It's no secret that Taiwan wants the F-35, and especially the F-35B with its ability to operate from dispersed locales that normal fixed-wing fighters cannot. During the Obama administration, even allowing Taiwan to purchase late-block F-16s was deemed unacceptable under a highly controversial policy. Instead the country had to upgrade its old F-16As to a similar configuration. Although the Trump administration is rewriting the book when it comes to Taiwan-U.S. relations, F-35s are still seemingly off the table, but leased second-hand F-15C Eagles may not be.
It has been abundantly clear from early on that despite trying to woo the favor of China's President Xi Jinping, along with his help with the North Korea standoff, the Trump administration has no plans on sticking to established norms as to how it deals with Taiwan. Just this week Trump signed a travel bill that encourages direct visits to Taiwan by U.S. officials, which infuriated China, who subsequently warned against deepening military ties between Taipei and the United States. Part of this changing relationship will likely involve the U.S. offering up more advanced weaponry to Taiwan than in the past.
Taiwanese news outlet Up Media was first to report on the potential offering, describing it as a compromise solution between exporting a new fighter to Taiwan, like an advanced Strike Eagle derivative, or even the F-35, and denying Taiwan any additional upgrades in tactical air power fleet. The piece describes what sounds like ex-USAF F-15C/Ds that would be acquired under a lease arrangement with tight restrictions over how the aircraft would be employed and what modifications would be made to it.
The report notes that the Eagle is especially well-suited for intercept operations and can operate from shorter fields, not to mention its large missile load and plentiful range. Taiwan isn't only facing an ever increasing threat from advanced Chinese air power, but that threat is emanating from an expanding geographic area.
China can now approach from the country's east via Beijing's carrier-based fighters. Long-range bomber patrols around the island, which are still something of a new concept, have increased substantially as well, turning Taipei's strategic gaze in multiple directions. Currently the Republic of China Air Force flies a mix of F-16A/Bs, Mirage 2000s, F-5s, and F-CK-1 lighter-weight indigenous fighters—none of which possess the range, magazine depth, radar reach, or raw kinematic performance as the F-15.
As for how such a deal would be executed logistically, the question is where would the F-15s come from? There are roughly 100 F-15Cs and a small handful of F-15Ds currently in storage at the Pentagon's aircraft boneyard in Tucson, Arizona. The majority of these aircraft are beyond their service lives and would require structural enhancements or some sort of intensive inspection regime to keep them in the air reliably.
But under a lease deal, giving the jets some structural upgrades could be factored into the price. Other upgrades could be installed at that time as well, although it isn't clear if the State Department would clear the installation of APG-63V3 Active Electronically Scanned Array radars onto the jets.
That radar set is widely regarded as the most powerful fighter-borne AESA array in the world. The country's F-16A/Bs will also be getting a smaller but still highly capable AESA array during their upgrade process. If the Taiwan's notional Eagles had upgraded radars as well it would go a long way when it comes to balancing the playing field between Taiwan and China, at least qualitatively, and would be especially useful for detecting and engaging low-flying cruise missiles which are a massive threat to Taiwan.
On the other hand, the F-15C/D's future within the ranks of the USAF is not fully assured. Last year there was considerable thought put into retiring the USAF's fleet of around 200 F-15C/Ds and replacing them with upgraded F-16s. That controversial initiative was put to bed for the time being, but it seems somewhat clear that the USAF would have to invest big money to re-winging some or all of the fleet beginning in the late 2020s. Other structural enhancements, like replacing the jet's infamous longerons around its cockpit section, would have to occur sooner.
Then just last week it was reported that the F-15C/D's much anticipated electronic warfare upgrade—the backbone of a new set of survivability and lethality enhancing features—has been cancelled. We can't stress enough how much of a red flag this move is for air superiority Eagle community's long-term viability.
With this in mind, if the USAF does retire the fleet in the coming years, some of these jets, many of which have the new radar, could be sent to Taiwan.
The possibility of selling F-15s to Taiwan surfaced before in a Lockheed Martin briefing to U.S. Pacific Command on enhancing the country's F-16 fleet that was obtained via FOIA. It makes it bluntly clear, at least in their opinion, that Boeing wouldn't dare sell Eagles to Taiwan due to the company's vested interest in China which consumes a huge amount of its commercial aircraft and will be assembling them soon. But under a lease agreement, where the F-15s are furnished by the U.S. government, not Boeing, this would be a moot point.
Still, even though the Eagle offers outstanding capabilities, even in its earlier configurations, the F-35B that Taiwan really wants provides a whole other set of abilities. But stealth and advanced sensor fusion aren't really the jet's most important factor for Taipei, the fact that it can do what the Eagle simply cannot—takeoff and land from very short strips—is what makes it so attractive.
With that in mind, maybe providing Taiwan with AV-8B Harriers could be an additional compromise. We have talked at length how the USMC's Harrier fleet will become a hot commodity as it exits the Pentagon's inventory, but whereas other potential operators would want it for shipboard operations, Taiwan would want it for land-basing out of austere and widely dispersed locales during a crisis.
Currently a large portion of the USMC's Harrier force are made up of AV-8B+s which carry second-hand APG-65 radars which were pulled from Legacy Hornet's noses during an earlier upgrade of that jet. They still have a robust AIM-120 AMRAAM capability, but a Harrier with a compact AESA array could be a very capable anti-air weapon system, especially for cruise missile defense, that can also hide in the countryside. But above all else, the AV-8B would be able to strike maritime targets and provide high air-ground/surface sortie rates during a conflict.
So maybe the best solution for Taiwan, at least one that is politically possible at this time, is to lease second-hand Eagles as well as AV-8Bs when they come available. Eventually Taiwan can take what it has learned from short-takeoff and landing Harrier operations and roll it into the F-35B when it finally gets cleared to acquire them, which is likely still many years away.
In the end the idea of leasing Eagles to Taiwan is an intriguing one, albeit we have to wait and see if it actually is something that materializes. And the Harrier acquisition seems even more logical and obtainable, although it may be a bit more logistically challenging at this time.
We'll keep you informed as to how Taiwan's future fighter force shapes up in the age of the Trump administration's changing attitude towards a "one China" policy.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com