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The Air Balance on the Taiwan Strait

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on February 21st, 2010

Since the early 1950s, to deter war between Taiwan and China, American presidents have pursued a calibrated policy of selling “defensive” weapons to Taiwan to deter immediate Chinese attack, while retaining sufficient U.S. forces in Asia to deter China on a larger scale. This policy was codified in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA)[1] after Washington derecognized Taipei and abrogated a Mutual Defense Treaty at the end of 1978.  However, there have been periods when these arms sales have waned due to Washington’s desire to advance relations with Beijing or to show displeasure with Taipei.  Most recently by the Bush Administration delayed arms sales to show displeasure with the “independence” tendencies of former Taiwan President Chen Shuibian, as it also tried to engage a more powerful China in addressing perceived “mutual” concerns.  One concern not shared: China’s steadfast goal to control Taiwan absent any consent by its people, as seen by China’s accelerating military buildup.

After a year of consideration, President Barack Obama continued the policy of calibrated arms sales with the January 29, 2009 announcement of a $6.4 billion arms sales package to Taiwan.  This package will include 114 Patriot PAC-3 missile interceptors, 66 Sikorsky UH-60 transport helicopters, two naval minesweepers, advanced military communication networking technology and training missiles.  This followed the Bush Administration’s $6.5 billion arms package of October 2008, which included 33 Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and 12 refurbished Lockheed-Martin P-3C Orion anti-submarine patrol aircraft.  

However, noticeably absent from both packages were the 66 Lockheed-Martin F-16 Block 52 Falcon fighters Taiwan has sought since 2006.  Also not included was a perhaps more recent request for upgrades for Taiwan’s existing F-16s.[2] Taiwan requires these fighters and upgrades to balance the growing capabilities of those entering China’s People’s Liberation Air Force (PLAAF) and to replace its obsolete 1970s vintage Northrop F-5E fighters. During a January 29 press conference an unnamed State Department official stated, “We’re aware of – well aware of Taiwan’s interest in acquiring F-16 aircraft… And we’re in the process of assessing Taiwan’s needs and requirements for that capability.”[3] Another source reports that if an internal Administration assessment determines this sale is necessary, it “will be authorized in the coming months.”[4] But even if this sale is approved its deterrent effect may be temporary. By the end of the decade the PLAAF may be taking delivery of Chinese-built first 5th generation fighters expected to out-class the F-16.  

So far denied: An F-16 Block 60 of the Dubai Air Force incorporates advanced electronics and weapons now required by Taiwan to sustain a balance with an increasingly capable PLA Air Force. Source: RD Fisher

The advent of a PLA 5th generation fighter is but one element of a larger Chinese military buildup which is now challenging the viability of Washington’s policy of calibrated arms sales to Taiwan.  Since coming to power in 2008 Taiwanese President Ma Ying jeou and other Taiwanese leaders have called on China to remove threatening missile more than ten times, to which China has responded by accelerating its military buildup.  A calibrated approach, such as continuing to sell Taipei even more advanced aircraft, like the 5th generation Lockheed-Martin F-35, may not be enough to sustain deterrence.  Future PLA space warfare capabilities, a growing nuclear arsenal, anti-ship ballistic missiles, increasing numbers of advanced submarines and a growing amphibious invasion capability pose a far greater threat to Taiwan and to the future ability of U.S. forces to provide a sufficient additional deterrent.   It may be overdue that Washington expands its definition of a “defensive” weapon for Taiwan as it increases investments  in new U.S. military capabilities that sustain Washington’s larger capacity to deter Chinese aggression.

Centrality of the Air Balance

For most of the period since the mid-1950s the U.S. has sought to maintain at least a clear qualitative edge for Taiwan’s Air Force versus that of China’s, as a primary means for Taiwan to by itself deter attacks from China.   Air superiority over the Strait was viewed as the strategic “center-of-gravity;” if it could be maintained then China would not contemplate naval blockade or amphibious invasion. From 1953 to 1973 the U.S. transferred or sold over 1,500 aircraft to Taiwan in a process that continually upgraded its defensive air combat capabilities.[5]  Initial transfers of World War II vintage piston engine powered Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters were rapidly succeeded by progressively more capable jet fighters, starting with the Republic F-84 Thunderjet and North American F-86 Sabre.  During the mid-to-late 1950s these fighters tangled often with Russian built and then Chinese co-produced MiG-15 and J-5 (Jian-5, MiG-17) fighters.[6]  The first combat employment of the then revolutionary infra-red guided AIM-9B Sidewinder air-to-air missile was from hastily modified Taiwanese F-86 fighters during the 1958 Quemoy Crisis. In the early 1960s the U.S. transferred much more capable North American F-100 Super Sabre and Lockheed F-104 Starfighters, adding the Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter and then co-produced F-5E Tiger IIs in the 1970s. 

