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Vulnerable to Chinese Air Attack, Taiwan Signs Deal With US to Maintain Fighter Aircraft

FILE - A Taiwan Air Force Mirage 2000-5 aircraft prepares to land at Hsinchu Air Base in Hsinchu, Taiwan, April 11, 2023.
FILE - A Taiwan Air Force Mirage 2000-5 aircraft prepares to land at Hsinchu Air Base in Hsinchu, Taiwan, April 11, 2023.

Taiwan and the U.S. have signed two deals worth close to $420 million for maintaining fighter aircraft operated by the self-governing island that China considers its own territory.

Based on the agreement, around $323 million will be allocated for a parts contract that runs through March 2028, according to a local news report.

The smaller deal, which runs through June 2027, covers nonstandard parts and aviation materials. The deals were signed on Sunday.

Taiwan has relied on the U.S. for air defense capability to secure its airspace and prepare for a possible Chinese invasion. China has been ramping up military pressure in recent years to try to force the island to accept integration with mainland China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said on April 21 that Taiwan’s return to China is an integral part of the international order after World War II: “Once China’s land is recovered, it will never be lost again…anyone who plays with fire on the Taiwan issue will set himself on fire.”

The Washington Post on April 15 quoted confidential documents leaked from the Pentagon that Taiwan is unlikely to thwart Chinese military air superiority in a cross-strait conflict as its airfields and radar positions are all within the range of Beijing’s land-based missiles. According to the documents, just over half of Taiwan’s aircraft are fully mission capable and Taiwanese officials doubt the ability of their air defenses to “accurately detect missile launches.”

The documents also said Taiwan feared it could take days to move the planes to shelters, leaving them vulnerable to Chinese missiles.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense on April 16 said that the documents’ content did not conform to the facts.

Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs and distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University, told VOA Mandarin on April 20 at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, that air defense is going to be a huge problem for Taiwan as its airfields and radar are all within range of China’s land-based missiles.

Saunders said, “I think the general assessment is Taiwan’s Air Force is going to be out of the fight pretty quickly because the airfields are going to be gone, and if the Air Force hits the sky, they’re within range of Chinese surface-to-air missiles based on the mainland.”

Harry Halem, a senior fellow at Yorktown Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, told VOA Mandarin in an email on April 20 that the Taiwanese’s biggest issue is geographic.

Halem said, “Taiwan is densely populated with large cities, making it a hellish urban combat area, but it’s also very small, and therefore, (in theory) easy to blanket with reconnaissance elements to identify enemy targets.”

“Another major vulnerability of Taiwanese aircraft is their ability to be hit on the ground in a Chinese missile first strike,” he said. “The leaks and other information indicate that Taiwan doesn’t have the hardened aircraft shelters to protect its air force if it is caught on the ground, and given the numbers of Chinese aircraft, Taiwan could simply get overwhelmed.”

Chieh Chung, a researcher at the National Policy Foundation, a Taipei-based think tank, told VOA Mandarin that one of the main challenges for Taiwan’s Air Force is that airfields and early warning radar in western Taiwan are highly vulnerable to Chinese sabotage.

He told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview on April 21 that Taiwan’s air defense system, including various long-range radar, is still operating smoothly, and the effectiveness of the entire joint air defense is quite good. For example, when China launches a ballistic missile, Taiwan’s early warning radar provide at least seven minutes of early warning to the relevant anti-missile units.

“But the problem is that most of the long-range radar that make up our air defense system are in fixed positions. It is very likely that the effect of these long-range radar (positions) will be reduced after China’s first few waves of long-range ballistic missile attacks. If it starts to decrease significantly, it will affect the success rate of anti-aircraft missile interception,” he said.

And China has more air power than Taiwan. According to Global Firepower and Forces, the Chinese military has over 3,000 aircraft and nearly 400,000 people in its air force. Taiwan has slightly more than 700 aircraft in total and more than 30,000 air force troops.

Eric Chan, senior strategist at the United States Air Force, told VOA Mandarin that the largest air threats to Taiwan might come from large swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles or short-range ballistic missiles. In an email on April 20, he said in an invasion scenario, China could attempt to use mass firepower to suppress Taiwan’s defenders, gain air superiority, and, thus, overcome the disadvantage of attacking into challenging terrain.

Losing air supremacy would have severe consequences for Taiwan. Halem said that unless the United States and its allies can help Taiwan regain air supremacy, Taiwan may lose a Taiwan Strait war.

Chan said the U.S. could work with allies to provide Taiwan with more air defense systems and missiles, creating a multilayered, integrated air and missile defense system.

Chung believes that the U.S. still needs to share early warning information to help Taiwan carry out fighter jet transfers and consider selling AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missiles to Taiwan to prevent Chinese aircraft from entering the waters east of Taiwan, as well as providing F-35 fighters to respond to China’s attacks on airfields and runways.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.