An analysis of Taiwan’s military capabilities
The island of Taiwan, home to a population of 23 million (just under Australia’s 25 million), but measuring roughly half the size of Tasmania, is the centre of one of the Asia-Pacific’s most pressing geopolitical and security problems.
Founded in 1949 when the remnants of Chinese Nationalist forces fled there after being defeated by Communist forces in mainland China, modern Taiwan is currently trapped in diplomatic no-man’s land. All but a small number of South Pacific and Central American countries recognise the communist People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of the country, even though the self-governing island is an advanced economy plugged into the global system of commerce.
Worse still, China has vowed to reintegrate Taiwan into its fold by all means necessary, including by military force should Taiwan cross its red lines, chief of which is any move by the latter to cement its de facto independence by formally declaring it.
With China’s massive military modernisation program arguably surpassing that of Taiwan’s previous qualitative edge in recent years, Taiwan is now in an increasingly unenviable position as China grows increasingly assertive – even belligerent – on the diplomatic and military fronts.
This has meant that most countries are reluctant to sell arms to Taiwan for fear of upsetting China which has not been shy of using its economic and diplomatic leverage to prevent such sales. Failing that, China has sought to punish countries for doing so, leaving the United States, which is bound to sell “defensive” arms under the Taiwan Relations Act enacted by Congress in 1979, as the main external arms supplier to the island.
Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) is also under strain from heightened Chinese military air activity in international airspace surrounding it. The former defence minister Yen Teh-fa told the island’s parliament in October 2020 that the service flew 2,972 sorties responding to approaching Chinese aircraft from January that year alone, and admitting the service is under increasing pressure from the tempo.
The scrambles are triggered by Chinese aircraft flying in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which stretches into parts of mainland China across the Taiwan Strait, although Taiwan only scrambles fighters in response to aircraft operating over the strait and deemed worthy of a closer look.
According to Taiwan’s defence ministry, these are usually a mixture of Xi’an H-6 bombers, Shenyang J-11 and J-16 fighters, and Shaanxi KQ-200 maritime patrol aircraft, although other types of fighters, electronic warfare, intelligence gathering and airborne early warning aircraft belonging to both the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) also participate.
These flights recently set a new record on June 15, when 28 PLA aircraft were detected around Taiwan’s airspace. China all but acknowledged these flights were meant as a signal to Taiwan, with a Chinese government spokesperson saying it was due to Taiwan engaging in “collusion” with foreign powers to secure independence.
Most of these interlopers keep to the area southwest of Taiwan, although on occasion they have entered the Pacific Ocean through the Bashi Channel to the south of Taiwan or from the airspace to Taiwan’s north. There have also been occasions where the Chinese H-6 bombers have circumnavigated Taiwan, flying along its eastern coast in a show of ‘encircling’ the island.
These flights pass close to the Japanese islands of Yonaguni and Ishigaki which lie off Taiwan’s northeast coast within Japan’s own expansive ADIZ, and trigger scrambles by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Mitsubishi F-15J Eagles based on Okinawa.
Japan has recently tightened its previously liberal rules for scrambling interceptors, which saw it launching aircraft on 942 occasions during the fiscal year that ended in March 2020, mostly against Russian and Chinese military aircraft.
The new rules, which sees the JASDF opting to closely monitor military aircraft in its ADIZ, except in circumstances such as the appearance of large groups of suspicious aircraft or if they approach Japan, has resulted in a drop in scrambles for the fiscal year which ended in March 2021 to 725.
The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) is the official name of Taiwan’s Air Force, taking its name from Taiwan’s official name.
The ROCAF’s current primary combat aircraft are the Lockheed-Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon, the indigenous AIDC F-CK-1 Ching Kuo, Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II, and Dassault Mirage 2000.
Taiwan acquired 150 Block 20 F-16A/B from the United States in 1992. Despite officially being the older A/B version, the jets were more analogous to the F-16C/D Block 40/42 in terms of capabilities. The ROCAF’s remaining 140 F-16s are being upgraded to a new standard with new systems including the AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), new mission computers, and improved electronic warfare capabilities
That will bring these jets close to the configuration of 66 new-build F-16Vs Taiwan will be receiving from 2022. The additional F-16Vs have long been on Taiwan’s wish list but had been stymied by the reluctance of the Bush and Obama administrations to provoke China, with the Trump Administration only approving the potential sale in 2019.
