Taiwan Seeking a Better F-CK, With Possible Longer-Term Aspirations
In 2006, the Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC), based in Taichung, celebrated the upgrade of 2 of the ROCAF’s 130 F-CK-1A/B Ching-Kuo Indigenous Defense Fighters, “to improve their combat-capabilities against China.” Details that have emerged since show a set of upgrades that turns the aircraft into fully multi-role fighters, moving them beyond their current limitations as air superiority aircraft and de facto lead-in fighter trainers for the ROCAF’s F-16s and Mirage 2000s.
Upgrades of the ROCAF’s other 128 aircraft were set to follow, even as 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, and budgets had to be approved to accomplish even that much. That approval was stalled for years, but the project is finally about to start delivering some planes – even as Taiwan’s request to buy 66 F-16C/D fighters remains stalled in Washington…
F-CK-1: Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Fighter
As one can see, the Ching-Kuo IDF borrows design features from the F-16 Falcon, F/A-18 Hornet, and F-20 Tigershark, but its two ITEC TFE-1042-70 engines generate only 9,500 lbs/ 42kN thrust each, leaving it somewhat underpowered. These air superiority fighters made their first flight in 1989, and in January 2000, the type was declared fully operational in the RoC (Republic of China) Air Force. The last of a total of 130 aircraft entered service in July 2000, and state-run AIDC was commissioned to carry out the IDF’s mid-life upgrade project in cooperation with the military-run Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology.
A 2006 Taipei Times report places the effort in context:
“AIDC is upgrading the IDFs because in most countries, warplanes are upgraded 10 years after they have entered service. Ten years ago the Air Force launched its second-generation fleet — 130 IDFs, 150 F-16 Block A/Bs and 60 Mirage 2000-5s — to boost defenses against China. The Air Force is seeking to introduce its third-generation fleet.”
Air Force Technology had previously reported that AIDC was developing an improvement package featuring a digital cockpit and an upgraded radar. The previous Golden Dragon CD-53 multi-mode pulse Doppler radar had look-down, shoot-down capability and can operate in air and sea search mode with a range over 80 nautical miles. This is respectable performance, but many modern radars offer significant improvements. Improved radar performance is confirmed as part of this upgrade package, but the extent of those improvements will make a significant difference to the upgraded fighters’ combat capabilities. That will be especially critical when facing China’s SU-30MKKs, with their advanced Phazotron radars and long-range missiles.
Subsequent announcements have mentioned that the upgraded F-CK-1C/Ds have been fitted with additional fuel tanks to extend range and patrol time, a new flight control computer system, improved IFF, better electronic counter-measures, and a switch-out of obsolete parts and electronic components for new designs. The aircraft also have a reinforced structure to accommodate dorsal conformal fuel tanks, and weapon pylons for an additional pair of Tienchien (Skysword) II air-to-air missiles, raising capacity from 2 to 4. The integration of Sky Sword IIA ARM radar-killer missiles, and Wan Chien GPS-guided cluster bombs, will make the aircraft a true multi-role fighter at last.
Beyond the F-CK’s Hsiang Chang program, press reports have consistently said that Taiwan remains interested in augmenting its F-16 fleet by requesting an NT 150 billion (roughly $4 billion) order of 66 F-16 C/D Block 50/52+ aircraft from the USA. Unfortunately, the USA refused to approve the sale until Taiwan approves a critical weapons package that has been languishing for years, due to the opposition Kuomintang party’s persistent stalling on ever-shifting grounds. By the time that package cleared, the US State Department was no longer prepared to sell Taiwan F-16s, despite a mutual treaty which clearly states that defense needs shall be the only considerations governing weapon sales to Taiwan.
That makes the Ching-Kuo fleet upgrades more important than ever, even if it’s not nearly enough to stop the balance of power sliding further away from Taiwan.
Contracts & Key Events
March 13/13: Beyond F-16s. Citing a newly released quadrennial defense review, Taiwan’s media say that the ROCAF wants to step beyond the upgraded Hsiung Yings, and develop a new fighter with features like lower radar cross-section, long-range, and aerial refueling receiver, as well as the ability to launch missiles against land targets or ships.
