The Pentagon’s recently enunciated Asia-Pacific posture has focused attention on the military needs of U.S. friends and allies in the Western Pacific. Because the U.S. has relatively few bases there and is operating thousands of miles from home, it must rely on local partners to carry much of the burden of maintaining peace in the region. That’s especially true with regard to the Republic of Korea, which has spent two generations facing the most bellicose, unpredictable dictatorship in the world across a tense border. Although South Korea’s economy has grown to a point where it is capable of greater burdensharing in containing the North, it relies heavily on the United States to sell it the kind of advanced military technology needed to provide a defensive edge. So when the Pentagon drags its heels on providing necessary upgrades, it is in effect undermining national strategy.
That seems to be the case right now with planned upgrades to South Korea’s fleet of 135 KF-16 fighters. Although the Republic of Korea Air Force will probably buy the stealthy F-35 fighter to assure future control of air space on the peninsula, it is supposed to take over missions from the U.S. Air Force in 2015 — long before any F-35s would be delivered, much less integrated into the South Korean force structure. So it needs to upgrade its KF-16s with state-of-the-art electronics, including a new radar. The existing radars on its fighters have limited functionality and must be steered mechanically rather than directing beams electronically, which means lots of moving parts that sometimes fail. The U.S. Air Force has a plan for equipping its own F-16s with so-called Advanced Electronically Scanned Arrays — cutting-edge radars — but it is progressing at such a leisurely pace that it can’t possibly meet South Korea’s requirements in a timely fashion.
U.S. policymakers need to find a way of upgrading the radars on South Korea’s fighters faster, otherwise the joint force could end up being dragged into another fight in Northeast Asia just as it is extricating itself from long-running campaigns in Southwest Asia. Nobody really knows what military moves might be made by North Korea’s increasingly desperate dictatorship, so waiting for the perfect solution on fighter upgrades could be real bad for regional security. As in the case of U.S. F-16s, the best approach is to upgrade fast using whatever gear meets operational requirements at an affordable price. We know a better fighter will be available soon, but a sturdy bridge is required to get the current fleet of legacy fighters to the point one or two decades from now when they are replaced by the F-35.
The situation in the Republic of China — Taiwan — is a bit different, but in the end it too comes down to how the United States can best assist a fellow democracy in upgrading its fighter force to deter aggression. The Obama Administration can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to fix aging F-16s already in Taiwan’s air force or supply new ones, but either way Taiwan needs the same kind of electronically-scanned radars that the Republic of Korea Air Force is seeking. Those radars would enable Taiwan’s military to accomplish a range of missions essential to protecting the island nation from invasion or coercion by the People’s Republic of China. If Washington is serious about partnering with the democracies of East Asia in protecting regional security, then the logical place to start is by selling them the technology they need so they don’t have to call on America every time a military challenge arises.
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