Heroes of the Taiwan Strait: Taiwanese pilots in front of a F-86 Sabre following a mission in the 1950s. Source: Cheng Chung Museum via RD Fisher

Soviet leaders rewarded Mao’s willingness to delay his 1950 plans for attacking Taiwan[7] and sacrificing possibly hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Stalin’s design for the 1950 to 1953 Korean War[8] by giving China a modern military-industrial sector.  In addition to initial transfers of nuclear and missile technology Nikita Khrushchev gave Mao the beginnings of China’s modern combat aircraft manufacturing sector, transferring the MiG-17 (J-5), MiG-19 (J-6) and a great deal of the technical background that allowed China to copy early versions of the MiG-21 (J-7). For most of the 1950s the Taiwan Strait was a “hot” conflict zone of the Cold War.  During the second Quemoy Crisis of August 1958, when Chaing Kai Shek deployed 30,000 troops to Jinmen and Mazu islands in response artillery shelling my Mao, the U.S. prevented Chaing from undertaking attacks against Chinese force.  However, to deter further Chinese attacks the U.S. deployed a large show of force, to include about 240 jet fighters to Taiwan and a U.S. Navy force of six carriers and about 50 combat and support ships.[9]  The U.S. also deployed large artillery capable of firing tactical nuclear weapons, as it deployed USAF nuclear armed Martin TM-61 Matador cruise missiles to Taiwan from 1958 to 1962 and tactical nuclear weapons until 1974. 

U.S. Deterrence 1950s Style: To deter Mao from attacking Taiwan in 1958 the USAF sent 240 fighters directly to Taiwan , like the F-100D (top) and stationed nuclear-armed Martin TM-61 Matador cruise missiles on Taiwan. Source: Bud Norris and Internet


For differing reasons, the U.S. and the Soviet Union also used their respective arms sales relationships to restrain Taiwan and China.  By the late 1950s Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided that Mao was becoming threat to Soviet interests by his willingness to draw Moscow into a nuclear confrontation with the U.S. and to challenge Soviet leadership in the socialist bloc of countries. A falling-out between Mao and Khrushchev that began over the latter’s reluctance to sell whole nuclear bombs, and then to concern over Mao’s global leadership ambitions, led to the withdrawal of Russian technical advisors from China in 1960.[10]  Mao’s turn inward during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the curtailment of new military technologies from the Soviet Union plus the need to deter Soviet attack all served to divert Mao’s attention from Taiwan.  Despite political chaos and great economic privation the PLA managed to perform the world’s first test of a nuclear weapon-armed ballistic missile in 1966.  China’s military aviation sector, however, was stuck producing modified versions of 1950s-vintage Soviet designs, mainly Shenyang Aircraft Corporation J-6 Farmer (MiG-19) and Shenyang/Chengdu Aircraft Corporation J-7 Fishbed (MiG-21) fighters. Both fighters were continuously upgraded and thousands were produced.  The J-6 served in the PLAAF from 1961 till after 2000.  While initial versions did not enter PLAAF service until the early 1970s, late production J-7E and J-7G fighters still serve in PLAAF front-line units.

Farmers and Fishbeds almost forever: China’s political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s prevented real advances for its combat aircraft sector beyond these 1950s Soviet designs until the late 1990s. Source: Chinese Internet

China’s inability to produce a modern 4th generation fighter was one reason why the U.S. denied Taiwan’s request for the then modern 4th-generation F-16A fighter in the late 1970s and through the 1980s.  More importantly, the Carter and then the Reagan Administration’s wanted to pursue strategic cooperation with new Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who was willing to tilt against the Soviet Union as he was opening China’s markets to commerce with the West.  In an attempt to curb weapons proliferation and offer a less “provocative” low-cost fighter the Carter Administration urged the development of the F-16/79 powered by the older and less powerful General Electric J-79 turbojet, and the Northrop F-20, an upgraded F-5 powered by a single General Electric F-404 turbofan.  Taiwan was set to be the launch customer for the F-20, but the Reagan Administration refused to sell it the F-20 and F-16.[11]  But it did but did sell Taiwan a package of components (some developed for the F-20), technology and consulting to allow Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC) to build the unique F-CK-1 Ching Kuo Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) twin-turbofan powered fighter.[12]  While an effective short-range defensive fighter for the 1990s, its performance was not allowed to match or exceed the F-16.

Indigenous designs: A row of models at the AIDC museum showing differing early 1980s configurations for what became the Ching Kuo fighter, on the bottom. Source: RD Fisher

It was not until August 1992 that President George H.W. Bush decided to sell 120 single seat F-16A and 30 twin-seat F-16B fighters to Taiwan.  The principle reason for the sale was to give Taiwan a means to balance China’s recent purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighters, but Bush was also responding to Taipei’s recent success in acquiring 60 French Dassault Mirage-2000-5Di/Ei fighters[13] and to a difficult re-election campaign.  Since this period Taiwan has not been able to purchase additional or more modern fighters while the PLA has been able to acquire increasing numbers of Russian-made and new indigenous 4th-generation fighters. 

