The Taiwan F-16 Sale

There is a good reason for politicians to support United States arms sales to Taiwan. It’s good politics. And that’s true on both sides of the Pacific.

As Jens Kastner reported in Asia Times Online on June 22, President Ma Ying-jyeou has made his stated eagerness to purchase 66 F-16 fighters (and dispel concerns that he cares more about closer ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) than the security of Taiwan) a cornerstone of his campaign for re-election in January 2012.

In Washington, the potential F-16 sale has garnered support across a broad political spectrum in congress, from anti-communist conservatives to pro-democracy liberals. Beyond Taiwan-love, the movement draws some of its political heat from the desire to rebuke China for its unnerving growth and assertiveness, as well as for human rights and regional security transgressions.

However, good politics may not be good geopolitics.

The Barack Obama administration is clearly loath to pick a fight with China at this juncture over the always contentious issue of Taiwan arms sales, having just achieved a partial reset of relations with Beijing after a particularly difficult year.

The genuineness of Ma’s enthusiasm for the F-16 deal is also open to question.

As a 2009 WikiLeaks cable revealed, Ma’s US diplomacy is based on “no surprises”. Presumably to contrast Kuomintang (KMT) sobriety and responsibility with the loose-cannon radicalism of his opponents in the independence-friendly (and confrontationally inclined) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Ma promised the United States:

Taiwan would not ask for a certain kind of transit just to show that the US would grant it; Taiwan would not ask for certain weapons systems just to show the US would sell them; and Taiwan would not insist on certain names [ie descriptors used for Taiwan in international organizations] just for domestic political considerations.

When the cable was released in June 2011, a DPP legislator, Peng Shao-chin, harrumphed:

Could it be that the appeal for a US arms sale publicly made by Ma several times was just for show? I wonder if it was because of the US’ reluctance or Taiwan’s lack of interest that there has been no progress made in the arms deals.”

Legislator Peng may be unfair.

Ma has, by his calculation, called for the US to approve the sale of the F-16s “19 times”. No formal Letter of Request (LoR) has been received by the United States from the ROC government … because the US steadfastly refuses to accept the letter.

On June 27, Wendell Minick reported in Gannett’s Defense News:

Taiwan’s June 24 petition to submit a letter of request (LoR) for new F-16 fighter jets was blocked by the U.S. State Department under orders from the U.S. National Security Council, sources in Taipei and Washington said.

A U.S. defense industry source said that Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), was preparing to submit its fourth LoR for price-and-availability data for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). But it was told by AIT that the LoR would not be accepted. AIT declined to comment.

“AIT is not opposed to the sale,” the source said. “This is a State Department and National Security Council issue.”

The issue has become a Catch-22 for Taiwan, in which TECRO cannot submit an LoR to AIT because it is under State Department orders to deny it, and then TECRO is told by the State Department that the LoR cannot be processed because it was not received, he said.

The Obama administration was not the first to refuse F-16 LoRs. The George W Bush administration refused three letters of request for the jets in 2006 and 2007.

It is not clear whose political interests this procedure is meant to advance.

Is Ma, under the “no surprises” rubric, declining to disrupt US-Taiwanese relations by submitting a request he knows the Obama administration dislikes? Or is the Obama administration providing political cover to Ma by giving him the opportunity to pander to the Taiwanese electorate by stating his desire for the planes … while avoiding complication in his relations with Beijing by actually putting the request into the pipeline?

The United States is unlikely to be eager to do Ma political favors, despite an apparent preference for keeping the KMT’s hand on the tiller and the security situation in the Taiwan Strait off the rocks.

Ma is widely understood to be the architect of Taiwan’s gradual, calculated drift into the arms of Beijing, and his protestations of anti-PRC militancy do not carry a great deal of weight in Washington.

A refreshingly tart Congressional Research Service report on the history of Taiwan arms sales noted Ma’s mainland-friendly shenanigans and his apparent reluctance to pour money and political capital into a buildup of Taiwan’s military forces.

