Upgrading Taiwan's F-16s avoids a problem now but may create another one later
Obama administration officials no doubt knew that their compromise package of arms sales to Taiwan would end up angering everyone involved with the issue. The White House passed on a proposal this week to sell 66 new F-16 C/D fighter-bombers to Taiwan, an aircraft assembled at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth, Texas plant. Instead, Taiwan's old fleet of 145 F-16 A/B models will get an extensive upgrade including the latest generation radar, and much improved navigation, electronic warfare, and targeting electronics. Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are leading a congressional push to pass a bill requiring the administration to sell the new airplanes to Taiwan. For its part, China's Foreign Ministry registered a strong protest at the decision and called in Gary Locke, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, for a dressing down.
The administration's path was calibrated to avoid the regular ritual of provoking Beijing to cut off military-to-military contacts with the United States. With concerns over China's military buildup rising, U.S. officials have placed a high priority on military exchanges, with the hope of preventing miscalculations. This time around, the gambit may be working with China yet to invoke another suspension. Having left the possibility of an F-16 C/D sale in reserve, Washington gave Beijing an incentive to refrain from blowing up the relationship again. Should Chinese officials opt to escalate, the United States would have little to lose by then approving the sale of the new aircraft.
Lost in the discussion of the F-16s was the decision to supply Taiwan with 96 smart-bomb precision-aiming kits and 64 cluster bomb dispensers. Combined with the navigation, electronic warfare, and bomb-targeting upgrades, this package will significantly improve the offensive strike capability of Taiwan's F-16 fleet.
This offensive strike capability would permit Taiwan to hold at risk important targets in Southeast China. The package thus enhances conventional deterrence and could boost strategic stability across the Taiwan Strait.
But this would require the F-16s to survive a Chinese missile barrage aimed at Taiwan's airfields and then get into the air. As discussed in the Pentagon's latest report on Chinese military power, China's large and ongoing buildup of land attack ballistic and cruise missiles threatens to shut down Taiwan's Air Force before it can take off.
Without a survivable second-strike capability, Taiwan could find itself in a "use it or lose it" dilemma during a crisis. Rather than wait for a Chinese missile barrage to either destroy or ground its Air Force, in extremis Taiwan might find itself compelled to attack pre-emptively in order to make use of its F-16s and in an attempt to minimize the damage it might think it would inevitably suffer.
This is obviously an unstable and undesirable situation. In a previous column, I argued that what Taiwan really needs is its own inventory of mobile and concealable land-attack missiles, a force that could deter a Chinese attack.
Alternatively, Taiwan could acquire strike aircraft that don't require fixed air bases for their operations. The United States is developing just such an airplane for the U.S. Marine Corps, the short-takeoff vertical-landing F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. It should thus come as no surprise that a Taiwanese defense official suggested that if Taiwan can't get the F-16 C/D, maybe it should get the stealthy F-35 instead. An Obama administration official scoffed at the idea: "It's like not getting a Prius and asking for a custom-built Ferrari instead."
Instead of scoffing, White House officials should instead think about what is required to prop up strategic stability in the southwest Pacific. With China's military spending galloping higher and the Pentagon's about to crash, the United States will need all the help from its allies it can get. In addition, simply repeating past practices without taking account of the dramatically changed circumstances over the Taiwan Strait could make things less rather than more stable. Policymakers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would benefit from assessing the Taiwan situation with a clean sheet of paper.