Taiwan’s air force is currently an odd mix of French Mirage 2000s, American F-16s and Taiwan’s locally made Indigenous Defense Fighters. These were all fine aircraft when purchased two decades ago. But two decades is really a long time ago in the combat aviation world.
That no longer holds true. Today, China has the world’s largest fleet of Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker fighters (the Soviet counterpart to the American F-15) — more so than even Russia, where the design originated. China is also developing not one, but two stealth fighters.
The Chinese push for stealth is unsurprising. In these modern times of ours, there are only two types of aircraft — stealth fighters and targets. Though actual combat experience is mercifully nonexistent, most simulations seem to show exchange ratios in the order of 10-to-1, as in stealth fighters tend to shoot down 10 non-stealth aircraft for every single stealth jet lost in combat.
The clearest demonstration of this axiom came recently from South Korea, which held a procurement competition between the (non-stealthy) F-15 and the stealthy F-35. With the F-35 three times as expensive as its F-15 counterpart, the Koreans opted to buy the proven F-15. For a few months.
Suffering buyer’s remorse, South Korea ultimately decided that it really wanted the F-35, despite the ballooning price tag. The logic behind this is simple: While the F-35 would provide a real response to Chinese stealth fighters, the F-15 would do little more than provide targets for Chinese fighter aces.
Taiwan originally expressed an interest in buying more F-16s from the Obama administration, but this transaction did not move forward in the face of the administration’s fear of provoking the Chinese. Given numerical and technological advances in Chinese air capability, there is now little point in Taiwan procuring more F-16s or other non-stealthy aircraft.
A militarily meaningful fleet of F-35 fighter jets would be rather pricey: Taiwan presently has nearly 400 non-stealthy fighters, and even 100 F-35s would run in the neighborhood of $20 billion, or about twice Taiwan’s total annual defense budget.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act potentially commits the United States to defending Taiwan from Chinese military aggression. Under this scenario, the Americans would come to the country’s rescue, provided only that it manage to hold out for a few days — at least long enough for U.S. reinforcements to arrive. In contrast, China would hope to win before the Americans arrive.
There are surely good arguments for America defending Taiwan, but the middle of a Chinese assault on the island is probably not the best time to remind people of these arguments, particularly when time is of the essence. All the while the once-vaunted “Taiwan Lobby” seems to have dried up and blown away.
If Taiwan will not defend, or pay to defend, itself, why should America? Much in the same way that Donald Trump has argued for NATO members to pay their fair share, if Taiwan is unprepared to spend what is needed to hold out until the cavalry shows up, just why should American defense planning include this scenario? The obligation to defend Taiwan is long-standing — so long-standing that no one can quite remember why this is in America’s national interest.
As president-elect, Mr. Trump already broke with tradition on Taiwan, which he seems to view more as an asset in his art of the deal with China. Now in office, Mr. Trump will be asked to sell a new batch of arms to Taiwan, and this request will likely come sooner rather than later.
This will also test Mr. Trump’s commitment to the F-35. His proposal to substitute F/A-18s for the Navy’s F-35C buy threatens to derange the F-35 program, long the centerpiece of Russian propaganda attacks. Selling 100 F-35s to Taiwan would not entirely compensate for the cutback of 300-odd Navy F-35s, but it would be a step in that direction.
Mr. Trump faces another upcoming fighter aircraft sale test. Iran remains the only country on the planet flying the F-14 Tomcat. These 40-year-old aircraft are long overdue for replacement. Iran and Russia have discussed substituting new Sukhoi Flankers. Mr. Trump may ultimately be confronted with choosing between his good friends in Moscow and fending off his sworn enemies in Tehran. Possibly the matter will be finessed by having Iran buy Flankers from China?
There is great danger here that Taiwan will be played as a pawn — dangled to annoy Beijing, but sold down the river as part of some grand bargain on tariffs and jobs. If there is to be a “deal,” it could only be to the detriment of Taiwan. The hazard is that American posturing will leave Taiwan with little more to defend itself than presidential tweets that only further antagonize China.
For Taiwan, phone calls and visits are transient and of little lasting value; sound and fury, signifying nothing. Taiwan would be well served to recall what Conan the Barbarian’s father taught him about the secret of steel: words to the effect of “No one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts. Steel. Steel you can trust.”
• John Pike is director of GlobalSecurity.org, the world’s leading military information website. https://www.globalsecurity.org/org/staff/jpike.tif
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