TAF:  Reaching Its Limits

Taiwan’s Air Force (TAF) begins this decade largely where it started the last decade.  Its primary combat force consists of about 140 F-16s, 55 Mirage-2000 and 125 F-CK-1 fighters for a total of about 320 4th generation or near equivalent fighters.  While all are “multi-role” (attack and defense) mission capable fighters, the attack abilities of the Mirage, and to a lesser degree the F-16, are limited by the refusal of the U.S. and France to sell a full range of modern attack weapons.  But even in the defense mission, these fighters are reaching the limits of their ability to remain competitive without substantial upgrades.  By the end of this decade these fighters could be critically obsolete compared to expected Chinese 5th generation fighters. The TAF also operates about 50 older F-5E fighters, largely for advanced training and some equipped for aerial reconnaissance. 

Of these fighters the F-16 remains the most potent TAF combat aircraft.  While sold in the F-16A/B version with the initial 23,000 lbs max thrust Pratt-Whitney F-100-PW-200 turbofan, it was equipped with a more advanced electronics package similar to the F-16C to enable it to carry new weapons.  Starting in 1998 these fighters have had their capability increased by incremental sales of weapons and equipment.[14]  The most important air combat capability upgrade followed a 2001 decision to sell Taiwan the Raytheon AIM-120C AMRAAM, a “active-guided” AAM with a reported 50km range, in response to Russia’s sale of the similar 80km range Vypmpel R-77 to China.[15]  The US also delivered a small number of Pathfinder/Sharpshooter targeting pods to enable all-weather employment of the AGM-65G Maverick ground-attack missile. TAF F-16s have long lacked an internal infrared/imaging targeting system to allow “passive” searching that does not alert PLA electronic targeting systems, and helmet-sighted AAMs which confer a decisive advantage in close-in combat.  In addition, they do not have modern electronically scanned array (AESA) radar which offer expanded range, passive detection and electronic warfare capabilities. 

Han Kuang Falcon: An F-16 firing defensive flares during a fire-power demonstration that was part of the 2007 Han Kuang exercises in Taiwan. Source: RD Fisher

TAF Mirage-2000s are for now a competitive fighter on the Taiwan Strait.  It was the first TAF fighter to receive an “active-guided” AAM with the purchase of 960 of the 60km range Matra MICA AAMs and a reported 480 short-range Magic-2 AAMs, which can be helmet-sighted[16], though it is not reported that Taiwan’s Mirages have this capability.  Recent trends in deepening China-France relations, especially under the previous government of Jacques Chirac, make it unlikely that France will offer Taiwan an upgrade package for its Mirages, such as better radar, AAMs or ground-attack systems.  In late 2009 problems with the Mirage’s engine, which reportedly caused a sharp drop in flight times, and the high cost of maintenance, led to calls from some Taiwan legislators to mothball the Mirage fleet.[17]  It is not clear whether such pressure was meant to prompt better attention from France. 

Han Kuang Mirage: This Mirage-2000 took part in the same fire-power demonstration during the 2007 Han Kuang exercise. Source: RD Fisher

Always a second choice to the F-16, orders of the IDF were cut from 250 to 130 after the 1992 decision to sell the F-16.  Designed with help from F-16 designer General Dynamics to be an effective defensive fighter, it resembles the F-16 by it use of leading-edge root extensions (LERX) of the wing plus tilted seat and side-stick controllers which allow pilots to better withstand high-G combat stresses.  However, the Reagan Administration decision to limit the power of this aircraft to two 9,400 lbs max thrust Garrett TFE-1042-70 turbofan engines also limited the IDF’s size and range, to a reported 320 mile (550km) combat radius.[18]  With extra fuel tanks it can carry two medium-range and four short-range air-to-air missiles. Likely with U.S. help, Taiwan developed the Tien Chien-2 (Sky Sword TC-2) “active-guided” AAM with a reported 60km range.[19]  In 2006 AIDC revealed that it had developed an upgraded F-CK-1C/D strengthened for higher weight and payload, which could carry over 700kg more fuel and up to four TC-2 AAMs.  In late 2009 a report emerged that up to 71 IDF fighters may be upgraded, but this cannot be confirmed.  Due U.S. and French unwillingness to sell Taiwan longer range strike weapons, Taipei has had to increasingly rely on the IDF to carry indigenously-designed strike weapons, like the Tien Chien-2A anti-radar missile and the Wan Chien air-launched cruise missile. 

IDF with cruise missile: A view of the Wan Chien cruise missile on an IDF fighter, likely from a Taiwanese military magazine. Source: Internet

Another critical element of TAF air combat capability are its six Northrop-Grumman E-2T Hawkeye airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft.  Four E2-Ts were sold in 1993 and in 1999 a further two were sold, all delivered by 2005.  The latter two (and reportedly the first four) were equipped with the Raytheon AN/APS-145 radar with a reported 350nm[20] (648km) range.  This means that flying over Taiwan the E-2T can see well into China to detect attacking aircraft as well as track naval movements, and better control defensive or offensive air operations.  From the mid-1990s until recently the TAF E-2Ts provided a critical “force multiplier” that allowed a smaller number of fighters to more effectively counter a much larger number of Chinese combat aircraft.  However, the effect of new PLA aircraft and missile threats will be to force TAF E-2T operations farther to the east of Taiwan, reducing its ability to cover PLAAF operations over China.  In addition, the advent of several PLA AWACS platforms is negating this once clear TAF advantage over the Strait. 