One visualizes the author’s lips pursed with disapproval as she describes how US assistance to Taiwan in the aftermath of Typhoon Marakot in 2009 was treated:

In his national day address on October 10, 2009, President Ma recognized mainland China for its aid that “exceeded those of all other nations,” without mentioning the United States in his speech.

In the United States, considerable efforts are underway to build political momentum for a sale despite the apparent qualms of the Obama administration.

On May 26, a missive signed by 43 US senators urging Obama to accept the letter or request was made public. Many of the signers were the president’s Republican adversaries, eager to raise him on a cleft stick on the politically difficult matter. However, Democratic senators such as Jay Rockefeller, a longtime supporter of Taiwan, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and outgoing Virginia senator Jim Webb also signed.

Terri Giles, executive director of the Formosa Foundation, a US-based non-profit advocating heightened awareness and support of Taiwan, told Asia Times Online that “the Taiwan issue is one that [congress] is very serious about”.

She described efforts to decouple Taiwan arm sales – and Taiwan policy in general – from China policy, stating, “The more we can take China out of the equation the better.”

She looks forward to a relationship with Taiwan in which issues like arms sales are regular, continuous and normalized – not occasional, fraught exercises that serve as the focus for aggressive Chinese lobbying and horse-trading.

What may doom a congressional united front on Taiwan, however, is overreach – the apparently irresistible temptation for ideological conservatives to turn every issue into an opportunity to challenge, discredit and confound the Obama administration and its agenda.

After the mid-term congressional elections and the accession of Republicans to control of the House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a conservative congressperson from Florida, took over the House Foreign Relations Committee and convened a hearing on “Why Taiwan Matters”.

Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was unable to attend – apparently the president of Mongolia was in town – but the hearings went ahead anyway.

Clearly, in the eyes of pro-Taiwan conservative congresspeople, the F-16 issue is now politically in play.

The Wall Street Journal puckishly titled its coverage of the Ros-Lehtinen hearings, “Never Fear Taiwan – Congress is Here.” It noted the general finger-in-the-eye-of-the-Obama-administration spirit, quoting Ros-Lehtinen’s warning of a “new spirit of appeasement in the air”, and Dan Burton’s resentful insinuation that the non-appearance of Kurt Campbell and other administration officials demonstrated “an absence of concern that is remarkable … I think they were afraid because they don’t have the answers.”

The committee also heard a case for the F-16 sale put forward by the US-Taiwan Business Council.

Commerce certainly has its place in these proceedings, since the 66 F-16s would represent more than US$3 billion in revenue for Lockheed Martin, much of it distributed in politically influential states like Texas.

Texas-style hardball, aka the forcible collision of political and economic interests, is already on open display in the F-16 matter, as the Washington Post reported:

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who represents a state where F-16s are assembled, has been the most outspoken on the issue and is holding up a full Senate vote on the confirmation of William J Burns as deputy secretary of state until Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton moves forward on the fighter jet issue.

An amendment Cornyn introduced last year requires the State Department to produce a report that would assess whether Taiwan’s air force needs the jets.

In a speech last week at the Heritage Foundation, Cornyn said he is negotiating with Clinton to have that report released in exchange for the confirmation vote. [5]

Burns may well join Mark Lippert cooling his heels waiting for his confirmation.

In April 2011, Taipei Times reported that “an unnamed senator” had put a hold on Lippert’s appointment as US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs because of the same Taiwan air-power report issue. [6]

In testimony before Ros-Lehtinen’s committee, the council’s president, Rupert Hammond-Chambers, carefully deployed the warning that, if the contract was not issued promptly, the F-16 production line (which now relies entirely on foreign sales) would be forced to close, taking with it not only the jobs but also the subcontractor arrangements that make a future restart possible.

