Top Taiwanese Assets for a Cross Straits Air War: From F-16s to Sky Sword and Sky Bow Missiles

Taiwan’s armed forces have since the early 1990s faced an increasingly unfavourable balance of power against the fast growing capabilities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the mainland, with massive investments in military modernisation being made on the other side of the Taiwan Strait against which Taipei’s smaller defence sector and import-reliant frontline inventory have been unable to compete. Beijing and Taipei have been technically in a state of civil war for over 70 years, with both claiming to be the sole legitimate government of the Chinese nation. Only the mainland government is recognised as legitimate by the United Nations, however, with all but 15 UN member states officially supporting this position. Should hostilities resume, the most critical aspect of a war for control of the Taiwan Strait is expected to be the war in the air, with both the mainland and Taiwan having invested heavily in air defence and missile capabilities with the intention of gaining air superiority over the contested strait, and afterwards over Taiwan itself, in the opening stages of a war. A look at some of Taiwan’s most capable air assets is given below, and is critical to assessing Taipei’s ability to deny the PLA air superiority in a war’s opening stages. 

E-2 Hawkeye 

Taiwan signed a contract to acquire four E-2T Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft in May 1993, with a further two sold six years later. The Hawkeye is prized for its ability to deploy from short runways, and for its powerful sensors which allow it to detect over 2000 targets simultaneously, provide early warning of potential threats at extreme ranges and even guide air to air missiles fired by friendly fighters towards their targets. This is facilitated by the strength of its massive and powerful radar. Taiwan’s air force, officially the Republic of China Air Force, established the Airborne Early Warning and Electronic Warfare Squadron specifically to operate the Hawkeyes, and the aircraft provide an effective complement to the F-16 and Ching Kuo fighters which form the backbone of the Taiwanese fleet. The aircraft are expected to be high priority targets for the PLA in the event of a cross strait war. Their size and lack of manoeuvrability, however, makes them extremely vulnerable to long ranged assets such as the 40N6 surface to air missiles deployed by PLA S-400 batteries which retain coverage of all of Taiwanese territory when deployed near the Chinese coast and strike at over 14 times the speed of sound.

Sky Sword 2

One of the world’s only active air to air missiles capable of reaching speeds over Mach 5, the Sky Sword II was developed domestically as an answer to the PLA’s PL-12 air to air missile and retains a 100km range. The Taiwanese missile has the advantage of a higher speed than its American, Russian and Chinese counterparts, and the less costly than the slower and less capable American AIM-120C and French MICA missiles deployed by Taiwan's imported fourth generation fighters. The missile has been integrated onto Taiwan’s Ching Kuo and reportedly also its F-5E jets. The design is likely to continue to be improved on, and an enhanced variant is expected to be integrated onto the Brave Eagle, a ‘4+ generation’ fighter, a heavier successor to the Ching Kuo, in the near future. The new fighter’s larger and more sophisticated AESA radar leaves open the potential for integration of far longer ranged missiles. 

Tian Kung 3

A Taiwanese equivalent to the American Patriot missile system, the Tian Kung (Sky Bow) was developed in collaboration with American defence producer Raytheon. The platform’s original Chang Bai S-band radar system is reportedly based on the Lockheed Martin's ADAR-HP. The design has been modernised extensively since it first entered service in 1989, and the latest variant the Sky Bow 3 was designed specifically to engage high speed low radar cross section targets at long ranges of up to 200km. The platform relies on a highly sophisticated Chang-Shan 4–8 GHz frequency radar capable of providing target guidance illumination at long ranges. The platform complements other Taiwanese air defence systems such as the Antelope and Sky Bow II to provide an integrated multi layered defence network. With Taiwan's airfields expected to be neutralised in a war's opening stages, and its air force relying on relatively old fourth generation combat aircraft, the deployment of modern air defence systems provide an asymmetric means of tackling challenges from the mainland. The PLA has notably fielded an increasingly sophisticated fleet of electronic attack aircraft designed specifically for suppression of enemy air defences, most notably the J-16D which entered service in 2021, which is particularly dangerous for Taiwan due to its reliance on such defences. 

F-16V and F-16 Block 70/72

An improvement on the venerated original F-16 design, which entered service over four decades ago in 1978, the F-16V is equipped with modern avionics and electronic warfare systems and a powerful Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar providing far greater situational awareness, a lower radar signature and lower susceptibility to electronic warfare. Alongside the upcoming indigenous Brave Eagles, the F-16V will form the elite of Taiwan’s Air Force from the mid 2020s with approximately 120 older F-16A/B fighters set to be upgraded to this standard. A further 66 newly produced F-16s were ordered in 2019, the F-16 Block 70/72, which boast similar advanced avionics to the F-16V but use more modern airframe designs. The F-16 Block 70/2 notably does not improve on the flight performances or the radar cross sections of the original F-16s, and are less manoeuvrable due to the added weight of new subsystems. The fighter notably costs 50% more per unit than the Su-35 ‘4++ generation’ fighter purchased from Russia by the PLA, a far heavier platform from a different league which outperforms the F-16 across the spectrum. The F-16 Block 70/72 purchase is widely reported to have been made as a political decision to guarantee continued American support for Taiwan, and not because it was the most cost effective choice for the territory’s defence.

Hsiung Feng III

The Hsiung Feng (Brave Wind) III entered service in the late 2000s as a a precision guided intermediate ranged ballistic missile, and carries a small 225kg warhead. The platform is capable of engaging targets up to 1500km away, although its relatively slow and basic design leaves it vulnerable to being neutralised by the PLA’s multi layered air defence network. Should it be able to penetrate this network however, the Hsiung Feng will be able to neutralise airfields and air defence sites such as missile batteries and radar installations in the mainland's southeastern regions - undermining PLA defences and potentially compensating for other Taiwanese disadvantages in a potential future air war. The ability to threaten airbases and potentially ground a portion of the PLA's air fleet could be a game changer for the balance of power in the air, although ultimately the relatively small numbers of missiles fielded, their limited survivability and the strength of PLA's sophisticated multilayered air defence network means the missile may not have a significant impact.

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