Reports are now emerging that the Administration has decided to reject the sale of F–16 C/Ds to Taiwan, in advance of the Vice President’s trip to China. Instead, as a sop, the Administration has decided to go forward with upgrades of the F–16 A/Bs currently in Taiwan’s air force.
What the Administration doesn’t address is how this package—upgrades but not new aircraft—meets Taiwan’s actual defense needs. The growth of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), not only in advanced combat aircraft but in electronic warfare and support capabilities, as well as steadily improving training, means that the balance of power over the Taiwan Straits has been steadily shifting in favor of Beijing. The extent of this shift, however, remains unknown, as the Administration has refused to release the studies of the cross-Strait military balance that were requested by Congress last year—reports that are now badly overdue.
Despite the lateness of the needed reports, it is difficult to imagine that the Administration is unaware of the growing strength of the Chinese military. The mounting concerns within the Pentagon and in Honolulu over China’s steadily improving anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities are a matter of record, with anti-ship ballistic missiles entering initial operational capability alongside more and more submarines, anti-ship cruise missiles, and additional strike aircraft.
To some extent, upgrades of Taiwan’s F–16 A/Bs will help, especially if reports are correct that this will include major improvements in the aircrafts’ electronics. The provision of active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar will allow Taiwan’s forces to maintain better situational awareness in the air and may also allow them to employ electronic warfare in new ways.
But the provision of AESA systems as an upgrade to the 20-year-old F–16 A/Bs begs the question: If the Administration recognizes that Taiwan’s forces require such advanced systems, why not provide them with F–16 C/Ds? Especially since these are intended, not as an augmentation of the air force, but to replace the obsolete F–5s still in the inventory?
The refusal to sell F–16 C/Ds while upgrading F–16 A/Bs smacks of decisions made not for military reasons but for political expediency. Like the clumsy handling of the Dalai Lama’s recent visit, the Administration again appears intent on trying to appease Chinese concerns while still appearing reliable and consistent.
In all likelihood, Vice President Biden will find out that, in fact, such an effort will fall short of both. He is likely to find out that, far from appreciating (much less accepting) this “compromise,” Beijing will find it little more acceptable than if the Administration had done the right thing and made available to Taiwan the systems needed.