PLAAF:  Reaching Superiority 

For the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) the last decade has been one of stunning growth in both numbers and capability of combat systems.  In 2000 the PLAAF had less than 100 Russian-made 4th generation fighters but has since undertaken a remarkable transformation.  In 2010 the PLAAF and PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) have 350 to 400 Russian and Chinese-made 4th generation multi-role fighters plus about 280 more Russian 4th generation and Chinese-made near 4th generation strike-fighters.[21]  The majority of these are based in Eastern China and could be quickly deployed to bases closer to the Taiwan Strait.  The PLAAF now operates two types of AWACS aircraft and its most recent Russian-built Almaz-Antey S-300PMU-2 surface-to-air (SAM) missiles can shoot down aircraft flying over small areas of Taiwan’s west coast.  The strike power of the PLAAF is supplemented by about 1,500 short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBM, MRBM), plus new land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) of the PLA Second Artillery force.  PLAAF officials now state that a Chinese-built 5th generation fighter may be entering service by 2017 to 2019. 

Russian help: Early production of J-11s at Shenyang. With the transfer of Sukhoi fighters and both approved and unapproved technology transfers, Russia assistance was instrumental in the PLAAF’s transformation to a 4th generation fighter force. Source: Chinese Internet

By 2000 the PLAAF had had nearly a decade experience with the Russian Sukhoi Su-27SK Flanker 4th generation air superiority fighter and was training in and taking delivery of the Su-30MKK strike fighter.  From Sukhoi’s KnAAPO factory the PLAAF had ordered or was about to take delivery of about 78 Su-27SK/UBK fighters and about 100 Su-30MKK/MKK2 strike fighters.  Su-27SKs effectively introduced the PLAAF to 4th generation air combat technologies and were used during the March 2006 exercises to intimidate Taiwan.  The Su-27 has always had better maneuverability than the U.S. Boeing F-15 Eagle and may have been the first fighter on the Taiwan Strait armed with a helmet-sighted AAM, the Vympel R-73.  Soon after the introduction of the Su-30MKK the PLAAF began taking delivery of the Vypmel R-77 “active-guided” AAM with a range of about 80km.  Russia also delivered several precision ground-attack munitions for the Su-30MKK. 

After more than a decade of investment the PLAAF may also be receiving an indigenized version of the Su-27, the Shenyang J-11B.  In 1998 Shenyang entered into an agreement with Sukhoi to co-produce 200 Su-27s but by the 2000 Zhuhai Airshow a high Shenyang official told the author they might not build all 200.  As the decade progressed it became clearer that Shenyang was working on a copy of the Su-27 that was not approved by Sukhoi.  Though Russian sources would tell the author and others that China could not copy the Su-27, they have, and apparently have improved the airframe with greater use of composite materials.  It is likely that the J-11B is now in production, powered by two Shenyang-Liming WS-10A turbofans, another difficult but hard-won Chinese aerospace sector achievement.  A U.S. source indicated to the author that the J-11B may also feature a new ASEA radar.  The J-11B will be armed with the 70-100km range Luoyang PL-12 AAM[22] and a range of new Chinese-made laser and navigation satellite-guided PGMs.  In 2009 Shenyang likely started testing the twin-seat J-11BS, which could be developed into a strike-fighter version like the Su-30, and it is expected that the J-11 may form the basis for the first PLA Navy aircraft carrier-based fighter. 

Shenyang J-11B: After a decade of effort Shenyang may now be producing a modified Su-27 powered by Chinese-designed engines, and soon to feature a Chinese-developed ASEA radar. Source: Chinese Internet

In addition the PLAAF may have about 150 of the Chengdu J-10A fighters in service[23], and a more capable variant called the “J-10B” in development.  Tracing its linage to a Shenyang program of the 1960s that moved to Chengdu by the late 1970s, the J-10 program received substantial technical assistance from Israel in the late 1980s and then Russia in the early 1990s.  It uses a “canard” (horizontal stabilizer-in-front-of-the-wing) configuration to confer lift and maneuverability advantages, but for now is powered by the Russian Saturn AL-31FN turbofan.  Russian sources indicate that China has purchased 300-400 AL-31s for the J-10 program, and China is interested in purchasing more powerful variants.[24]  With the completion of an adequate engine like the WS-10A turbofan, it is possible that the PLA could meet a 2005 a Russian estimate that total J-10 production could exceed 1,200.[25] 

Soon the J-10 could have a capability approaching that of the advanced F-16s Taiwan now is seeking.  The J-10B, first seen in early 2009 Chinese internet images taken from the Chengdu test field, very likely will use a new Chinese-designed ASEA radar and infrared passive targeting system.  It is not yet apparently powered by the WS-10A or another Chinese turbofan, but that is expected it exported to Pakistan in the next decade.  Since the mid-1990s there have been reports of an aircraft carrier version of the J-10 and reports persist of a twin-engine version in development.  The J-10A is already capable of carrying six-to-eight PL-12 AAMs and the range of Chinese-built PGMs. 