Taiwan’s military currently estimates that the fighter and small submarine development programs will cost about NT$500 billion (about $16.9 billion). Which means they’ll be lucky to keep the real total below $20 billion.
On the other hand, Liberty Times quotes KMT Legislator Lin Yu-fang statements that “For our national survival, we need to build up our defense capability under our own steam,” as a result of the USA’s increasing reluctance to assist Taiwan. Focus Taiwan.
Oct 1/12: F-16 upgrades. Lockheed Martin announces external link a contract valued at up to $1.85 billion to begin upgrading 145 ROCAF F-16A/B Block 20 fighters to the “F-16S” (not T?) configuration, including an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, embedded global positioning, electronic warfare upgrades, and other avionics improvements. Note Lockheed’s use of the word “begin”; the complete upgrade is very likely to cost more than $1.85 billion.
The F-16S upgrades will follow a detailed Sept 21/11 DSCA request, but they will not provide any new planes to Taiwan. The firm’s proposed F-16V model is similar, and was unveiled for general export/upgrade at Singapore’s airshow in February 2012.
June 26/11: Taiwan is set to receive its first batch of upgraded F-CK-1C/D Hsiung Ying Indigenous Defensive Fighters at 443 Wing in central Taichung, on June 30/11. The 4-year, NT 17 billion (about $587 million) project to upgrade 71 of the fighters began in 2009. Luo Shou-he, the ROCAF spokesman who announced the delivery, said that: “The rest of IDFs may or may not be upgraded, contingent upon our future budget.”
The retro-fitted jets add 2 more pylons, plus improved radars, mission computers, IFF, electronic counter-measures, and other electronics. They also switch out obsolete parts and electronic components for new designs. Several of the reports covering this milestone reiterate the Taiwanese government’s need for F-16C/Ds, which it continues to express in public. Focus Taiwan | Taiwan’s China Post | Taipei Times || AP via CNBC.
Dec 8/09: AIDC’s CEO confirms the signing of a contract for the IDF Hsigang Sheng upgrade project. China Times [dead link].
July 23/08: Flight International reports that the upgrade program has yet to be funded. Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) is urging its government to fund the program, citing the USA’s ongoing refusal to approve a multi-billion arms package request that includes F-16C/D fighters.
State Department officials sympathetic to China are reportedly working to block the sale, and despite China’s rapid arms buildup, US Pacific Command, commander Adm Timothy Keating is quoted as saying that Washington’s decision makers have concluded that there is “no pressing, compelling need” for an arms sale to Taiwan.
March 27/07: The first upgraded Ching-Kuo fighter makes its debut at Aerospace Industrial Development Corp.’s (AIDC) central Taiwan plant in Taichung County’s Shalu township, in central Taiwan. Reports vary. some say the upgraded aircraft will be renamed the Chingkuo Imposing Eagle; others say it will be Hsiung Ying (Chinese: “Brave Hawk”). See release.
- DID – Taiwan’s (Un?)Stalled Force Modernization
- Milavia – AIDC Ching-Kuo F-CK-1 (IDF)
- Air Force Technology – Ching-Kuo (IDF) Indigenous Defence Fighter, Taiwan
- Wikipedia – AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo
- Taipei Times (July 31/06) – Taiwan Quick Take: Fighter jets to be upgraded
- Reuters (July 27/06) – Taiwan seeks 66 F-16 fighters -U.S. official
- Defense Aerospace (July 14/06) – MND Mulls US$4b Budget for 66 Fighters
- (March 14/06) – Edwards flight testers exercise for war performing real-world test for Taiwan. The testing itself was performed to equip the Taiwan Air Force’s F-16s with the capability to carry a pylon that can deploy and tow decoys, while maintaining the aircraft’s full maneuverability. This pylon is a functional replacement for the standard weapons pylon, and provides the additional capability for the jet to carry 2towed decoys that deploy from the pylon and trail behind the jet to draw missiles away from the aircraft. It’s possible that the F-CK-1C/D may also have this capability.