TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) – If any war were to break out between the US and China, one trigger may be the increasingly frequent fighter-jet encounters near Taiwan.
Almost every day, Taiwanese fighter pilots hop in their American-made F-16s to intercept Chinese warplanes screaming past their territory. The encounters probe the island’s defences and force pilots on both sides to avoid mistakes that could lead to a crisis that spins out of control.
“I didn’t know whether they would fire at me,” said retired Colonel Mountain Wang, recounting a tense five-minute confrontation he had with People’s Liberation Army jets more than a decade ago. “You have to be highly alert, and not lead to any accident with unintended consequences.”
The risk is even higher now, and not just because China is sending more jets with more experienced pilots ever closer to the main island of Taiwan. On Wednesday (Aug 3), China deployed 22 warplanes across the US-imposed median line over the Taiwan Strait, the most since Taiwan’s military began disclosing data in 2020.
The sorties were part of a flurry of military exercises that China held around Taiwan in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s landmark trip to Taipei earlier this week. China fired 11 missiles into waters near the island on Thursday, with Japan saying late on Thursday that it estimated some of those missiles flew over Taiwan – which would be a new first.
But a longer-term problem for Taiwan’s military is its dire shortage of pilots. While Taipei is protected by a relatively large and modern fleet of fighter jets, the democratically governed island could need as many as 50 years at the current rate to train enough pilots to fill the cockpits of the jets they expect to get by the middle of this decade.
Taiwan might not have that kind of time. American military commanders estimate Chinese President Xi Jinping may have the capability to take action across the Taiwan Strait in as soon as five years, and the daily incursions are wearing down Taiwan’s pilots and the jets they fly.
The shortage illustrates the limits of Taipei’s reliance on purchases of US military hardware to deter the threat of invasion by Beijing, which claims the island as its own territory. Taiwan will need to add at least 100 more pilots by 2026 to operate the 66 more advanced Lockheed Martin F-16Vs that President Tsai Ing-wen agreed to buy two years ago.
The Air Force only netted 21 new F-16 pilots from 2011 to 2019, according to data compiled by the Taiwan People’s Party.
“Taiwan has put a lot of emphasis on military preparation,” said Mr Jang Chyi-lu, a TPP lawmaker. “A bigger problem, though, is who can fly the planes?”
Ukraine’s own months-long struggle to turn back Russia’s invasion has highlighted the challenge facing Taiwan’s strategic planners.
Although Kyiv has received a huge influx of Western-made military hardware, it has also benefited from having a large reserve of relatively well-trained military personnel.
Taiwan’s effort to attract and train more pilots has been thwarted by a series of factors, from the island’s declining birth rate to several high-profile crashes.
About 80 per cent of university students in Taiwan have myopia, due to long classroom hours and high-levels of screen time on electronic devices.