal will reportedly total around $8 billion. The air force’s fleet of 144 older F-16A/B aircraft is currently being upgraded to F-16V standards. Assuming the U.S. Congress endorses the sale, as seems likely, the two projects will yield a more modern air force centered on more uniform airframes and equipment.
But is it money well spent for the island?
Yes and no. Yes, arguably, on the politics of the deal. For years reputable analysts have cast doubt on whether the ROCAF can still rule the sky over the island. Back in 2016, for example, a team from RAND pointed out that both numbers and the quality of individual aircraft and weapons increasingly favor China’s air force. This is not the large but backward People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLA Air Force) of old, waiting to be clobbered by superior ROCAF aircraft and airmanship. But the aerial correlation of forces might not even matter. The People’s Liberation Army fields a panoply of ballistic and cruise missiles that could destroy ROCAF fighters before they ever took to the sky.
And yet. Weapons have political as well as combat value. Think about the message President Tsai Ing-wen would be broadcasting to her constituents if the ROCAF more or less dismantled its fighter force and shifted the resources that now go to fighters to fund surface-to-air missiles, as the RAND team suggests. Preemptively admitting that Taiwan would lose the battle to command its own airspace could deflate morale on the island—and human morale is as important as a formidable armory to martial success. Continuing to upgrade the air force projects confidence that Taiwan remains the master of its own fate. Islanders will take heart.