Key point: China's air force is far larger and advanced than Taiwan's.
Nearly a decade after first requesting them, the Taiwanese air force finally could get 66 new F-16 fighters to begin replacing some of its older fighter aircraft.
But the $8-billion fighter-acquisition, which the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump approved over strong objections from China, likely will do little to alter the overall balance of power across the Taiwan Strait.
China possesses hundreds of more modern fighters than Taiwan does. Sixty-six F-16s won’t change that. And Taipei already has begun to revamp its defensive strategy to de-emphasize the importance of conventional major weapons systems such as F-16s.
To counter China’s roughly 1,500 fighters, Taipei possesses around 400 fighters of its own including aging F-5s and Mirage 2000s, locally-made F-CK-1s and the survivors of 150 F-16As and Bs that the island country bought from the United States in 1992. In 2001 the Taiwanese government asked for 66 F-16Cs and Ds.
The administration of then-U.S. president George W. Bush rejected the request. A decade later Pres. Barack Obama also turned down the proposed purchase. As a consolation, Obama’s administration agreed to upgrade Taiwan’s older F-16s to the new “F-16V” standard with improved sensors.
Now Taipei is getting new-build “Block 70” F-16s that essentially are identical to F-16Vs. These new fighters could replace the 50 or so Mirage 2000s as well as a couple dozen old F-5s, leaving Taiwan with a force of around 200 F-16s plus and around 120 F-CK-1s.
But the modernization occurs just as fighters are beginning to matter less to Taiwan’s defense strategy. Drew Thompson explained the strategy in a 2018 article for War on the Rocks.
“Last year, Taiwan’s chief of the general staff Adm. Lee Hsi-ming quietly proposed a revolutionary new approach to Taiwan’s defense, called the Overall Defense Concept,” Thompson wrote. “This new concept, if effectively implemented, could turn the tables and give Taiwan a fighting chance of preventing China from being able to take it by force.”