Monday, 13 June 2011

Prospective Fallout From F-16 C/D Purchases?

“Besides the superficial justification that new F-16C/Ds are needed to replace aging equipment and maintain a minimal level of defense capability ... the Ma administration is pursuing this mainly for two reasons: Ma wants to be able to produce credentials that show he is not weak on defense in the run-up to the presidential election … [and] in anticipation of having to deal with the issue of Beijing’s increasingly impatient pressure for political dialogue in his second term, Ma desperately needs to start hoarding his bargaining chips, and overt symbols of US support for Taipei are considered highly desirable.”
That's Fu Mei (梅復興), director of the Taiwan Security Analysis Center (in the U.S.), as quoted by J. Michael Cole in the Taipei Times today.

I don't quite agree - first of all, securing purchase of the F-16s is not "superficial", though it is perhaps true that, of themselves, they may not be sufficient to the purpose. The possession of capable military arms is a vital prerequisite to deterring the PLA - the ROC military doesn't need to be able to defeat PLA forces in an all out war, but they do have to be able to make a successful invasion so costly and difficult as to deter the PLA from ever acting on their plans. Even if the current administration is lukewarm about military purchases, they would nonetheless be available to a future administration. Having said that, I don't trust either political party and the importance of greater public involvement with the military seems to me critical; the military must be subject to civilian control and the mediation of this through political parties is a vulnerability.

The second reason why I don't quite agree with the above statement is that I cannot see where the downside to Ma in receiving the new shipment of F-16s is - and for the same reasons why Cole's article expresses skepticism as to the PRC's range and liklihood of possible retaliatory actions.


  1. I, too, am critical of J. Michael Cole's article, but I agree with the idea that the PRC really has very little leverage over Washington with regard to Taiwan. Militarily, China is still no match for the US Navy, and China will be unable to win in an invasion, and an unprovoked invasion or missile launch would mean destroying the Chinese economy, as Congress would sanction the hell out of China for an unprovoked attack. Beijing can't afford this. Economically, China can sanction US companies and kick up a fuss, but alienating Washington (by, say, selling US Treasury bonds) would do just as much harm to China's economy as the United States'. It would also seriously alienate the United States, and lead to sanctions and loss of US investment in China--at least possibly. Politically, Beijing has no real ability to change Washington's attitide immediately (which is why it's been trying to do so gradually), and many in Congress would be quite upset with China interfering in the US's foreign and domestic politics. At best, Beijing could kick up a lot of fuss, sanction a few companies, and/or shoot itself in the foot. It's not as though there aren't numerous other (and more friendly) places to do business and invest. The India market is almost as big as China's and will be bigger in the future, and China can't afford another Cold War. It would pit US allies--Japan, for example--against it. I don't think it will go that way, but there willl certainly be strong words, protests, and whatnot. But realistically, all it can do is that--unless it wishes to find out what mutually assured destruction (MAD) is really all about.

  2. "I, too, am critical of J. Michael Cole's article..."

    Actually Nathan, read it carefully and you'll find I actually agree with Cole's analysis. My (qualified) disagreement was with Fu Mei's remarks.

  3. "The second reason why I don't quite agree with the above statement is that I cannot see where the downside to Ma in receiving the new shipment of F-16s is - and for the same reasons why Cole's article expresses skepticism as to the PRC's range and liklihood of possible retaliatory actions."

    "Actually Nathan, read it carefully and you'll find I actually agree with Cole's analysis. My (qualified) disagreement was with Fu Mei's remarks."

    My fault. I read this part wrong. I commented on Cole's article, and I'm critical of it because it says very little about US domestic politics. But, as I mentioned, I agree quite strongly with its overall argument.

    Apologies for the mix up.

  4. Will the line even be opened by the time this "order" gets placed? Seems like a set up or the appearance of doing something you don't really plan on doing anyway.

  5. The F-16 production line?

    It's due to close, but Lockmart keep putting it off because foreign interest keeps coming back - I think they still have a backlog of orders.

    This F-16 order has been dragging on for years. My understanding was that, contrary to what Nathan seems to think, the last Bush administration was perfectly willing to sell them to Taiwan, but the KMT get blocking the purchase.

  6. My meaning, Mike, is that both parties are currently reluctant. You are correct about the situation under Bush-Chen (KMT blocking purchase). I was of the understanding that Okami was referring to neither government really interested in the transaction. If if read incorrectly again, my apologies.

