Taiwan's first prototype of indigenous advanced jet "Brave Eagle" made its public debut in Sep 2019

Taiwanese industry is developing a new manned fighter jet. It might be a bad idea

by David Axe

The Republic of China Air Force might not survive the fiery early moments of a Chinese attack on the island country. The People’s Liberation Army could pummel Taiwanese air bases with thousands of rockets and cruise missiles.

Any ROCAF fighters that manage to take off could face dire odds in the air. China can sortie hundreds more planes than Taiwan can do.

It’s for those reasons that some experts have proposed Taipei take a different approach to defending its air space. Rather than trying to match China fighter-for-fighter—an impossibility given China’s much bigger economy—Taiwan should exploit “asymmetric” advantages, they’ve advised.

Field long-range missiles and bombard Chinese airfields. Hide surface-to-air missile batteries in the mountains. Deploy swarms of drones.

But Taipei seems determined to operate manned fighters, even if they might not last long in wartime. Taiwan is spending billions of dollars to buy new F-16s, build locally designed light fighters and work up blueprints for a future jet.

Combined, these efforts could cost $12 billion. And it would cost billions more for Taiwan actually to build the future fighter.

Today the ROCAF possesses around 300 front-line fighters, including a couple dozen F-5s, a hundred or so F-16As, slightly fewer than 50 Mirage 2000s and around 100 locally-produced F-CK-1s.

An additional 100 jets belonging to training squadrons could, in an emergency, fly combat missions.

The fighter fleet is growing old. Taiwan’s humid climate isn’t helping—corrosion is a constant problem. To refresh the fleet, Taipei in 2020 signed an $8 billion deal with Washington for 66 new F-16Vs. Lockheed Martin also will help Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation, Taiwan’s state plane-maker, to upgrade the older F-16As to the new standard.

Meanwhile, AIDC is building at least 66 AT-5 combat-capable trainers based on the F-CK-1. The AT-5 is slightly bigger and more capacious than the F-CK-1 is and boasts composite airframe components. But its American F124 engines lack afterburners, a performance downgrade that could limit its usefulness in wartime.

The F-16V and AT-5 together represent a modest capability boost for the ROCAF. Aiming for a more profound air-power upgrade, Taipei in 2017 launched a $2 billion effort to design a new fighter—and its engines.

National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology is doing the design work. AIDC would manufacture the new plane. According to recent comments by NCSIST President Chang Chung-Chung, the blueprints and the new F125XX engine—an up-rated F124—should be ready in 2024.

We don’t know for sure what the new fighter might look like. The ROCAF has taken an evolutionary approach to domestic fighter design. F-16Vs are replacing F-16As. The F-CK-1 is the basis for the AT-5. To keep down cost and risk, NCSIST could further evolve the F-CK-1, perhaps by improving its sensors and flight-control systems and adding the F-125XX engine.

But one leaked document hints that Taipei’s designers want the next fighter to have a new wing. In 2016, screenshots of a ROCAF briefing circulated online. It includes a rendering of a fighter concept that appears to combine the nose and cockpit of an F-CK-1 with a tailless delta wing similar to that on the Mirage 2000.

A delta wing could lend the new fighter greater range and manoeuvrability. But it almost certainly would be more expensive and, for AIDC, harder to build. Is it worth it to spend extra billions on planes that might get blown up on the ground five minutes after war breaks out?

Of course, that same question applies to any Taiwanese warplane, regardless of how low-tech or high-tech it is.