Taiwan goes local to build supersonic training jet

President Tsai Ing-wen (centre) and Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan (second from right) attending a ceremony for Taiwan's first homemade advanced jet trainer programme in Taichung yesterday.
President Tsai Ing-wen (centre) and Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan (second from right) attending a ceremony for Taiwan's first homemade advanced jet trainer programme in Taichung yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

It will build 66 jets to replace air force's ageing planes; first prototype in 2019

Taiwan will start building its own supersonic training jets to boost the island's air capabilities.

It will produce 66 training jets at a cost of NT$68.6 billion (S$3.13 billion), to replace the ageing locally-made AT3 trainers and US-made F5 fighters that rookie fighter jet pilots in Taiwan's air force have been using for more than 30 years.

The jets will be developed jointly by the Defence Ministry, research body National Chung-shan Institute of Science and Technology Institute and government-owned manufacturer Aerospace Industrial Development Corp.

The consortium will roll out the training jet's first prototype in 2019, with the first plane to take to the sky a year later. The whole fleet is expected to be completed by 2028.

This comes nearly 30 years after Taiwan started building the Indigenous Defence Fighter (IDF) in the 1990s, which till today forms the backbone of its air defence. Taiwan stopped producing its own planes, partly due to cost, after delivering the final batch of IDF in 1999.

President Tsai Ing-wen, who was at a ceremony in Taichung where the air force and the institute inked the deal yesterday, said Taiwan's jet-making capabilities have stagnated in the last 30 years and its aerospace industry has fallen behind that of many others.

She said: "We do not have another 30 years to waste. Now, the government must firmly lead the people, to redevelop our defence industry."

According to local media, Taiwan had previously been in talks with Italian jet-maker Alenia Aermacchi to buy its M-346 advanced jet trainers, which are used by Singapore's rookie pilots. But Taiwan has since decided to develop its own.

As part of her plan to create jobs and restructure the economy, Ms Tsai had promised during her presidential campaign to revitalise the local defence industry.

Besides boosting technological know-how, the push to go local will also allow knowledge transfer to other local defence firms, she said.

"Defence spending is not just spending money. Defence equipment manufacturing, procurement, maintenance, upgrades... Each can be combined with the industry to create the maximum efficiency," said Ms Tsai.

Taiwan's latest military move comes amid rising tensions with China, which has rattled the island's nerves with increasingly assertive actions to bolster sovereignty claims over Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province.

China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, recently sailed around Taiwan, prompting the island to scramble fighter jets and navy ships.

In view of this, Taiwan has not only bought American military hardware, but also looked to boost its firepower. Besides the IDF, Taiwan has produced high-tech hardware such as armoured fighting vehicles, warships and long-range cruise missiles in the last 30 years.

Security analyst Li Da-jung said while it may be cheaper and quicker to buy weapons off the shelf, being self-sufficient and developing home-grown technologies will give Taiwan "strategic advantage".

"We don't have to always rely on foreign products and the whims of other countries because the day when people no longer want to sell or provide logistical or maintenance support in the future, we will be in trouble," said Associate Professor Li, director of Tamkang University's Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwan goes local to build supersonic training jet'. Print Edition | Subscribe