There has been a great deal of moaning from hawks recently about the administration’s refusal of Taiwan’s request to sell their government F-16s. Robert Haddick explains why the fixation on the F-16s is misguided:
Both the Bush and Obama administrations have demurred on Taiwan’s F-16 request and for good reason. As the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power explains, China’s ballistic and cruise missile force, which the report terms “most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world,” is more than capable of crushing Taiwan’s airfields, rendering Taiwan’s fixed-wing air power nearly useless. Anticipating this, Taiwan has plans to fly its fighters from highways. But this is no way to generate enough sorties to confront a high-intensity attack from China; fighter aircraft need maintenance, fuel, ordnance, and much other support, all of which are efficiently located at modern airbases, not by the side of a highway.
What Taiwan needs instead is to mimic mainland China’s missile program. Mobile launchers, which unlike airfields could evade detection and targeting, could support both battlefield and strategic missiles that could hold targets on the mainland at risk. Such a program could do a better job of restoring a military balance across the Taiwan Strait than would fixed-wing aircraft operating from vulnerable bases.
The Post report to which Haddick links includes another argument against the sale:
Asia expert Robert Sutter notes that despite Taiwan’s clamoring for fighter jets, the island has not given top priority to shoring up its defense capabilities.
“Their main concern has been its dealings with China, particularly as it becomes more economically tied to China,” said Sutter, an international affairs professor at George Washington University. “At some point, if they’re not doing much in their own defense, you have to ask: Are they free-riding it or maybe cheap-riding it? They aren’t usually punished by China in the aftermath of these arms sales. It’s the U.S. that suffers diplomatically.”
As Taiwan and the mainland become more closely integrated economically, and as long as Taiwanese politics keeps a more accommodating KMT government in power, there is even less incentive for the U.S. to sell Taiwan jets that won’t do it much good at the risk of stoking tensions with Beijing.