Taiwan's F-16 Upgrade: Obama's Triple Mistake

ROCAF F-16A

The State Department’s authorization of a $5.3 billion Taiwanese bid to upgrade their 145 F-16A/B Block 25 fighters, instead of adding 66 new F-16C/D Block 52 planes as the ROC had originally requested, is the big defense news of the day.

It should be bigger news, but for all of the wrong reasons. Obama’s Taiwanese jet deal is the worst of all possible worlds. An American job-killer, that shows weakness abroad, and may transfer key military tech to Beijing. This sale is a classic case of trying to be too smart by half, and ending up doing something really stupid. Texas Senator John Cornyn says of the administration’s plan that “this capitulation should be met with concern”. That isn’t the half of it…

An American job killer.

Iraq’s recent 18-plane order helped some, but without additional orders, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 production line in Fort Worth, TX will close in 2015. Supplier job losses will start more than 18 months earlier, as component orders stop. All told, estimates place the industrial cost of a shut-down at over 2,000 well-paying jobs.

Taiwan’s plan for 66 F-16s would have kept that production line open for 2-3 more years, giving time for even more orders to arrive. The F-16 remains under consideration by a few buyers, but none offer Taiwan’s order size. Obama’s plan removes that option for new fighters, and likely those jobs. All during one of the most serious unemployment crises in American history.

Shows Weakness Abroad.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which remains the law, is very specific. American administrations may only consider Taiwanese military needs when deciding on weapon sales. It’s always possible to find someone who will write the “military needs” report you want, of course, and thereby skirt the law’s intent, but that doesn’t make it credible abroad. The Obama administration’s decision is seen around the world as a bow to Chinese pressure.

The irony is that the Pentagon’s imminent report covering Taiwan’s military air defense needs, which was done at the last minute under pressure from Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), is actually a reasonable assessment. It will say that in light of China’s thousand-plus ballistic missiles in range of Taiwan, the ROCAF cannot depend on its airfields being operational. What it needs, therefore, is a fighter that can take off vertically, or in short spaces, and land under the same conditions.

All of this might have been an interesting point, and Britain’s recent budget-driven mothballing of its upgraded Harrier fleet would make for a complex and useful discussion of options. If, and only if, the report had been issued before a Senator threatened to stonewall key nominations over the Obama administration’s refusal to sell Taiwan F-16s. Since it was only issued after that point, and since there are significant obstacles to a Harrier sale, no-one will take the report seriously.

Which leaves “America caving in to China” as the take-away story seen ’round the world.

Handing Top Tech to Communist China

RACR

RACR Radar retrofit

In an attempt to counter both of these points, the Obama administration’s bright idea was to offer Taiwan fighter upgrades instead of new fighters, in order to placate Beijing. Even as it offered more advanced technologies than Taiwan had originally requested for its new planes, in order to “show” that China wasn’t pushing the USA around.

On jobs and foreign policy, the Obama administration’s actions regarding this sale have been damaging. This brilliant “solution” escalated them to the level of catastrophic.

Why? Because Taiwan is not a secure destination for American military technology.

Neither are Osama bin Laden’s patrons in Pakistan, of course, who recently “bought” new F-16C/D Block 52 fighters for their fleet, while upgrading their existing F-16A/Bs to that standard. Their new F-16s are a generation behind new American fighters like the stealthy F-35, and that model is already ubiquitous around the world. The Block 52’s APG-68v9 radars are good, but their performance is only about 33-50% of the new generation AESA technology in current radars for the Navy’s newest F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, the USAF’s refitted F-15s, and in the F-22 and F-35. Pakistan will also be relying on older missile designs, such as AIM-9M Sidewinders, instead of the newest AIM-9X air-air missile that can hit targets behind the launching fighter.

So what does this administration do?

They sell Taiwan, a country recently described by the deputy news chief of the local Taipei Times (vid. “Taiwan is Losing the Spying Game“) as penetrated in almost every sector by Chinese intelligence, “especially its senior officers,” where even culprits caught in the act have received light sentences, some of America’s most advanced military technologies.

Taiwan’s F-16s will get AESA radars, with 2x-3x the performance of the APG-68v9s in the that would have come with Taiwan’s original request. The most likely options involved are derived from the APG-79 radars equipping the Navy’s latest Super Hornets (Raytheon’s RACR), or from the APG-81 that equips the forthcoming F-35, which will form the mainstay of American airpower for several decades (Northrop Grumman’s SABR). Even the APG-80 radars sold with the UAE’s unique F-16E/Fs could tell the PRC a great deal about transmit/receive module design, patterning, and required back-end electronics.

In short, this is dangerously close to top-end radar technology.

It will be accompanied by Raytheon’s AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the most advanced short range weapon in America’s arsenal for the forseeable future, and whose high-end imaging infrared seeker technology is being used in other applications. Recall that F-16 Block 52 sales to Pakistan pointedly specified the previous generation AIM-9M, which remains in common use in the USA and elsewhere.

“Have Glass II” stealth coatings, designed to reduce radar reflections, are included in the DSCA sale notice. They are not America’s most advanced stealth coatings, but neither are they the sort of thing one conveys to a security risk, whose likely exploiter is busy trying to add stealth to their own fighter designs.

To compound the folly, the Taiwanese are getting high-end Electronic Warfare Management systems, with Digital Radio Frequency Memory. DFRM is a major step-change in effectiveness for systems that collect, analyze, and jam enemy radar signals. It can do more things at once, do them faster, and is easier to modify with new programming. Note that F-16 Block 52 sales to Pakistan pointedly specified similar solutions without DFRM, which makes it more difficult to use information gained from any compromised equipment against modern American jamming gear.

I believe that the combined security problems represented by compromise of each of these systems would represent the gravest and longest-lasting damage to American security in the current deal. Industrial fallout can be reversed, if a new administration or Congressional bills force the State Department to permit the sale of new F-16s. The appearance of weakness before China can easily be reversed by a new President. Technical compromise of advanced American equipment, on the other hand, doesn’t change when the politics changes.

Unfortunately, that is the most likely long-term consequence of the Administration’s current plan. All done to salve ego and image, and as a substitute for making the straightforward decisions that would have avoided these risks in the first place.

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