Exceeding Taiwan’s F-16s: A canted nose bulkhead on the “J-10B” indicates it may be equipped with a new ASEA radar, which if true, would make this J-10 version handily superior to Taiwan’s F-16s. Source: Chinese Internet

The PLAAF and PLANAF also operate close to 180 of the Xian Aircraft Corporation JH-7/JH-7A strike fighter.[26]  Designed in the 1970s it did not enter full production until the late 1990s when the PLA finally worked out with Britain’s Rolls Royce a purchase and technology transfer agreement for its Spey turbofan, following a breakdown of efforts to obtain the Spey in the 1970s.  With a slightly upgraded Spey, Xian was able to start producing the current JH-7A, which it markets as a low-price alternative to the U.S. F-15E and Su-30, though its performance is closer to the retired U.S. F-4 Phantom. The JH-7A can be armed with China’s new laser and navigation satellite guided PGMs and Chinese-designed turbofan and ramjet-powered supersonic anti-ship missile.  More recently the JH-7 has been seen equipped with dedicated electronic warfare (EW) pods, in a manner similar to the U.S. EA-6 Prowler EW aircraft.  It is also likely that Xian is developing a new stealthier version of the JH-7, sometimes called the JH-7B. 

British Assistance: Using London’s late-1990s relaxed redefinition of the 1989 EU arms embargo, Britain’s Rolls Royce sold the Xian Aircraft Company the technology necessary to co-produce the Spey turbofan, which has enabled about 180 JH-7 fighter-bombers. Source: RD Fisher collection

The TAF would also still encounter many regiments of late-model Chendgu J-7 and Shenyang J-8II fighters.  While considered 3rd generation fighters, many of these are equipped with the deadly helmet-sighted PL-8 AAM, copied from the Israeli Python-3.  The PLAAF could also have up to 280 J-7E and J-7G fighters that have improvements in radar, wing shape and electronics, which when armed with the PL-8 or a future helmet-sighted AAM, would be deadly in a close-in dogfight.  The PLAAF and PLANAF may also operate over 120 later model J-8F and J-8H fighters carry the PL-12 “active-guided” AAM. 

After many years of intense investment, the PLAAF has more, and very likely, better AWACS aircraft than Taiwan.  While in 2000 the Clinton Administration succeeded in convincing Israel to halt its sale of Phalcon active phase array radar to China, for fitting on a Russian-made Beriev A-50 AWACS, four of these aircraft are now in the PLAAF.  Asian military sources have stated that the radar signals from the KongJing-2000 (KJ-2000) AWACS are similar to that of the Phalcon.  This turbofan- powered aircraft can also fly much higher than the turboprop-powered E-2T, meaning it can take advantage of its greater search range.  The PLAAF also has about five less-expensive KJ-200 AWACS based on the turboprop-powered Xian Y-8 transport.[27]  This aircraft uses a linear active phased array radar similar in shape to the Swedish Ericsson Erieye.  China’s ability to develop two types of active phased array radar AWACS demonstrates a world-class level sophistication in this technology.  Such AESA radar are much harder to jam than conventional radar, as they are theoretically able to focus very powerful electron beams that could damage vulnerable electronic circuitry.

Aerial Information Superiority: The PLAAF now has nine AWACS aircraft which utilize ASEA radar technology superior to that on Taiwan’s six E-2T AWACS. Seen here is a KJ-200 (right) and a KJ-2000. Source: Chinese Internet

Future 5th Generation Fighters

By the end of this decade Taiwan could be facing PLAAF 5th generation (called 4th generation by the PLA) fighters that may heavily outclass current Taiwan’s fighters.[28]  In a November 8, 2009 interview on Chinese television, PLAAF Deputy Commander General He Weirong stated that a 5th generation fighter could fly “soon,” and be in service in “about eight to ten years,” or by 2017 to 2019.  While this was only the second public statement by a PLA official about its 5th generation aircraft program, it is reported that this program began soon after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, proceeding in parallel with 4th generation programs like the J-10 and then J-11.  A PLA 5th generation fighter can be expected to stress stealth, supercruise (sustained supersonic speeds), high maneuverability and advanced electronics.  While actual details of this aircraft have not been revealed by official Chinese sources, there has been heavy reporting and speculation on this program on Chinese military issue web pages.  The first PLA 5th generation fighter is expected to be a design of the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation and be a heavy-weight advanced stealthy canard design with twin thrust-vectored engines.  Just prior to the November 2009 PLAAF disclosure, a highly respected commentator offered that a prototype 5th generation fighter could fly as early as 2010 and that the PLA would eventually build 300 of these fighters.  In 2005 a Chinese source disclosed to the author that the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation may also be considering a second medium-weight 5th generation fighter program similar to the F-35.[29]

5th Gen on the way: While the PLA has not revealed any images of its future 5th generation fighter, this image appeared in 2008 in an advertisement from an aircraft engine development institute associated with the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation: Source: ShowNews