Perhaps in an oversight, no mention was made of another potential F-16 contract, 18 units for Iraq, postponed for a year by the Iraqi government so that the $1 billion could be diverted from the deserving coffers of Lockheed Martin “toward improving food rations for the poor”.

However, the US-Taiwan Business Council appears to have more interest in geostrategic than commercial issues.

Its chairman of the board is none other than ex-assistant secretary of defense and notorious neo-conservative author of the Iraq imbroglio, Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz met several times with Taiwanese defense officials during his stint at the Pentagon – a time when elements within the US Department of Defense were notoriously egging on then-president Chen Shui-bian to act on his preference for Taiwan independence.

Rupert Hammond-Chambers clearly exceeded any economic brief when he dabbled in the separation of powers issue by trying to generate some buzz for using the Taiwan Relations Act – presumably interpreted as aggressively and one-sidedly as possible by partisans in the congress – to hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on arms sales:

Said Hammond: “At what point do you ask whether the administration is violating the Taiwan Relations Act … Only Congress can step in and do something about that.”

The part of the act that interests conservatives (at least when they control the congress but not the White House) is Section 3: Implementation and its potential for congressional oversight.

It reads

1. In furtherance of the policy set forth in section 2 of this Act, the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.

2. The President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan, in accordance with procedures established by law. Such determination of Taiwan’s defense needs shall include review by United States military authorities in connection with recommendations to the President and the Congress.

3. The President is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.

Unsurprisingly, perfecting the vague and open-to-interpretation TRA as a wedge to challenge the Obama administration’s handling of the Taiwan/China brief is apparently also on the agenda: Ros-Lehtinen announced at the hearing that she would push for new legislation updating the Taiwan Relations Act.

As the quest for political critical mass on the F-16 issue continues, a variety of stories has bubbled up, courtesy of promoters of the sale.

A senate staffer made the case to the Washington Times that Obama really wants to sell the F-16s to China, but wants congress to take the heat:

The Washington Times reported that a senior Senate aide close to the issue believed there is a sense on Capitol Hill that the administration wants Congress to push the Pentagon to go ahead with the sale as a way of limiting fallout from China.

It is unlikely that Obama feels that the secret to success in dealing with Beijing is giving the reins to the notoriously fractious and anti-PRC (and not quite pro-Obama) US Congress. This backgrounder – can we call it Don’t Ask Just Sell? – can probably be chalked up to an effort to embolden congresspeople to be aggressive on the issue despite whatever opposing signals the White House is sending out.

Pro-Taiwan groups are also making the argument that the F-16 sale should be pushed through immediately, implying that it will be a political windfall for Ma that will ensure his re-election, and therefore be welcome to Beijing.

Unfortunately, the obverse is probably true. There is a genuine possibility that Ma will be voted out of office in January – the race is neck and neck – on the issue of the faltering economy, and gaudy arms deals may not be a decisive factor.

If the DPP wins in January, Beijing will have the worst of both worlds: a hostile administration backed by a renewed and escalated US commitment to arms sales.

Therefore, a furious PRC dragon, belching fire from every orifice, is likely to take US-Chinese diplomatic relations to the brink on the F-16 issue regardless of who submits the LoR, or when.

In the end, despite special pleading on behalf of the Taiwan Relations Act, it has been the familiar exercise of presidential discretion in foreign affairs that has governed US policy on arms sales to Taiwan.

President Ronald Reagan decided that an effort should be made to maintain Taiwan’s superiority over the Chicoms in the area of fighter jets and approved the sale of F-5E fighters in 1982. He described his overarching principle as follows:

It is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.

Ten years later, perhaps yielding to the exigencies of his re-election campaign, George H W Bush approved the sale of 150 F-16 A/B jets to Taiwan on similar grounds.

However, by 2009, after the PRC’s purchase of Russian jets and a massive domestic development program, the Pentagon advised congress that Taiwan no longer “enjoyed” dominance of the airspace over the Taiwan Strait.