  7. Oh I see - "parties" as in parties to a transaction, rather than donkeys and elephants.

    Here's an article from last year indicating that the F-16 line could close in either 2012 or 2014. If Taiwan's order is not approved by the current administration, pressure will have to be brought to bear on the next one very soon to get the order approved. I'd imagine the costs of mothballing a production line like that would be appalling.

  8. Basically I mean, Taiwan has no money for these fighters nor the kickbacks to buy them that need to passed out to all the generals involved. The KMT doesn't want them because they can't afford to have parts of their business empire messed with in China. The DPP might want them, but you'd have an easier time herding cats.

    Bush probably would of liked to sell them, but was reluctant due to a largely compromised Taiwanese military who lack maintenance skills. The State Dept definitely doesn't want to sell them because they are a bunch of commie-loving leftists. The Defense dept would like to sell them, but Taiwan's military is compromised enough and they lack the logistical capability to maintain equipment. Obama doesn't want to sell them because he's a commie-loving leftist.

    Therefore they all play the game of "will I or won't I" because to tell their counterparts the truth would be hurtful.

    The F-16 line was a huge money earner for General Dynamics. Closing down and reopening the line would be a huge cost though due to restocking equipment/inventory, retraining, and other manufacturing needs. It's a shame about it being so damn popular too. The F-18 was better, but now as agile as a dogfighter. The F-16 won out with a lot of militaries because of the dogfighter mystique that is so "cold war". The F-18 has 2 engines(less likely to crash) and was originally designed for attack and fighter roles. The attack roles had to be added later on to the F-15 and F-16 due to USAF dreams of huge dogfights over Europe. Luckily reality and budget cuts turned their thinking around.

  9. Okami,

    On kickbacks and the KMT business empire in China: sounds plausible, but I don't really know much about this.

    On Bush and Defense being reluctant to sell because the ROC airforce is compromised... I doubt they'd have given a moment's thought to this since if the PRC wanted to get hold of some F-16 tech they'd have other, probably easier ways to get them (e.g. Pakistan).

    On the F-18 vs the F-16, I disagree. The F-18 has two engines yes, but the Viper is a simpler, more reliable, and more easily maintenenced plane - which is the real reason for its popularity.

    That and the fact that it is still cool as f*ck in its capabilities!

  10. Unfortunately that very cool F-16 has the terribly bad habit of crashing because when it's simpler single engine goes out. It falls like a rock.

    The thing about compromising is the compromising of processes. The Chinese and Japanese are great at copying things, but they tend to fail horribly at copying working processes and the reasoning why behind them. This is what makes the Chinese aircraft carrier so amusing to me. You have 5000 people and a load of aircraft on a big boat with a airfield on top of it. Simple singular failures will knock out the capability of the entire thing.

  11. Yes that's true, and the point is more significant the more we are talking about long distance, blue water operations with the planes staying in the air for long stretches at a time. But for Taiwan, the range we're talking about will stretch just inland from China's south-eastern coastline, no? Also, as best I know the engine will only go out if it is not maintained properly (or if it freakishly eats a bird or two). That being the case, the same point can be raised double against the F-18: if the Taiwanese cannot do maintenance well*, then the F-18 is going to be twice the problem the F-16 is.

    *I would like to think that maintenance failures by Taiwanese engineers are due more to the specific culture, management or procurement efforts of the organization or business they are in (e.g. China Airlines), rather than the more general prevalence of tsa-ba-dor -ism. If that's the case, then it may be possible to address this with more savvy procurement policies and better management.

    But I'm not sure I can bring myself to believe it entirely. Even if I had the cash, I instinctively know I would never ever buy one of those "Luxgen" cars simply because it is just a Taiwanese rip off of Lexus - I'll stick with Toyota. And it is a worry in the Airforce - they have some sort of recurrent problem with their T-34 trainers, which surely must be because they either cannot get the necessary new parts for proper and timely maintenance, or because the planes are being deliberately sabotaged by the turn-tails to damage morale, or because they're infected by the idiocy bug that seems to be doing the rounds.

  12. They can't keep their humvees properly maintained, so I'd call it cultural. I've never seen nor heard of things being properly maintained unless it was by a well trained owner/operator and then it was a strong maybe.


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