Other Threats to Taiwan’s Air Defense

Taiwan also faces other threats to its air security from the PLA and will have to respond to new threats later this decade.   Since the early 1990s the PLA has built the world’s most formidable non-nuclear missile strike force: more than 1,500 missiles largely aimed at Taiwan.[30]  Taiwanese air, naval, radar and SAM bases could be devastated by PLA missile strikes alone, and then have to defend against air strikes. In the 1990s these missiles compensated for the PLA’s lack of effective attack aircraft, but with the introduction of precision guidance technologies and mission-tailored warheads this force now approaches the flexibility of the Su-30 strike fighter.  Since the late 1990s DF-15 and DF-11Mod1 SRBMs have been upgraded with navigation satellite guidance systems, which the PLA will control entirely when its launches its Compass navigation satellite constellation in the next two-to-three years.  The DF-11Mod1 can be outfitted with variable high-explosive, thermobaric or cluster-munition warheads, while the new DF-15C carries a warhead to attack underground facilities and the DF-15 B has a maneuverable warhead.  The Second Artillery also has 200-300 DH-10 highly accurate LACMs while the PLA Navy has over 100 new YJ-62C long range anti-ship cruise missiles emplaced near Taiwan.

LACMs: Much less expensive than SRBMs and more accurate, the PLA can be expected to produce hundreds of new DH-10 LACMs more rapidly than its buildup of ballistic missiles. Source: Chinese Internet

Anticipating that Taiwan and/or the United States would seek to thwart its attack against Taiwan, the PLA has also invested heavily in air defenses targeting U.S. or Taiwanese attack aircraft or cruise missiles. In the event of operations against Taiwan it is likely that the PLA could amass perhaps the world’s most effective air defense network to cover its attacking forces.  Since 1993 the PLA has purchased about 1,000 of the Almaz-Antey S-300 SAM family.  These missiles are deadly due to their very high speed and use of highly-difficult-to-jam phased array radar for target detection and missile guidance.  The latest 200km range 48N6/2 missile of the S-300PMU2 system can reach over some areas of western Taiwan.  With Russian help, the PLA is now building its HQ-9 SAM, a 125km range missile that also uses a difficult-to-jam phased array detection and guidance system.  The PLA Navy’s two Type 052C destroyers carries a naval version of this SAM, while its two Type 051C destroyers  use a naval version of the S-300.  

HQ-9 SAM: The PLAAF’s air defense network would provide critical cover to enable offensive operations against Taiwan. Longer range versions of the HQ-9 are likely in development. Source: Chinese Internet

Challenging U.S. Deterrent Capabilities

The PLA’s gathering air-missile combine also challenges the ability to U.S. forces in Asia to maintain a deterrent edge.  Until the Lockheed-Martin F-22 entered service early in the last decade, the U.S. did not have a fighter with all around superiority over the Su-27.  Boeing F-15C air superiority fighters have been regularly bested in exercises with Russian and Indian Su-27s and Su-30s.  In a few years, with a further buildup in numbers and experience, the PLA’s combine of 4th generation J-11 and J-10 fighters armed with PL-12 AAMs, operating concert with KJ-2000 and KJ-200 AWACS, will pose an equivalent capability to the longstanding combine of U.S. F-15, F-16 and F-18 4th generation fighters operating in cooperation with E2 and E-3 AWACS which have given U.S. commanders air superiority in all major post-Cold War conflicts.  The Obama Administration’s decision in 2009 to limit F-22 production to 187 aircraft, while shifting reliance for all U.S. air forces to the less capable and less expensive F-35, could prove disastrous should the PLA produce many more 5th generation fighters and follow that with a F-35 equivalent.  

No Longer Paramount: The combine of U.S. 4th generation fighters and AWACS are soon to be matched by a similar PLAAF combine, which will include Chinese 5th generation fighters by the end of this decade. Source: Internet

Other emergent PLA capabilities may further reduce the deterrent capacity of U.S. forces in Asia.  Expected PLA medium-range anti-ship ballistic missiles pose a threat to the Taiwan Navy but perhaps more to larger U.S. Navy ships that would be needed assist Taiwan in the event of a PLA attack.  The PLA’s apparent commitment as well to space combat capabilities, perhaps both ground-based and space-based, target a well known U.S. vulnerability, its heavy reliance on satellites for communication and surveillance.  In addition, the PLA is building up its nuclear missile forces.  With only about 20 missiles capable of reaching the U.S. at the beginning of the last decade, this number could grow to between 150 and 200 by the end of this decade.  Should some or most of these be equipped with multiple warheads the PLA nuclear threat might grow to hundreds of warheads.  Add to this the prospect of a PLA national missile defense (NMD) capability, this decade could end with a significant erosion in the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent in Asia. 

