Chinese intrusions into the Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) have become a regular occurrence now. The unprovoked aggression has become an everyday phenomenon with an identical modus operandi.
The western support to Taiwan has further irked Beijing that considers the self-governing island as an inalienable part of the mainland and has pledged reunification. After Taiwan’s F-16 Viper crash yesterday, several questions are raised about possible China factors behind it.
According to commentators, the crash of one of Taiwan’s most advanced fighter jets during a routine rehearsal indicates issues with pilot training and fatigue from responding to frequent PLA sorties.
The F-16V pilot, Chen Yi had, reportedly turned on the speaker key throughout the flight, limiting his communication with air command, according to an initial assessment. Military analysts and air force veterans believe that he mistook the button for a slow-down key, the Taiwanese media reported.
“The Taiwanese air force needs to adjust its training program and standards to keep pace with the mainland”, Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review said.
According to the air force, Chen, the missing pilot, had more than 300 hours of flight time, including 60 hours in the F-16V.
Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy, said Taiwanese air force student pilots would not participate in such a practice until they had logged more than 100 hours of flight time. Pilots with less experience, on the other hand, had to step up in the face of rising Chinese aerial incursions into the island’s ADIZ.
“The accident should be blamed on the lack of pilots available to meet the demands of the growing number of fighter jets Taipei plans to buy from the United States – young pilots are being pushed to step up training,” Lu said.
Taiwan had commissioned the F-16 Viper jets under an upgrade program with Lockheed Martin to fight the PLA Air Force challenge. China’s repeated intrusions along with its assertions regarding reunification pose the biggest threat to Taiwan’s security in decades.
China's air incursions into Taiwan's airspace continue.
5 military planes from #Beijing have entered Taiwan's ADIZ.
This is the ninth intrusion in January, Taiwan's defenses immediately activated by sending Taiwanese fighter jets into the area#BreakingNews pic.twitter.com/OnVp07GSPZ
— Informazione Alternativa (@InformazioneA) January 12, 2022
China’s warplanes enter Taiwan’s ADIZ on a regular basis, with about nine of them having entered just two days ago. Further, two spotter planes entered the air space today, according to Taiwan News. Chinese military planes entered the Taiwanese ADIZ 961 times in 239 days the Liberty Times quoted the Ministry of National Defense (MND) as saying.
The fatigue and lack of training in pilots who are flying the Vipers is being flagged by military analysts as one reason behind the crash. The stress posed by the urgency to ward off any Chinese threat has become the only basis of most sorties in Taiwan.
In the face of rising adventurism and fewer pilots to fly the newly inducted aircraft, the fatigue and stress on pilots becomes perceptible.
Cadet pilots were operating earlier generation planes like the F-5Es, which had quite different flight control systems than the modern F-16s, according to Lu, and younger pilots needed additional training to make the shift, said SCMP.
Ben Ho, an airpower researcher from the military studies program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the PLA’s “encirclement flights” over Taiwan have become more frequent in recent months, exhausting the island’s air force workers and causing them to reduce maintenance levels that the F-16 require.
Crash of Taiwan’s best fighter
On January 11, a Taiwanese F-16V (Viper) fighter jet that had recently been modified went missing during a training mission over the sea. According to Taiwan’s air force, the F-16V fighter lost contact with the airbase in southwestern Taiwan.
According to Taiwan’s air force, the F-16V jet crashed into waters east of the island shortly after taking off from Chiayi Air Force Base.
1 #ROCAF #F16 disappeared from radar yesterday in Chiayi. Minister Chiu was briefed on the search effort's progress, expressed condolence to the family of the pilot, Capt. Yi Chen, on President Tsai's behalf, and promised that the rescue parties will leave no stone unturned. pic.twitter.com/bG5dJt9WZm
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) January 12, 2022
The accident happened during a training exercise to replicate a high-speed dive-bombing air-to-ground attack, which is a difficult part of the program for inexperienced pilots, according to SCMP.
The jet crashed into the water near Aogu Wetland in Chiayi’s Dongshi Township, according to eyewitnesses. A spokeswoman for Taiwan’s presidential office verified the news, saying that search and rescue operations had been carried out, as previously reported by the EurAsian Times.
Further, Taiwan has now suspended all combat training after the crash. The F-16 Viper that resulted in a dreadful crash had been inducted only a little over a month ago and has reportedly been chasing and facing the PLAAF combat aircraft that regularly enter the Taiwanese airspace.
— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) November 18, 2021
The modified “V” aircraft entered service in November, with new armaments and flight control systems, but Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Kanwa Defence Review in Canada, believes the island’s pilot training program and standards may not have kept up.
The Upgraded ‘Vipers’
The plane that went missing on Tuesday was one of 141 F-16A/B fighter planes converted to the current F-16V as part of a $4 billion deal between the Taiwanese air force and Taiwanese plane manufacturer Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) with Lockheed Martin, as stated by the EurAsian Times.
In November 2021, the Republic of China Air Force received 64 advanced F-16V “Viper” aircraft. Taiwan’s most modern fighter jet squadron, these planes are expected to strengthen the country’s defensive capabilities. Taiwan wants to modernize all of its 141 F-16 A/B fighter planes by the end of 2023.
The Taiwanese air force has ordered 66 new F-16Vs with enhanced electronic equipment, weapons, and radar systems to bolster Taiwan’s capability in combating mainland China’s People’s Liberation Army, particularly the J-20 stealth fighter. The planes are slated to be delivered by the end of next year.
The Viper features more weaponry, greater electronic warfare systems, precise GPS navigation, and the capacity to avoid collisions on its own. The F-16V’s landing gear is more powerful, allowing it to carry more fuel and weapons. The AGM-84 Harpoon, AGM-88 HARM, AGM-154 JSOW, and SLAM-ER missiles are also included in the package.
The SLAM-ER missiles are a powerful long-range precision-strike weapon with a range of roughly 170 miles. This is the first weapon of its kind to have an operational ‘Automatic Target Acquisition’ capability, allowing it to automatically fly to its target using only GPS inputs.
So while the aircraft remains the most advanced fighter in the Taiwanese arsenal and capable of facing off with the PLAAF, the expert opinions around inadequate training and stress in pilots due to frequent intrusions being a major reason behind the crash could hold water.