Lease F-35s to Taiwan to Counter China's Threats | Opinion

The United States cannot stand by and watch as China steps up its aggressive behavior toward Taiwan. While sending a high-level official to Taiwan for the first time since Washington broke off diplomatic relations with the island nation in 1979 is a positive step, Taiwan needs a greater commitment by the United States. A key element of that commitment could be to make the F-35 stealth fighter available to Taiwan. Currently, the U.S. restricts sale of the fighters in part because of concerns about the Taiwanese Air Force's ability to fly them, and in part out of concern over the response of the mainland Chinese government.

The first issue can be addressed by training Taiwan's pilots in the U.S. and having F-35s on standby that can be transferred to Taiwan if an emergency requires them.

The second is a political problem, but one that can be overcome. In 2018, I visited Taiwan and addressed the National Defense University, the Prospect Foundation and the East Asia Peace Forum, where I said the U.S. should significantly upgrade its military support for Taiwan. I proposed having a standby force of F-35's in the U.S. that either would belong to Taiwan or be leased to Taiwan. That force would be available to respond to any retaliation by mainland China.

Taiwan does not presently have stealth aircraft. Taipei has 140 old F-16s which are in the process of being upgraded, and will get 66 of a more modern version of the jets known as the F-16V (Viper), which has a smaller radar signature. However, the Vipers will not be delivered until about 2026, meaning that for at least the next five years, Taiwan will have to rely on the older planes. There have been some delays in the upgrade program, but if the schedule is kept, Taiwan will have approximately 50 upgraded F-16's by the end of 2020. Given that Taiwan would otherwise spend a huge amount of money on the upgrades and new aircraft, an F-35 lease also makes financial sense.

Beijing already has access to a variety of advanced jets. The Russians have touted their Su-35 jet fighter, a 4++ platform already delivered to China, as far superior to the F-16 (although the Russians are careful not to say which model of the F-16 over which they are claiming superiority.)

stealth jets
A B-2 Stealth Bomber flies alongside F-35 fighter jets over the Hudson River during the Fourth Of July Military Flyover on July 4, 2020 in New York City. Gotham/GC Images/Getty

China also has stealth jets, most importantly the Chengdu J-20, which went into service in 2017 and into full production as the J-20B last July. China added Thrust Vector Control (TVC)—the ability to redirect the thrust of the engine and make the aircraft extremely agile—in the jet's production model. The Russian Su-35 and the upcoming Su-57 have TVC. The F-16 does not. Neither does the F-35, which depends on its long-range air-to-air Beyond Visual Range missiles and its claimed invisibility to radar to give it a combat edge.

Chinese planes have been flying aggressively around Taiwan, crossing an agreed-upon but invisible line in the middle of the Taiwan Straits called the Air Defense Identification Zone. To date, Beijing has not deployed the J-20 on those missions. However, on September 26, a J-20 was seen operating in Quzhou, in Zhejiang province, about 500 km from Taiwan. Whether the presence of the J-20 had anything to do with Taiwan is purely speculative, but the Taiwanese saw it as a threat. Meanwhile, the aircraft flying around Taiwan are the Chinese H6 bomber (based on the Russian Tu-16 but modernized), and the J-10, J11 and J-16 fighter aircraft. The J-10 is a knockoff of the F-16, and the J-10B has an AESA radar (like the upcoming upgraded Taiwan F-16's). The J-11 is a knockoff of the Russian Su-27, a twin-engine aircraft originally built in China from Russian kits but now improved and locally manufactured. The J-16 is a multi-role strike aircraft based on the Su-30MKK from Russia.

Taiwan needs a short takeoff and landing aircraft that can operate from roads and improvised airfields, since most of its airports are vulnerable to missile strikes from China. Many countries have dedicated highway strips but few have aircraft capable of short takeoff and landing. However, the F-35B is the world's first supersonic short takeoff/vertical landing stealth aircraft. It is perfect for Taiwan and has sufficient range for the island's protection. The U.S. Marines already have F-35Bs based at Iwakuni, Japan, and have an island-hopping strategy that includes Okinawa, making support and future interoperability with Taiwan an important option if a conflict happens.

And, if conflict breaks out, with leased F-35Bs, the U.S. and Taiwan would both be ahead of the game. Training Taiwanese pilots on the F-35 in the United States would provide a cadre of top-gun pilots. But making the political decision to support a fleet of F-35s in the United States dedicated to Taiwan will test America's mettle as much as that of Taiwan.

A training and lease program for Taiwan sends a series of strong messages to China. First, that the U.S. is prepared to meet aggressive Chinese behavior with the movement of F-35's to Taiwan. Second, that training and exercises will be kept away from China's spies, adding to Taiwan's security. Finally, that any preemptive attack by China to try to eliminate the F-35's in Taiwan won't work, because they won't be on the island.

As a result, a U.S. program like the one proposed here would help stabilize security in East Asia.

Stephen Bryen served as a Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and founder and first Director of the Defense Technology Security Administration. For five years he was a Commissioner on the US-China Economic and Security Commission. After his Pentagon service, Dr. Bryen was president of Finmeccanica North America (now Leonardo).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.