Possible ASBM Configuration: A recently released Chinese-made model of a DF-21C with an apparent maneuverable warhead, similar to that seen on the DF-15B, which may be the configuration for the expected PLA anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). Source:

Absent a more vigorous U.S.-led response to bolster Taiwan’s defenses and to enable U.S. forces in Asia to resist and overcome emergent PLA capabilities, there will be diminished prospects for continuing to deter Chinese military action against Taiwan.  The loss of air superiority over the Taiwan Strait by the Taiwan Air Force, and the prospect of the U.S. not being able to quickly assert air control over the Strait, revives the main fear of the 1950s: the PLA may be tempted to mount an actual invasion of Taiwan.  It is also a fact that the PLA has been investing heavily in new amphibious and airborne invasion capabilities.  New amphibious assault vehicles like the ZTD-05 may be able to outgun the Taiwan Army’s main battle tanks as soon as they hit the beach.  In 2010 the PLA lacks sufficient formal amphibious assault ships and large transport aircraft to project a decisive invasion force.  However, this could change by the end of this decade if the PLA build many more Type 071 and reported Type 081 large amphibious assault ships, and succeeds with its ambition to build a new 200-ton C-17 size military air transport. 

Building for Invasion: The PLA is not neglecting the buildup of forces for an eventual invasion of Taiwan. This ZTD-05 amphibious assault vehicle is armed with a missile-firing 105mm gun that can out-range Taiwan’s current tank guns. Source: Chinese Internet

Preserving Deterrence

The longstanding U.S. policy codified in the Taiwan Relations Act provides the policy justification for the U.S. to act more urgently to defend its interest in preventing China from dictating the future of Taiwan by military force, absent any consent by the people of Taiwan. 
The mounting PLA threats to Taiwan provide sufficient cause for the U.S. to take immediate steps and commit to a medium term program of strengthening Taiwan’s air defenses.  Taiwan has a clear requirement for new F-16C Block 50 fighters equipped with ASEA radar and helmet-display sighted AIM-9X AAMs.  As per an existing Taiwan requirement, the U.S. is also justified in selling Taiwan an upgrade package for its existing F-16s to include a new AESA radar and AIM-9X AAM.  But Taiwan may also seek to recapitalize its fighter force this decade, replacing F-16A and Mirage-2000s with a 5th generation fighter.  This requirement is mentioned in Taiwan’s 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review.[31]  Later in this decade it would also be justified for the U.S. to offer Taiwan a 5th generation fighter like the F-35B, which capable of very short take-offs and landings to allow for dispersal to counter PLA missile attacks. 

STOVL F-35B: This version of the F-35 would allow the TAF to constantly move fighters to different bases to help evade attacks by PLA ballistic and cruise missiles. Source: Lockheed Martin

Preserving deterrence will also require that Washington expand its traditionally restrictive interpretation of “defensive” weapons to be sold to Taiwan.  For many years this restriction has meant that Taiwan cannot buy HARM anti-radar missiles and satellite-guided JDAM bombs for its F-16s, and has had to endure U.S. lectures against its recent efforts to build conventional LACMs to enable long-range strikes. No military can expect to successfully defend its people through a strategy of pure defense.  This is not the strategy of the U.S. military or the PLA.  It is preposterous for the U.S. to limit Taiwan’s defensive potential by limiting its future ability to pre-empt or undertake defensive military action against a gathering PLA attack.[32]  A PLA potential to gain air superiority means that the strategic “center of gravity” for Taiwan shifts to undermining the PLA’s invasion potential as the dominant means for deterring Chinese attack.  Highly accurate short-range ballistic missiles, like the Lockheed-Martin MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), or LACMs like Taiwan’s Hsiung Feng-2E, may be required as the principle means to deter PLA invasion forces. 

ATACMS for the defense: Sale of a 300km range version of the U.S. ATACMS SRBM would go far to help Taiwan deter a gathering PLA invasion force. Source: RD Fisher

To “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist” coercion against Taiwan or against other U.S. allies in Asia it is also critical that there be U.S. military investments that ensure continued deterrence of China.  It is critical that the U.S. not let its nuclear deterrent capabilities fall short what is required to deter China, and that U.S. nuclear forces be adequately defended—as China likely intends for its nuclear missile forces. With the PLA committed to its own 5th generation fighter, it is now critical to reconsider the Obama Administration’s 2009 decision to end F-22 production in favor of an improved F-22 and programs to develop a successor air dominance system.  It is also necessary to invest in a new supersonic bomber and “Prompt Global Strike” systems like non-nuclear long-range missiles or hypersonic platforms to surmount the PLA’s investment in “anti-access” weapons like anti-ship ballistic missiles.  

The late January 2010 announcement of the latest U.S. arms sales package to Taiwan produced a blistering response from Beijing, with threats to impose sanctions against U.S. companies that sell weapons to Taiwan.  There were also reminders that the U.S. is threatening a “core interest” of China’s, namely achieving “unification” with Taiwan under its terms.  What this actually means is that the Communist Party led dictatorship in Beijing cannot allow Taiwan to survive as a democracy, as that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of its dictatorship as much as would self-determination for Tibetans or Uyghurs in Xinjiang.  But as world leaders are beginning to realize for issues such as safety in outer space, cyberspace, the delineation of maritime territories, the global trade balance and human rights, deferring to China requires an acceptance of diminished freedoms for their citizens, a condition that has existed in extremis for Taiwan for over 60 years. Washington’s periods of restraint in arms sales to Taiwan have not altered China’s fundamental goal or the pace of its military buildup after 1989. Ensuring that China does not get its way on the Taiwan Strait increases the chance that it will eventually choose a non-coercive relationship with Taiwan that respects the freedom of Taiwanese.  Such an outcome likely would require significant Chinese movement toward domestic political reform, all of which would justify continued U.S. support for Taiwan.  

