It is likely safe to assume that the Pentagon might consider an F-35 sale to Taiwan as potentially too provocative to the Chinese Communist Party.
However, the merits of such a move seem difficult to question.
Congress has yet to approve the sale of the F-35 to Taiwan, yet several key U.S. allies have quickly been adding the jet such as Poland, Germany, Finland, and Switzerland.
The multi-national community of F-35 partners is growing so quickly that some are starting to regard the F-35 as the 5th-gen stealth fighter for the free world. When specifically considering the Pacific, additional F-35s and 5th-generation aircraft could be extremely impactful as a deterrent.
It would make sense for Taiwan to operate F-35s in the region, alongside Singapore, Japan, Australia, and South Korea, given that 5th-generation air superiority is arguably the largest advantage the U.S. and its allies would have over China.
The Taiwanese interest is indeed there, as a report from The Diplomat from as far back as 2018 cites Taiwanese leaders expressing interest in acquiring the jet.
The People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) has built up and has been larger than the U.S. Navy for several years now, and the country is rapidly adding new carriers, high-tech destroyers, and submarines to its force. This is something that could massively increase threats to Taiwan, yet these forces are also platforms that could prove vulnerable to the F-35, particularly given that China does not appear to operate any kind of ocean-launched 5th-gen aircraft.
Along with China’s large and threatening high-tech Navy, massive stockpile of ballistic missiles, and large numbers of ground forces, the PRC seems to lack the ability to mass 5th-gen air power in a way that would challenge the U.S. and its allies.
Of course, China has the J-20, yet it must launch from land and, while the PRC Navy (PLAN) is developing the carrier-launched J-31 stealth fighter jet, it is unclear how far along the project is or if the aircraft can exist in impactful numbers.
J-20 Threat to Taiwan
A small island only 100 miles off the coast of China, Taiwan is within the attack range of China’s growing fleet of J-20s, yet it seems unlikely that China would be able to provide 5th-generation air superiority in support of any amphibious assault on Taiwan. Land or even ocean-launched F-35s could prove to be a decisive factor should Taiwan need to confront and stop a Chinese amphibious attack.
Conversely, it seems much more likely that U.S. and allied 5th-generation aircraft would be positioned to outmatch and destroy any Chinese air presence and essentially incinerate or destroy an attacking Chinese amphibious force.
Another possibility to consider is simply that the U.S. and its Southeastern Asian allies already have the 5th-generation air superiority necessary to outmatch China in the air. Japan has recently made a very large, multi-billion F-35 buy, Korea is already an F-35 partner and the U.S. Navy makes Pacific theater “forward presence” a huge priority.
For several years now, the Pentagon has ensured an increasingly large U.S. Navy Pacific footprint in support of the multi-service Pacific Pivot put into effect years ago.
This means that there will continue to be consistent Carrier Strike Group deployments to the Pacific theater, including war preparation exercises such as “dual carrier” training operations.
Also, existing big-deck amphibious assault ships can travel with up to 13 F-35Bs on board, meaning 5th-generation air power can be forward located in potentially impactful numbers to ensure air superiority in the event of an engagement with China.
Taiwan F-35 stop amphibious attack
Given these circumstances, perhaps the Pentagon may think it too provocative or potentially inflammatory to send F-35s to Taiwan, despite the fact that it would both make sense and be highly impactful. Perhaps the Pentagon simply wants to make sure F-35 technologies don’t fall into the wrong hands.
Arguably, not sending F-35s to Taiwan could be seen as a disconnect, because the Pentagon already sends missiles, helicopters, and even Abrams tanks to Taiwan. Abrams tanks could, in particular, slow down or potentially stop a Chinese amphibious landing and prevent the PLA from occupying territory or seizing ground ashore.
The F-35, however, could be seen as quite different than legacy platforms such as Apaches and tanks, as it is arguably something the People’s Republic of China could see as an aggressive move by the West and perhaps inspire or move the countries much closer to conflict.
Despite these risks, however, it does seem to make sense to send the F-35 to Taiwan, as it is an extremely credible deterrent. Beijing would likely think twice about attacking Taiwan if its amphibious assault force or aircraft had to encounter Taiwanese F-35s.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.