The upgraded older F-16s have begun entering service, with the ROCAF’s 4th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Chiayi commissioning the type in March this year. The upgrade program is due for completion in 2023. The F-16 is currently also operated by the 5th TFW at Hualien, while a ROCAF training detachment at Luke AFB in Arizona is due to move to nearby Tucson in 2022.
The locally developed F-CK-1C/D Ching-kuo is numerically the second most important type in the ROCAF. Developed with assistance from Lockheed-Martin in the 1980s in a bid for increased self-reliance for its defence needs – and vaguely resembling the F-16 – the Ching-kuo made its first flight in 1989 with production of 130 aircraft completed 10 years later.
The Ching-kuo is a twin-engined multirole fighter powered by the Honeywell/ITEC F125 afterburning turbofan engine, originally developed by Garrett in conjunction with Volvo, Taiwan’s AIDC, and Italian company Piaggio from the civilian TFE731 powerplant.
The F-CK-1C/D also carries a suite of indigenous weapons such as the TC-2 air-to-air missile along with the GD-53 multi-mode pulse doppler radar that is based on the AN/APG-67 radar developed for the cancelled F-20 Tigershark program, and incorporating elements from the early F-16’s AN/APG-66 set.
An upgrade program for 71 F-CK-1s completed in 2018 saw the introduction of the Wan Chien stand-off missile and an increase in capacity of the TC-2 from two to four missiles per aircraft.
Also upgraded were the mission computers and electronic warfare systems. The type currently serves with the ROCAF’s 1st and 3rd TFW at Taichung-Ching Chuan Kang and Tainan respectively, with both units sending alternating detachments of aircraft to Magong on Penghu Island between April and October each year.
Rounding out the ROCAF’s combat force are the Dassault Mirage 2000 and Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II interceptors. Taiwan ordered 60 Mirage 2000-5 (48 single and 12 twin-seaters) around the same time as its original batch of F-16s. The Mirage 2000 fleet today operates out of Hsinchu on Taiwan’s north-western coast with the 2nd TFW, and the ROCAF is seeking to upgrade the type but France is reportedly reluctant to do so.
The F-5E/Fs are assigned to the 7th TFW at Taitung in eastern Taiwan. At its peak, the ROCAF operated more than 100 F-5E/Fs, although only a small number remain with the type scheduled for retirement in 2026.
The F-5 fleet also includes eight RF-5E Tigereye photo-reconnaissance platforms modified by Singapore’s ST Engineering in the late 1990s, and are assigned to a dedicated photo-reconnaissance squadron within the 5th TFW at Hualien alongside reconnaissance F-16s.
The latter are designated RF-16 and carry the Phoenix Eye pod which will soon be replaced, following US State Department approval in October 2020, by the Collins Aerospace MS-110 multispectral long-range oblique photography pod.
The vulnerability of Taiwanese airbases to a concerted strike by Chinese ballistic missiles means that Taiwan has (literally) taken concrete steps to protect these, with its bases extensively hardened with dispersed concrete aircraft shelters. In the case of Taitung and Hualien, tunnels for storing aircraft have been carved into nearby mountainsides.
Taiwan’s geopolitical realities have meant that early warning was always a key priority for the ROCAF. Taiwan first acquired four Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes in November 1995, these being retired US Navy E-2Bs refurbished to the E-2C Group II configuration with the AN/APS-145 radars, and designated as E-2Ts. In 1999, the US approved the sale of two more aircraft designated E-2K, and these entered ROCAF service in 2006.
The E-2Ks were built to Hawkeye 2000 standards, with an avionics upgrade over the earlier E-2Ts along with a new mission computer and improved, eight-bladed propellers. The E-2Ts were subsequently upgraded to the E-2K standard, with the final two aircraft being re-delivered in 2013.
The E-2Ks serve with the ROCAF’s 6th Tactical/Early Warning (T/EWW) Wing at Pingtung Airbase in southern Taiwan where they act as a vital force multiplier for the RoCAF’s fighter fleet and ground-based air defence systems.
