A key aspect of U.S. foreign and security policy is to build the capacity of partner nations to undertake their own defense. The importance of pursuing this goal is clearly demonstrated by the air campaign in Libya. Of the 15 nations other than the United States participating in the Libyan operation, more than half of them are flying U.S.-made combat aircraft, a combination of F-16 C/Ds and F/A-18s. A number also have provided American C-130s and C-17s to support air operations. The NATO alliance is operating three U.S.-built AWACS command and control aircraft in order to direct air operations. Without the U.S. investment in allied air power, the Libyan operation would be reduced to a handful of countries, primarily the U.S., France and the U.K. It would have been impossible to turn enforcement of the Libyan no-fly zone over to NATO.
Building partner capacity is the key to a more equitable division of responsibilities between the United States and its friends and allies in regions of interest, as well as a less-dominant role for the United States in ensuring regional security in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Allies that can defend their own borders, coasts and air space are less likely to call on the U.S. in times of trouble. Moreover, more capable allies are better able to deter aggression, thereby reducing the likelihood that the United States will be called on to act on their behalf. When building capacity includes foreign sales of U.S. military hardware there are the additional advantages that ensue as the result of collaborative training and exercises, common maintenance practices and the creation of pools of spare parts. There also are the obvious industrial base and balance of payments benefits of selling U.S. military hardware to trusted friends and allies.
Taiwan is a close and enduring ally seeking to enhance its self-defense capacity. Since its founding in 1949, Taiwan has relied on the United States to provide it with key military hardware necessary to its security. A guiding principle of U.S. policy towards Taiwan is that of ensuring a balance of military capabilities across the Taiwan Straits. To that end, over the past several decades, the United States has provided Taiwan with F-16 fighters, P-3 Orion antisubmarine warfare aircraft, CH-47 heavy lift helicopters, AH-64 Apache helicopters, Kidd-class destroyers and Patriot air/missile defense systems.
Over the past decade, an imbalance of military power has developed across the Taiwan Straits. China has pursued a large-scale military buildup including the deployment of hundreds of ballistic missiles, attack submarines and advanced fighter and attack aircraft in the region opposite Taiwan. At the same time, Taiwan’s military capability has eroded. The most significant area of growing disadvantage for Taiwan is in combat aircraft. While China is deploying large numbers of fourth-generation combat aircraft, Taiwan’s fleet of F-16 A/Bs and, more significantly, F-5s is becoming obsolete. Taiwan has been pursuing development of an Indigenous Defensive Fighter (IDF) that has yet to produce a successful combat aircraft. As a consequence, Taiwan has come to the United States with a request that Washington reestablish a balance of airpower in the region by allowing Taiwan both to acquire additional F-16s and acquire the systems to modernize some 150 older-model F-16s.
Taiwan’s request for the sale of some 150 additional F-16 C/Ds has been languishing unanswered somewhere in the halls of the State Department. Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressing the importance of acting on Taiwan’s request to be provided the means to defend itself. In his letter, the Senator declared that “I am very concerned that if the Administration does not act favorably on Taiwan’s outstanding letter of request (LOR) for sales of F-16 C/D aircraft, Taiwan will be forced to retire all of its existing F-16 A/B aircraft in the next decade, leaving it with no credible air-to-air capability.” Senator Lugar went on to note that “replacement and augmentation of its existing fleet would not affect the qualitative and quantitative military balance in the region and would also, in turn, greatly assist the U.S. industrial base.”
At a time when the United States is still engaged in two wars and finding it difficult not to become engaged in other regional conflicts and crises, it makes eminent sense to do whatever it can to build the ability of friends and allies, our partners in regional security, to defend themselves better. In the case of Taiwan, this means providing that country with the requested F-16 C/Ds.
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