On a gloomy, storm-cast morning, Lieutenant Colonel Cheng Kuang Jen looks out over the runway, as two of his squadron’s fighter jets take off on their first patrol of the day.
His mood is as sombre as the weather.
The team leader of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing of Taiwan’s Air Force, he had been hoping for months that the US would approve the sale of a newer class of F16 jet fighter planes.
Instead, the Obama administration decided it would only, in a deal worth $5.85 billion, provide upgrades to the existing fleet.
Cheng believes the debate has been wrongly focused on the age of the island’s F16s.
“The F16s we have are not that old,” the Lt Col says. “What we need to replace are our F5s. I don’t understand why no one in America seems to be talking about that.”
You could put it on spin.
In announcing the upgrade, Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, focused his comments on how significant the package was.
“This retrofit programme will provide a substantial increase in the survivability, the reliability, and the overall combat capabilities of Taiwan’s 145 F16 A and B fighter aircraft.”
What he didn’t mention is the fact that Taiwan’s request for new F16 C and D fighters were to specifically replace the roughly 60 F5 jets that are already halfway through their third decade of service, and in desperate need of being retired (Taiwan’s current fleet of F16 A and Bs are only about 13 years old).
The case for such was made more pressing on September 15, when a twin-seater F5 fighter – along with an F5 reconnaissance plane – crashed into the mountains in northeastern Taiwan, killing three servicemen. It was the sixth flight mishap involving F5s in seven years.
Taiwan defence officials tell Al Jazeera that US decision-makers were made very much aware that the F5s had mostly been relegated to training and intelligence gathering missions due to their unreliability, which meant the overall number of fighters available for Taiwan’s defence was rapidly shrinking.
Relations with China fragile
This past week, Admiral Robert Willard, Chief of US forces in the Pacific, warned that the military balance had become heavily tilted in China’s favour, and that the “disparity in combat power” with Taiwan was growing.
Even though China and Taiwan are experiencing the warmest relations in decades, spurred by tourism and trade, the growing strength of China is a major concern for the island’s democratic government.
In July, its defence department issued a warning saying that in less than a decade, China would have acquired the abilities to overrun outlying islands, and successfully blockade Taiwan; meaning it could – if it so chooses – force a surrender.
China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, and has made no secret of its intentions to have it return to the “motherland”, sooner rather than later.
Seemingly emboldened with its fresh acquisition of a refurbished aircraft carrier, the domestic development of its J20 stealth fighter, and state-of-the-art ballistic missiles, China has appeared aggressive to its neighbours over such claims as to who owns the South China Sea.
Normally more timid, Taiwanese politicians are now speaking out against the US decision against the sale of new F16s.
“That will send a wrong message to Beijing that you can do whatever you can to mess with Taiwan,” said Andrew Yang, Taiwan’s deputy defence minister. “We certainly don’t want that kind of thing to happen in the future.”
For more than 30 years, Major General Shuai Hua Min participated in strategic talks with the US on the arms sales programme. He is also, in large part, responsible for helping modernise the ROC military in the mid-1990s. His criticism of the US is far more harsh and blames the Obama administration for not living up to its commitments, as set forth in US law, in a bill passed by Congress in 1979.
“The US has stopped following the consensus we’ve built. The unspoken rule used to be, when China upgraded its arms … America would help us balance the equation.”
Has the US bowed to Chinese pressure?
That certainly is the perception, says Admiral Willard. The US administration has had to weigh the cost of such decisions, as Obama has made an intense effort to deepen relations with China.
The deal, however, appears far from dead. Kurt Campbell did not dismiss a future sale.
And Congressional Republicans and Democrats who support the delivery of new fighters to Taiwan continue to push the issue. On Tuesday, a US congressional panel will question top officials as to why new jets were not included in the recent decision.
Careful always not to speak too loudly to anger China, nor to criticise the US too harshly for fear of biting the hand that defends it, Taiwanese politicians say they will lobby behind closed doors.
When asked about his personal views, Lt Col Cheng Kuang Jen is careful about saying too much. Having been trained to fly by the US military, he remains appreciative of America’s support to date, but adds: “As pilots, our lives depend on how good our hardware is. It also determines how well we protect our skies and our independence. Any new acquisitions would be well worth it.”
Follow Steve Chao on Twitter: @SteveChaoSC