Maintaining Taiwan’s capability relative to the PRC (ie air superiority) as envisioned by Reagan is no longer possible, as China gallops ahead to become the world’s largest economic power.

The Congressional Research Service report stated:

[T]he [Defense] Secretary’s report on PRC military power had told Congress in March 2009 that it was no longer the case that Taiwan’s Air Force enjoyed dominance of the airspace over the strait. In assessing the shifting security situation, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Wallace Gregson stressed in September 2009 that Taiwan’s military will never again have quantitative advantages over the PLA.

In fact, the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) cannot even sustain parity with its own historical capacity, let alone keep up with the PRC. It appears to be characterized today by obsolescence, decrepitude and diminished capacity.

The ROCAF fighter jet component consists of the 150 aging F-16s purchased in 1982; 60 French Mirage 2000 jets whose expensive maintenance and low availability is a source of dismay and embarrassment; and Taiwan’s own contribution to 21st century air warfare, its Indigenous Defense Fighter or IDF.

When the fighter plane pipeline from the United States dried up, Taiwan turned to a variety of US airframe, engine and electronics contractors for assistance in constructing its own fighter plane.

In a vivid illustration of the terrible hazards involved in combining Western conventions, Chinese commemorative impulses and the tricky Wade Giles romanization to generate military aircraft nomenclature, Taiwan decided to honor its revered ex-president, Chiang Chingkuo, by incorporating initials for his given name Chingkuo (“respecter of the nation”) into the descriptor for its fighter.

The result was the F-CK-1 series of aircraft. Defense Industry News inevitably took the bait with its headline concerning upgrades to the IDF fighter, Taiwan Seeking a Better F-CK, With Possible Longer-Term Aspirations.

On an operationally more significant note, the IDF program took place under the watchful eye of the US government, which allowed US contractors to participate in the project. However, US pressure apparently precluded the supply of high-thrust engines for the project, leaving the capability of the IDF in doubt. The IDF is apparently best suited as a lead-in trainer to the more muscular F-16s and Mirage 2000s.

Taiwanese media attacked the plane as a gold-plated boondoggle, jocularly suggesting that “IDF” stood for “I Don’t Fly” or “I Don’t Fight”.

Nevertheless, 130 of the planes entered into service; some are now being upgraded.

On June 30, Ma Ying-jyeou attended the roll-out six newly upgraded IDF fighters, in order to demonstrate the government’s commitment to air defense.

His praise of the upgraded IDF fighter was somewhat less than full-throated, indicating that the program is considered to be something of a stopgap until higher-performance aircraft can be obtained:

“I hope the IDF jets will stand for ‘I do fight’ and ‘I don’t fail’,” said President Ma Ying-jeou, who gave a thumbs-up as he sat in the cockpit of the improved warplane.

Defense Industry News delivered a thumbs up on the upgrade,stating that the F-CK-1C/D would be a genuine addition to Taiwan’s arsenal if and when it was actually deployed in significant numbers.

However, it is still considerably inferior to planes already rolled out on the other side of the strait:

China continues to deploy advanced SU-30 family and J-10 4+ generation fighters on their side of the Taiwan Straits. The new “F-CK-1C/D Hsiung Ying” (Brave Hawk) would still be a generation behind China’s most advanced machines.

Lockheed also hastened to advise the Taipei Times that the upgraded IDF was no substitute for new F-16s:

While the upgrade points to advances in Taiwanese avionics and capabilities, defense experts and Lockheed, maker of the F-16, say the new IDF is insufficient to ensure parity with an increasingly modern People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

The Taiwanese government indicated that it would upgrade 71 of the IDF fighters over the next four years, which implies that four years from now almost half of the IDF fleet will be de facto obsolescent and the rest will have great difficulty going toe-to-toe with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force.

The issue for American presidents is whether or not restoring the ROCAF to basic relevance is possible, cost-effective or even prudent.

