Thursday, September 22, 2011

F-16 upgrade package impressive, but falls short

On paper, the arms package announced on Wednesday is eye-catching, but even its more surprising elements fail to meet the special requirements for warfare in the Taiwan Strait

The US on Wednesday ended months of speculation after Congress was notified of a US$5.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, as I and several other defense analysts and journalists had been reporting for a while, the 66 F-16C/Ds that Taipei was hoping to acquire were not part of the package.

So how does the sale, which centers on upgrading Taiwan’s existing fleet of 145 F-16A/Bs, affect the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait? Does Taiwan get enough bang for the buck?

At first sight, the upgrade package is pretty impressive and includes some items that surprised quite a few analysts. It confirms, among other things, that Taiwan will be getting Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar — either Raytheon Corp’s Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR), or Northrop Grumman Corp’s Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR).

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) also for the first time released GBU-31 and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) laser-guided bombs, which the US had hitherto denied Taiwan, given their offensive nature. The GBU-54 laser-guided JDAM, the GBU-10 Enhanced PAVEWAY II and GBU-24 Enhanced PAVEWAY III are also reportedly options for Taiwan.

Added to CBU-105 Sensor Fused Weapons, AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, Embedded Global Positioning System Inertial Navigation Systems, the Terma ALQ-213 Electronic Warfare Management System and helmet-mounted cueing systems, the upgrade is pretty muscular.

But does it meet Taiwan’s defense needs?

In an op-ed published on Friday in the Taipei Times (above post), I address the issue of qualitative and quantitative imperatives for Taiwan’s air force and will not repeat this here. Suffice it to say that even if Taiwan had the most modern aircraft in the world, if that limited number of vehicles, as well as landing strips, cannot withstand the initial missile volley that China would likely commence military operations with, those would be of no use whatsoever.

That said, supporters of the deal could argue that the upgrade, which is to be implemented over a period of 12 years, provides the Taiwanese air force with offensive capabilities. With a range of about 500 miles, its F-16s, now equipped with 500-lb JDAMs, could attack targets inside China, including missile bases, command-and-control centers, as well as airstrips.

Two factors put that assertion into doubt, however. For one, Taiwan will not initiate military operations against China, meaning that the initiative will be with the People’s Liberation Army. As mentioned above, this would likely start with missile attacks against Taiwan’s C4I centers and airbases. In that opening shot alone, Taiwan can expect to lose a good deal of its air force, or to be unable to use it for lack of operational airstrips (China has been working on bomblets specifically designed to damage airstrips).

Secondly, China’s AAA and SAM architecture being what it is, any effort by Taiwanese aircraft to venture into Chinese airspace on a bombing run would be tantamount to suicide, as those aircraft would likely be shot down before they can unload their bombs against Chinese targets (the GBU-31 has a range of 28km).* In fact, some of China’s most advanced surface-to-air missiles already pose a threat to Taiwanese aircraft immediately after takeoff.

What this means, therefore, is that while the US for the first time agreed to release “offensive” weapons to Taiwan, those will only be usable in a defensive scenario — that is, against Chinese ground forces close to, or already on, Taiwan. Consequently, their deterrent value, if not their utility, is for all intents and purposes negated.

* A better option, still unavailable to Taiwan, would be the High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) , such as the AGM-88, which has a range of 106km. HARMs would allow Taiwanese aircraft to attack Chinese targets from a much safer distance.


Michael Fagan said...

An even better point defence option (though somewhat costly to develop because of the materials and cooling issues) would be a railgun program. Of course the cost problem is also a problem of will...

The U.S. Navy's project is hamstrung by their over-the-horizon range requirements and thus the need for terminal guidance electronics that can withstand the Gs of being fired at 5km/s.

But in Taiwan's case, such electronics would be superfluous since the guns would merely be used for knocking out incoming ballistic or cruise missiles at a few 10s of kms out in the Strait.

A working deployment of railguns slaved to radar guidance systems would render almost all PLA assets obsolete at a stroke.

From a layman's point of view, the materials, cooling and power plant issues, whilst they certainly present engineering challenges... there doesn't seem to be any principled reason why these things cannot be overcome.

If cost is an issue... abolish State funding for the Universities. There are far too many as it is, and it would put lots of post-Marxist "scholars" out of work at the same time. Win-win, as they say.

Anonymous said...

Likewise the U.S. can sell arms to whatever country, China can do the same.
So hereafter, if China sells arms to nations like Iran, North Korea, Sudan, or Cuba, it'd be expected by a matter of coherence, that the U.S. may halt its traditional whines.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

@Mike: Yes, that would also be an option. There are several, far less costly, items that Taiwan could aquire to mount a stong deterrent.

@Anon: Uh, except that unlike the countries you listed, Taiwan does not turn those weapons on its own people, or threaten its neighbors with them. In other words, it is expected to use those reponsibly — and it has, and it does, and it will. Now, I don't necessarily agree with US arms transfers to all countries, but in the case of Taiwan, those defensive weapons are, IMHO, warranted in the face of a clear and present threat.

Anonymous said...

To Michael:

With all due respect but revealing the real motivation is the best behavior, at least in order to prevent all the litany that are your answer and my reply to it, if we acknowledge that the core motivation to this arms deal is solely the political ideology and thus freeing any one to appeal to some complex justification about to whom sell arms and whom can buy.

Look, about do not use arms against its own people, many countries already did it, e.g., those who had passed by civil wars in their history, including the own U.S. or many of its allies.

Let alone that in American countries, they used against the Native people. So can you consider such a case as deploying weapon against own people?

Ok, History is boring, so let's remind current situations such as those verified in Arab countries, some of them Western’s allies and far from being democratic, whose situation is usually covered by a conniving scarce coverage by the Western media, so we the audience in fact do not know if they use weapons against own people or against political opponents, in Saudi Arabia, for instance.

Anonymous said...

The US can sell arms to Taiwan. The F16 package is impressive but the odds are with China.No amount of military hardware or nw can prevent China from attacking Taiwan if it were to declare independence.
Note the Chinese aint going to attack Taiwan unless the latter declares independence.In the 50s and up to 1996,it could have delcared independence and there wan nothing China could do to stop it.
Ff 2011,the US may still outgun by a massive margin but realistically is Taiwan of vital and of strategic value to the US?Once upon a time when China was weak and incapable of inflicting pain on the US,it made sense.
Now the situation has changed. For the first time,PLA forces can retaliate on the US if the US were to initiate the attack. Furthermore US forces long accustomed to operating in the vicinty of enemy territory were immune from counter attack.Now US carriers could be the targets of PLA attacks.This is a game change.
I am aware the Pentago has the global promp strike which can take out targets in less than an hour.
The PLA may have other weapons to counter this.
Btw if the Chinese can send a man to space,what is there to hinder them in their pirsuit of better weapons?