Plan B: A V/STOVL Fighter for Taiwan?
In late Sept 2011, The Washington Times reported on a unreleased U.S. Defense Department study, which had apparently concluded that Taiwan’s best response to the threat of massive Chinese missile strikes against its airfields involved buying short-takeoff and vertical-landing jets such as the V/STOL(Vertical/ Short Take Off and Landing) AV-8B Harrier II, or the new F-35B Lightning II STOVL(Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing capability) model. The Pentagon is delivering the study, which was Congressionally mandated at the behest of Sen. John Cornyn [R-TX], to Capitol Hill by the end of this week.
Militarily, this recommendation actually makes a great deal of sense, and a few countries already have that kind of survivability built into their defense plans and fighter choices…
The Swiss solution is to just cut its hangars, and parts of its runways, into the sides of mountains. Elsewhere, off-airfield requirements have made Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen an exceptional case among conventional fighters, as it can fly and land using just 900m of conventional highway. Sweden’s policy was driven by Russia’s vast superiority in combat aircraft, but the core concern of preserving the air force’s ability to operate is the same: make targeting too uncertain, and preserve the air force’s ability to contest the skies if its man bases are gone.
In light of the refusal to sell standard-issue F-16s, the idea of selling next-generation F-35 technology to Taiwan as a substitute makes zero sense. Many would even consider it to be deeply unwise, given the risk of technical compromise by China. Beyond those hurdles, the F-35B isn’t likely to be available before 2018, and may not ever be available, if its current 2-year probationary period end in cancellation.
AV-8 Harrier “jump jets” offer even more flexibility, though vertical takeoff leaves them with very low payload carriage, and short endurance in the air. They’re actually best operated in rolling short-takeoff mode, like the Gripen or F-35B. Even in that mode, however, the Harrier’s vertical landing capability greatly expands the number of potential deployment and emergency re-deployment sites, vastly complicating enemy targeting plans.
The AV-8B is out of production, but Britain has just mothballed its entire fleet, shortly after modernizing them to GR9 status. The big question is whether Britain would be willing to sell their fighters to Taiwan. That seems unlikely, and even if the USMC were to buy Britain’s Harriers, and then offer them to Taiwan, the original owner (Britain, in this case) always needs to give permission for re-export.
The only rational V/STOL option for Taiwan would involve the USMC buying Britain’s Harrier GR9s, then refurbishing them to American standards for its own use by restoring the 25mm gun, installing American electronics, etc. At the same time, the Marines would sell some of their existing AV-8B stock to Taiwan. This removes Britain from the permission loop, in exchange for the dual disadvantage of adding considerable expense to Taiwan’s buy, and possibly reducing American combat readiness while the GR9 refurbishments and testing take place. Beyond that, one must also believe that Britain would not face Chinese pressure and retaliation, anyway, over a deal that would be seen in Beijing as a transparent ploy.
The USA and Taiwan have agreed for almost a decade that the ROC needs diesel-electric submarines, in order to make it too dangerous for large Chinese amphibious groups to try crossing the Taiwan Strait. Since the USA cannot sell the nuclear submarines it makes, and other countries won’t sell their diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan, the ROC has been left with nothing.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that “nothing” is exactly what the Pentagon report’s suggestions would leave for Taiwan, in place of the new F-16 fighters it had requested. It’s one thing to propose alternative military solutions, quite another to offer a clear, realistic pathway to implementation. Without that, the USAF’s report ends up looking like a fig leaf, issued to justify a political decision that goes against the spirit of American law, as embodied in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Even if its core military rationale does makes a great deal of sense. Washington Times | Focus Taiwan.
- DID – Taiwan’s (Un?)Stalled Force Modernization. Covers all foreign weapon deals for Taiwan, proposed and underway within its coverage period. Ongoing.