Writing on the blog of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Michael Mazza conflated the F-16 sale with forestalling World War III:

A decision not to sell new fighters to Taiwan is, frankly, a decision that Taiwan doesn’t need an air force. A Taiwan that can’t control its skies is a Taiwan that can’t defend itself. And a Taiwan that can’t defend itself is a Taiwan that invites Chinese coercion, if not outright aggression. The outbreak of fighting in the Strait is not likely to be a conflict from which the United States can remain aloof. There will be no neutrality, no splendid isolation to enjoy when China starts loosing missiles on its neighbors.

The impact of the potential F-16 sale may be somewhat less dramatic.

In 2009, RAND Corporation’s David Shlapak co-authored a report on air superiority issues in the Taiwan Strait, titled A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute.

The report concluded that, despite the superiority of US equipment and personnel and whatever Taiwan could throw at the PRC, Taiwanese and US forces could not achieve air superiority in the straits given China’s quantitative advantage in planes and, especially, missiles.

China’s key advantage is perhaps its ability to sustain its airbase infrastructure, and fuel and re-arm its planes for multiple sorties, while destroying Taiwanese airbases and giving their planes nowhere to land after their first sortie (assuming they make it off the ground in the first place).

Shlapak told Asia Times Online that US planners could find the risks entailed in a campaign to negate China’s advantages in airfields to be unacceptable:

The PRC has about 40 airbases within range of Taiwan. Taiwan has ten airbases. The US has one nearby base, plus its aircraft carriers. Now the PRC has surface-to-surface ballistic missile forces available to cut runways and destroy aircraft. Taiwan’s network of highway landing strips – without infrastructure or protection – [does little to mitigate the problem].

U.S. weapons are air-launched and require penetration of China’s borders by US aircraft in order to engage. Taking out 40 airbases in the interior of China is a much bigger job than [the PRC’s task of destroying] ten bases on Taiwan.

There are limits to bombing China. There is danger of escalation. The general rule is, Never cross swords with another nuclear power.

Considering that the current F-16 purchase request would do little more than replace the Reagan-era F5Es, Shlapak commented: “It is difficult to see how a changeout of fighter aircraft can dramatically improve the situation.”

An F-16 purchase would make little difference in the all-out war scenario. It would be useful primarily as a demonstration of sustained American resolve to support Taiwan despite the disadvantageous shift of the balance of power in the strait; maintain the ROCAF as a force to be reckoned with; and perhaps play a significant role in a limited conflict – for instance, a scenario in which the PRC doesn’t mount a full-scale attack, but tries to get Taiwan to fold through a blockade.

Cynics also commented that, by serving as targets on Taiwanese airfields, the additional F-16s could help by exhausting China’s arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles.

At present, the stars appear to be aligning in favor of a proposal that is much more piecemeal than the purchase of new F-16s.

On July 4, Agence France-Presse reported a statement by Lin Yu-fang, chair of the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign and National Defense Committee, that there would be “a compromise deal” to execute a long-existing plan to add improvements to Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16s, instead of buying new ones.

As to timing, Lin observed sagely:

The US is anticipated to make the decision within the next two to three months. The Obama administration certainly won’t want to see the arms deal become an issue during his election campaign for the second term.

Terri Giles warned that an F-16 A/B upgrade “may not cut the mustard” with US politicians pushing for an enhanced security and political profile for Taiwan inside the Washington Beltway.

However, if the conservative backers of the sale overplay their hand, Democratic supporters will very likely drift away out of loyalty to Obama, and from dark memories what happened to America during the first George W Bush administration, the last time they let doctrinaire conservatives dominate the foreign policy discourse and decision-making process.

An ex-director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Richard Bush, told an audience in Taipei on June 24 that the loss of military parity requires more than new airplanes; it requires new thinking: “I would say it is important to build a consensus on the island about what is truly important for the future of the people on this island,” he said.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.