The Hawkeyes complement Taiwan’s network of ground-based early warning radars, the most important being the AN/FPS-115 Pave Paws long-range early warning radar and computer system. The second hand solid-state phased array radar was installed atop a mountain in Miaoli County in 2006 and commissioned in 2013.
Pave Paws can see across the Taiwan Strait and hundreds of kilometres into China, providing up to six minutes notice of a Chinese ballistic missile attack. Being sited at an elevation of over 8,500ft, the radar also has an ability to track surface vessels.
Taiwan had explored the acquisition of a second radar but decided against the purchase in 2012 due to budget and schedule overruns with the first system, and instead awarded Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems a US$26.2 million contract in 2016 to upgrade its existing system.
The maritime patrol and anti-submarine component of the ROCAF comprises 12 Lockheed P-3C Orions acquired via FMS in 2007 to replace its elderly S-2 Trackers. Taiwan’s P-3s were ex-US Navy aircraft taken from desert storage, and were completely overhauled and modernised by Lockheed Martin.
Upgrades include new mission system, avionics, and structural kits to extend the airframe life for an additional 15,000 flight hours. The mission system upgrades also include the installation of electronic support measures, acoustics, communications, electro-optic, and infrared systems, and new data management software and hardware, controls, displays, and mission computers.
Structural modifications include new outer wings, centre wing lower surfaces, horizontal stabilisers, and engine nacelle components.
The first modernised P-3C arrived at Pingtung in late September 2013, and further upgrades have since taken place, with the addition of the Link-11 and Advanced Tactical Data Link to provide high-speed computer-to-computer digital radio communications in the HF and UHF bands.
The P-3Cs serve with the 6th T/EWW at Pingtung, which also operates the ROCAF’s airlift assets out of the sprawling facility. The airlift fleet comprises 20 Lockheed C-130H Hercules transports, one of which is reportedly equipped for Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) missions.
NAVAL & ARMY AVIATION
The Republic of China Navy (ROCN) also has its own air wing, and operates all of Taiwan’s naval helicopters. Its fleet of ASW helicopters are assigned to the 701st and 702nd Air Group at Tsoying, within the ROCN naval base adjoining the major port city of Kaohsiung.
These are made up of 19 Sikorsky S-70C(M) helicopters in both 701st and 702nd, augmented by nine Hughes MD500 helicopters in the latter unit. The MD500s are modified for ASW work with a Bendix RDR-1300 search radar, a towed ASQ-81C(V)2 magnetic anomaly detector (MAD), and taller skids to provide extra clearance for one or two Mk.46 torpedoes on the lower fuselage.
The S-70C(M)s also equip the ROCN’s surface combatants for shipborne ASW work. However, both types are due for replacement given their age with the MD500s dating from the 1980s and the S-70C(M)s having been in service since the early 1990s.
Taiwan has been offered the Sikorsky MH-60R Romeo to replace both types, but has had to defer the purchase on several occasions due to budget shortfalls and competing priorities, with the latest indication being that the funds for acquisition may be made available in 2022.
The Republic of China Army (ROCA) Aviation/Special Operations Command is the parent command of that service’s aviation assets, with the arm unsurprisingly heavily-geared towards attack helicopters. The service operates 29 Boeing AH-64E Apaches and the surviving elements of 63 Bell AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters split among the 601st and 602nd Aviation Brigade at Lungtan and Taichung-Hsinshe respectively.
Each aviation brigade has two attack helicopter battalions and one reconnaissance/search battalion and one transport battalion. The latter are equipped with the Sikorsky UH-60M Blackhawks, while the reconnaissance/search battalions operate the survivors of an original 37 Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warriors. Taiwan originally acquired 60 UH-60Ms with half of these going to the ROCA, although one was lost following a crash in bad weather in January 2020, killing eight personnel including chief of general staff General Shen Yi-ming.
An Army Aviation Training Centre is located at Kueijen in southern Taiwan, flying mainly the Bell TH-67 training helicopter although it also has AH-1Ws and OH-58Ds on strength. Also located at the base are Boeing-Vertol CH-47SD Chinook heavylift helicopters assigned to the Air Transport Group. This unit is directly subordinated to the Army Aviation and Special Operations Command HQ instead of the brigades.