[1]  The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act states:  “It is the policy of the United States:… (5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and (6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

[2]  Taiwan’s request for upgrades to existing F-16s was mentioned by Taiwan Deputy Defense Minister Dr. Andrew Yang, see, Wendell Minnick, “Interview,” Defense News, February 1, 2010, p. 38.

[3]  Department of State, “Background Briefing on Asian Security,” January 29, 2010.

[4]  Bill Gertz, “Taiwan Air Threats, Inside the Ring,” The Washington Times, January 28, 2010.

[5]  John W. Garver, The Sino-American Alliance, Armonk: ME Sharpe, 1997, p. 66.

[6]  For a review of Taiwan-China air combat operations during the 1950s see Tom Cooper, “China and Taiwan since 1945; part 1,” Air Combat Information Group Web Page, September 1, 2003,

[7]  For a recent review of Stalin’s machinations to convince Mao to delay his planned 1950 attack on Taiwan see William C. Triplett II, Rogue State, Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004, p. 26-28 and Chapter 1.

[8]  Published estimates of the number of Chinese soldiers killed during the Korean War range from 110,000 (Chinese sources) to over 400,000 (U.S. sources), see,

[9]  Garver, p. 136-137.

[10]  For a recent review of Mao’s early global ambitions and Khrushchev’s reaction, see Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao, The Unknown Story, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, Chapters 38 and 43.

[11]  Northrop developed the F-20 with corporate funds and the failure of its sale to Taiwan was a result of Chinese pressure, corporate competition and Pentagon budgetary politics.  The F-20’s story is well told on Mark Wade’s F-20A Tigershark Home Page, The market niche for such a low-cost mulitrole fighter may now be filled by China’s Chengdu FC-1 fighter. 

[12]  According to accounts heard by the author over many years, this fighter was literally “designed” by White House National Security Council officials during the early Reagan Administration, utilizing components which were not chosen for various U.S. combat aircraft programs. 

[13]  In late 2009 Chinese military issue web pages carried an account of a PLAAF test pilot who tested the Mirage-2000 in France in June 1982, only to have the sale blocked by U.S. pressure.

[14]  See, “Lockheed-Martin F-16A/B Fighting Falcon,” web page,

[15] Active-guided AAMs rely on their own radar instead of the launching aircraft’s radar for guidance cues, meaning the aircraft can sooner initiate post-launch maneuvering rather than pointing their aircraft at the target until interception.  However, modern AAMs like the AIM-120 and R-77 AAMs do require initial cuing and guidance data from the launching aircraft.  Range data from Robert Hewson, editor, Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, Issue Fifty-one, Coulsdon: Jane’s Information Group, 2008, pgs. 87, 103.  Range figures for AAMs are dependent on a number of variables; a launch fighter traveling at supersonic speeds would give more range to an AAM, while ranges for aft-engagements are usually less than head-on engagements. 

[16]  Hewson, op-cit., “MICA,” p. 59-60 and “R550 Magic 1 and Magic 2,” p. 16.

[17]  “Minister to consider mothballing Mirage fighter jets,” The Taipei Times, October 23, 2009, p. 3.

[18]  This figure may only reflect radius on internal fuel.

[19]  Range from Hewson, op-cit., “Tien Chien-2 (Sky Sword-2),” p. 92.

[20]  See Norman Friedman, World Naval Weapon Systems, Fifth Edition, Annapolis: US Naval Institute Press, 2006,  p. 212.

[21]  Estimates based on data from Scramble Web Page data base ( and International Institute for Strategic Studies:  J-10 (150); J-11/Su-27 (200); Su-30MKK/MKK2 (100); JH-7/JH-7A (180). 

[22]  While Luoyang advertises the PL-12’s range at 70km, Western industry sources have told the author that its range may be closer to 100km.

[23]  Estimated number based on data in the Scramble Web Page data base: seven PLAAF regiments (about 20 a/c each).

[24]  Interview, Dubai Airshow, November 2009.

[25]  Interview, Moscow Airshow, August 2005.

[26]  Estimated number based on data from Scramble Web Page data base, PLAAF regiments (3x 20 a/c) and PLANAF regiments (5 x 24 a/c).

[27]  KJ-2000 and KJ-200 numbers from Scramble Web Page.

[28]  For more detail on China’s 5th generation fighter program see the authors “October Surprises in Chinese Aerospace,” International Assessment and Strategy Center Web Page, December 30, 2009,

[29]  Conversation with author in London, April 2005.

[30]  In February 2009 a Taiwanese official put this number at 1,500, see, Ralph Jennings, “Taiwan says China has 1,500 missiles aimed at island,” Reuters, February 13, 2009.

[31]  “Taiwan flirts with buying advanced U.S. fighters,” Kyodo, March 16, 2009.

[32]  This argument is made eloquently by Rupert Hammond-Chambers, “Taiwan Goes It Alone,” Defense News, February 25, 2008.

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