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Asia-Pacific , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

China’s Plan to Eliminate Taiwan’s Air Force; How Beijing is Gradually Wearing Taipei’s Ageing Fighters into Inoperability

June 21st - 2018

Amid growing tensions in the Taiwan Straits the Taiwanese air force, officially the Republic of China (ROC) Air Force, has increasingly struggled to respond to overflights by Chinese surveillance and combat aircraft. With Taipei’s combat fleet relying on fighter designs dating back well over 30 years, in some cases back to the Vietnam War era, the average age of its combat aircraft is far older than those fielded by Beijing’s own air force. Chinese fighters are not only newer, but its fleet is comprised primarily of elite heavy twin engine platforms where Taipei's fleet is comprised exclusively of less capable light single engine fighters. With Chinese aircraft performing frequent approaches, now almost daily, Taipei’s fleet is increasingly strained to intercept them. The age of Taiwan’s aircraft means that they must spend more time on the ground for every hour in the air than when they first entered service, and the maintenance requirements have increased the more the fighters are flown. The result is that Taiwan’s fleet is being worn out and becoming less and less combat capable, and Beijing effectively blunting the ROC Air Force’s capabilities without firing a shot.

While Taiwan has halted production of its indigenous Ching Kuo fighters, these platforms continue to make up the mainstay of its aerial warfare capabilities alongside the F-16A - a light aircraft dating back to the 1970s and long since retired by the majority of its operators. The F-16A was, according to veteran operators, designed to operate for approximately 23 years - a light and relatively low cost platform which lacked a long service life. As one renowned veteran pilot and military aviation expert stated regarding the F-16 specifically: “After 22-23 years, maintenance costs increase drastically. The worst thing is that, as aircraft get older, they spend more time with engineers instead of pilots. After thirty years, they’re practically useless in operational terms. You can use them mostly for military parades.” Refurbishments can only go so far to compensate for this, particularly considering how frequently Taiwanese fighters are forced to fly. 

While Taiwan enjoyed a technological advantage over Beijing’s fleet during the Cold War, with its F-16 outmatching early variants of the mainland’s J-7 light fighters and J-8 interceptors, this changed dramatically in the 1990s with China obtaining some of the most advanced Soviet combat aircraft such as the Su-27 and Su-30MKK - well ahead of the F-16 in their capabilities. The discrepancy between their capacities continues to grow at a staggering speed, as Beijing has inducted new platforms such as the Su-35, J-11B and J-20 which are among the most capable combat aircraft in the world - able to outmatch all but the very latest and most elite American aircraft - the F-22 Raptor. Taipei has been unable to obtain advanced U.S. combat aircraft, with even the older but more capable F-15 remaining out of its reach - and nevertheless inadequate to engage fighters such as the J-11B and J-20. As China’s capabilities rapidly advance, Taiwan’s Air Force appears to if anything be declining as its aircraft are gradually worn out - and much of it may well eventually become inoperable. Maintenance costs for Taipei’s fleet are set to incise by 1.2-1.5% for each year it ages, and the Taiwanese F-16s will soon be relegated to spending the vast majority of their time in hangers - leaving them unable to effectively respond to the growing aerial threats posed by the mainland.

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