The United States received approval from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense earlier this week to provide maintenance services to the island nation’s fighter aircraft fleet in a deal worth 12.84 billion New Taiwan dollars ($419 million).
Through the American Institute in Taiwan, Taipei signed the appropriation, allocating about NT$9.9 billion ($323 million) for spare parts and the remaining NT$2.94 billion ($95.9 million) for nonstandard components and aviation materials, the ministry said via public contract notice.
The spare parts contract will occur until March 2028, while the rest will run through June 2027.
Taiwan’s Air Force has recently mobilized its fighter jets more than ever to fend off China’s increasing military incursion into the island nation’s surrounding waters and over its air defense identification zone (ADIZ).
Air defense units of #ROCArmedForces remain on high alert for contingencies, steadfastly maintaining their posts 24/7, showing that we can and we will defend our skies. And we will never give up our beliefs. pic.twitter.com/cLXbVrcblE
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) April 10, 2023
According to reports, Taiwan’s fighter aircraft have flown more frequently as Chinese jets trespassed over the former’s ADIZ, causing a significant toll on them and thus increasing the demand for spare parts and maintenance. In addition, Taipei also seeks to bolster the capabilities of its aerial fleet to prepare for a worst-case scenario.
Besides monitoring trespassers, Taiwan’s fighter jets likewise conduct other missions, including reconnaissance flights—something its Navy also struggles to keep pace with as China deploys dozens of its warships in all four corners of the island nation—further depleting its already dwindling resources.
A Taiwanese defense official stated that the military’s jet and ship fuel allocation has already been utilized this year to counter Beijing’ongoingnt activities. In response, the Executive Yuan has released NT$1.68 billion ($54.7 million) from its reserve funds to sustain fuel spending.
Earlier this year, in response to the operation of 34 aircraft owned by China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and nine warships near its territory, the self-governing island of Taiwan activated its missile systems. It also scrambled its fighter jets to intercept and monitor the situation. Likewise, Taipei mobilized its warplanes to warn 39 PLAAF jets that trespassed its southeastern airspace.
Bolstering Taiwan’s Air Superiority
Taiwan’s Air Force operates a mix of advanced fighter jets, including the F-16V “Viper” variant, Mirage 2000, and Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF). It also has F-5E/F Tiger II jets used by the service for training.
China has a significant advantage over Taiwan regarding air superiority due to its larger air force, which possesses more advanced fighter jets and air defense systems.
Though the Taiwanese Air Force has been working on bolstering its air power by procuring the latest advanced jets today to replace its aging platform, the fleet owned by the PLAAF remains a hundred miles ahead.
Nevertheless, the island nation’s air defense has the edge thanks to the American-made Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) and the Indigenous Defense System it maintains, providing Taiwan with a robust air defense network.
Taiwan’s fighter pilots are also highly trained and experienced, which could help mitigate the gap in air superiority between the Pacific nations.
In 2020, Taiwan ordered dozens of F-16V variants built by Lockheed Martin—its biggest arms purchase in years—and has since awaited its arrival. This move has gained criticism, particularly from the Chinese government, which maintains that the island nation is part of its territory and, thereby, be reunited by force, if necessary.
On the other hand, the closed F-16V sale has boosted not only the capability of the Taiwanese Air Force but also the morale of the forces itself.
The F-16V is a variant of the F-16 Fighting Falcon multirole fighter aircraft, an upgraded version featuring advanced avionics, improved radar systems, and enhanced weapons capabilities. The “V” in F-16V stands for “Viper,” which is the nickname of the F-16. It includes a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, further improving target detection and tracking capabilities. Moreover, the F-16V features a new modular mission computer and advanced electronic warfare systems capable of carrying various weapons, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and precision-guided bombs.
Powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F100 or General Electric F110 turbofan engine, the variant has a top speed of Mach 2 (1,500 mph or 2,414 km/h) and a combat radius of up to 547 nautical miles (1,012 km) without external fuel tanks. The aircraft weighs around 26,500 pounds (12,000 kg).
Besides Taiwan, several countries have upgraded their existing F-16 fleets to the F-16V variant, including Bahrain, South Korea, Slovakia, and Morocco, among many others.
Once received in the next three years, Taiwan would become the country with the largest F-16 fleet in the Asia-Pacific region, with over 200 fourth-generation fighter jets.
Another Looming Drawback
The Washington Post reported another looming drawback in the Taiwanese Air Force’s combat readiness and overall strength in late February: a personnel shortage.
The report indicates that the Taiwanese military has faced challenges in achieving its recruitment goals over the past decade due to declining birth rates and reduced interest among citizens in pursuing a military career.
In an analysis by the National Development Council (NDC), if trends continue, Taiwan will likely replace South Korea with the world’s lowest fertility rate by 2023. As of 2023, Taiwan’s current birth rate is 8.386 births per 1000 people, a 0.1% decline from 2022.
As a remedy, the Taiwanese government has increased mandatory military service from the previous four months to a full year of active duty in December 2022. Nonetheless, it remains a pressing concern for all branches, particularly its Air Force, as it faces an impending reduction of its best fighter pilots. Not to mention exhausted due to regular mobilization to shadow trespassing PLAAF jets.
And it is ironic, considering the upgrade Taiwan is undergoing, transitioning from F-16 fighter jets to the advanced F-16V variant, yet faces a shortage of experienced pilots capable of flying them.