Will US help Taiwan with its next-gen stealth fighter?

Taiwan is seeking US assistance in building its next-generation fighter, despite Washington’s relative reluctance to date to provide advanced fighters to the self-governing island to counter China’s current huge airpower advantage.

This month, Reuters reported that Taiwanese defense contractor Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC) is seeking US assistance in designing its next-generation fighter jet.

At a Taiwan-US defense industry forum in Taipei, AIDC chairman Hu Kai-hung said according to Reuters that “when it comes to the development of the next generation fighter, we hope the US supports Taiwan to develop it itself, including the engine, avionics, control systems, environmental controls and so on, which are all an opportunity for Taiwan-US cooperation.”

The Reuters report notes that Taiwan first announced its next-generation fighter program in 2017, mentioning at the time that it would have stealth characteristics, but has yet to provide additional details since then.

The US and other countries have so far not provided advanced military technology to Taiwan, either due to concerns of irking China or fears it could be compromised or exposed to spying in Taiwan’s famously porous military installations.

That has forced Taiwan to develop and produce indigenously weapons such as drones, missiles, warships and submarines.

Reuters points out that Taiwan has two notable indigenous jet aircraft, the Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF), which first flew in 1989, and the AT-50 Brave Eagle trainer, which was flight-tested in 2020.

Taiwan’s current fighter force consists of F-16s, Mirage 2000s, IDFs, and F-5s, which are unlikely enough to repel a Chinese invasion in their current state and configuration.

A 2012 report by the US-Taiwan Business Council first warned of a looming fighter gap between China and Taiwan, noting that the latter must field a fleet of between 360-400 fighters to defend against invasion versus 700 People’s Liberation Army–Air Force (PLA-AF) fighters stationed directly next to Taiwan.

China’s J-20 fighters fly in formation at an air show. Image: China Daily

Although the report notes that qualitative upgrades to Taiwan’s fighter fleet can enhance combat effectiveness, these cannot replace quantity and physical presence.

The Washington Post corroborates that report in an April 2023 article, stating that barely half of Taiwan’s fighters are fully mission capable. The report says it would take at least a week to move the jets inside hardened shelters, which poses a huge problem if China launches pre-emptive air and missile attacks to destroy those aircraft on the ground.

Military Watch notes in a March 2021 article that Taiwan’s F-16s and IDFs are its most capable fighters, while its Mirage and F-5s are slated for retirement due to performance issues and advanced age, respectively. However, Military Watch mentions that Taiwan’s F-16s and IDF fighters were first delivered in the 1990s, hinting at possible obsolescence without upgrades. 

It says that while the F-35 was considered the natural successor to the F-16, US concerns about Chinese espionage prevented the former’s sale to Taiwan. Taiwan’s F-16s were upgraded in the 2000s to fire the AIM-120C beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile with a 100-kilometer range, followed by upgrades such as the AN/APG-83 radar, new mission computers, improved electronic warfare suite, and modern avionics and precision weapons.

Military Watch says Taiwan’s IDF is the lightest fourth-generation twin-engine fighter in service and benefits from integrating indigenous technologies.

Although it notes that the IDF is slower than the F-16, it can use indigenously-developed weapons such as the Sky Sword air-to-air missile and Wan Chien cruise missile, which is superior to anything deployed by F-16s, and benefits from more frequent upgrades at a lower cost compared to Taiwan’s F-16 fleet.

Despite those upgrades, the source notes that Taiwan’s long-term inability to acquire higher-end aircraft from the US puts it at a severe disadvantage to the PLA-AF, which fields heavier, longer-ranged and ever-more sophisticated aircraft such as the J-20 5th generation stealth fighter.

Aside from low fleet strength, low readiness levels and possibly more capable Chinese fighters, Taiwan’s air force also faces a pilot shortage.

For example, the Washington Post notes in a February 2023 article that even if Taiwan manages to increase its F-16 fleet to 200 aircraft by 2026, its low rate of pilot training – it added only 21 F-16 pilots from 2011 to 2019 – falls far short of the 100 pilots needed in three years to fly its growing fleet.  

The Washington Post mentions that China’s intensified air operations around Taiwan have exacerbated Taiwan’s pilot shortage, as senior F-16 pilots have to be pulled from training duties to intercept ever-intensifying Chinese air incursions.

It also notes that Taiwan has had to lower entry standards for prospective pilots, pay bonuses to retain F-16 pilots nearing retirement, recruit officers from other military branches for pilot training and allow pilots trained on other fighter jets to fly F-16s.

Taiwan regularly scrambles its US-made F-16 fighter jets like these to intercept planes from the mainland in its airspace. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh

Yet bolstering Taiwan’s fighter fleet strength may not be the answer to the self-governing island’s increasingly precarious security situation.

Matthew Revels mentions in an April 2023 article for the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs that while Taiwan’s public statements emphasize an asymmetric defense, its continued acquisition of high-end prestige assets like fighter jets tell the opposite.

Revel mentions that Taiwan will likely attempt to contest China’s command of the air by pitting its outnumbered fighters against the latter’s numerically and qualitatively superior aircraft, a likely losing strategy.

He says that Taiwan also downplays how vulnerable its aircraft on the ground are to saturation air and missile attacks. In an attack, China will likely prioritize destroying Taiwan’s fighter force and runways, seeing these assets as the former’s air defense centers of gravity.

Instead of spending big on fighter jets, Revel says that Taiwan should abandon its purchases of crewed fighter jets in favor of a denial strategy focused on a robotized air force supported by numerous short-range air defense (SHORAD) systems.

Revel notes that a robotized air force built around cheap, expendable loitering munitions and drone swarms can deny the PLA-AF’s air superiority on possible landing sites, threaten troopships and logistics transports and provide a force multiplier more capable than any crewed aircraft.

He also says that numerous SHORAD systems with sufficient stockpiles can attrite PLA-AF aircraft forced to fly at lower altitudes to conduct close air support (CAS) missions for landing troops.


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