Procurement: Taiwan Rebuilding Against China


March 9, 2017: Taiwan has finally begun upgrading its force of 144 elderly F-16A Block 20 fighters. These are some of the oldest F-16s still in service. The upgrades will cost about $38 million per aircraft. Taiwan has on order 66 F-16 block 50/52 fighters, a sale which has been blocked by local politics, and Chinese protests, for years may now be happening because the new U.S. government has expressed interest in dealing with Chinese threats.

The F-16As are 1980s technology but the F-16 is a very upgradable aircraft. That is largely because the F-16 has been popular enough to keep the production lines going strong until 2016. The U.S. still has about 1,200 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units). The 16 ton F-16 also has an admirable combat record, and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs it is an effective bomber.

The U.S. F-16 is one of the most modified jet fighters in service. While most are still called the F-16C, there are actually six major mods, identified by block number (32, 40, 42, 50, 52, 60), plus the Israeli F-16I, which is a major modification of the Block 52. The F-16D is a two seat trainer version of F-16Cs. The various block mods included a large variety of new components (five engines, four sets of avionics, five generations of electronic warfare gear, five radars and many other mechanical, software, cockpit and electrical mods.) The most advanced F-16 is the F-16 Block 60. The best example of this is a special version of the Block 60 developed for the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The UAE bought 80 "Desert Falcons" (the F-16E) which is optimized for air combat. It is a 22 ton aircraft based on the Block 52 model (which the KF-16 was originally), but with an AESA radar and lots of other additional goodies.

Because of Chinese political and economic pressure, Taiwan is using a lot of locally manufactured components to upgrade its F-16s. But some tech can only be obtained from the United States and most of the requested items have been made available along with technical assistance from the American manufacturers. The Taiwanese upgrade center will turn out 24 upgraded aircraft a year.

Meanwhile Taiwan has completed upgrades of its own locally manufactured jet fighter. In 2011 Taiwan rolled out the first of its upgraded IDF (F-CK) jet fighters. The improvements include better electronics, largely from the United States and the ability to carry four, instead of two, radar guided air-to-air missiles. The upgrades also include the ability to use smart bombs. It will cost about $8.3 million for each IDF upgrade. The 12 ton IDF is sort of a mini-F-16 that can benefit greatly from upgrades like this. Only 71 of 130 IDF (Indigenous Defense Fighter) jets will be upgraded. This will make these 1990s era IDFs more of a match for China's Su-27s and Su-30s. Taiwan needs all the help it can get at the moment.

Having learned from all this Taiwan is relying more on local resources for new weapons, especially for warships and missiles. Taiwan is less concerned about defense-related deals with the United States which were kept quiet, partly to keep the Chinese from making an issue of it. One such example was made public in 2016 when revealed that it had an F-16 training squadron in the United States. This sort of foreign assistance is normally kept quiet by Taiwan and the United States as part of an unofficial American agreement to not sell Taiwan new jet fighters in return for China not trying to take Taiwan by force. The recent revelation was caused by a training accident that left a Taiwanese F-16 dead and there was no way to hide that. The Taiwanese F-16 squadron has been in Arizona since 1997 and that was known to the Chinese. This training arrangement came a few years after Taiwan bought 150 F-16s and the uproar from the Chinese led to an “arrangement.” The way this arrangement works, if no one publicizes the presence of Taiwanese F-16s in Arizona China pretends that there is nothing to complain about. China has also not made a big deal out of American firms helping Taiwan upgrade its F-16s, which will make these aircraft competitive with the latest fighters China has.


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