Cost of Taiwan’s ageing Mirage jets in spotlight again as fighter goes missing

Island struggling to maintain more expensive French aircraft amid budget squeeze, observers say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 10:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 1:54pm

The suspected crash of yet another of Taiwan’s French fighter jets has again focused attention on the rising maintenance costs of the ageing aircraft and Taipei’s shrinking defence budget.

Taiwan’s air force grounded all of its Mirage jets after a single-seat Mirage 2000 disappeared from the radar 34 minutes after take-off on Tuesday night from a base in Hsinchu across the Taiwan Strait from Fujian province during a routine training exercise, air force deputy commander Lieutenant General Chang Che-ping said on Wednesday.

“The military will continue searching day and night until the pilot is safely rescued. There is no so-called golden 72-hour limit,” Chang said, referring to the window for finding a pilot alive.

The pilot, Ho Tzu-yu, joined the air force more than a decade ago and had 227 hours of flight time in Mirages, but there was no indication Ho had ejected, the Central News Agency reported.

Taiwan grounds all Mirage jets after pilot goes missing during exercise

It is the sixth major accident involving Mirages since Taiwan bought 60 of the aircraft from France two decades ago. In that time, 10 per cent of the jets have crashed.

Military analysts said a lack of maintenance on the aircraft might be a major cause of the crashes, as more of the island’s shrinking defence budget was earmarked for US weapons.

Beijing-based military observer Zhou Chengming said the accident exposed Taipei’s focus on US systems at the expense of the more costly French jets.

“It is sacrificing the higher cost of upgrading and maintaining Mirage fighters because of its limited military budget,” Zhou said.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force also considered buying some of the jets in the 1980s but abandoned the idea after realising that it did not have the capacity to transfer French technology to make them itself at the time, Zhou said.

Beijing later opted for Soviet technology and developed its own versions of Moscow’s MiG-21 and Su-27.

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Taiwan also developed its own F-CK-1 indigenous defence fighters in the 1980s with the help of the United States but shelved the project after it bought more advanced US F-16s and the Mirage fighters.

But calls have grown over the past decade for Taipei to decommission the Mirages because they are expensive to maintain and need to be replaced.

Taipei will spend nearly NT$13 billion (US$430 million) upgrading its 144 F-16s in the next five years, but a squeeze on the defence budget means nothing has been set aside for Mirage upgrades. In all, the island’s defence budget is equivalent to just 1.84 per cent of the island’s GDP, the lowest proportion in four years.

In December, Taiwan’s then deputy defence minister Lee Hsi-ming dismissed suggestions that the Mirages should be decommissioned but acknowledged that the parts and supplies needed to maintain them were more expensive than those needed for the indigenous aircraft and the F-16s.

Earlier, Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Asian Defence, cited a Taiwanese air force source as saying that the cost of Mirage spare parts was on average at least double that for the F-16.

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And Mirage 2000-5 fighters used up to 1.5 times as much fuel as F-16s, he said.

Former Taiwanese defence minister Andrew Yang Nien-dzu said Taiwan’s security strategy was defensive rather than offensive and it had the aircraft it needed.

“The mainland has more warplanes in both quantity and quality than Taipei, but Taiwan’s air force has never wanted to compete with the PLA Air Force,” Yang said. “Taiwan is small and the number of warplanes it has now is enough to safeguard our territory in case of attack.”