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Why did Taiwan’s airforce urgently announce it had resumed flying? Expert: Taiwan’s air force personnel are already overstretched

Global Times

April 1, 2021

Taiwanese air force planes ceased flying across the board after two Taiwanese F-5E fighters collided and crashed. According to a report in Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) on March 30, Taiwan announced on that day that other than its F-5E’s, most of its fighters would resume flying before the end of March. This news again brought attention to the suspension of flights across a wide section of Taiwan’s air force. An expert has stated that in the past, subsequent to the crash of a Taiwan air force plane, only the model in question would cease flying. The fact that on this occasion flights had been suspended across the board exposes a series of problems in Taiwan’s air force.

The CNA report stated that on the night that two of Taitung’s Chihhang air force base’s single seated F-5E fighters collided and fell into the sea, the air force sent out a ‘special airworthiness inspection’ directive which stated that with the exception of aircraft tasked with monitoring PLAAF aircraft, all high speed and low speed aircraft types are to cease training and participating in exercises. The report said that the Taiwan Ministry of National Defence held a press conference on March 30 during which the air force’s “chief of staff” Huang Chih-wei stated that with the exception of the F-5 squadron garrisoned at Taidong’s Chihhang base, which were forecast to resume flying on April 6-7, the air force’s remaining aircraft, including F-16’s, Mirage 2000-5’s, IDF’s, C-130H and P3C aircraft, will be expected to have undergone inspections and resume normal operations within one or two days (prior to the end of the month). Huang explained that the F-5’s will take longer because in addition to maintenance, they will need to provide psychological counselling, and move step by step to have pilots resume flying only after it is ascertained that it is safe to do so.

Since 2020, Taiwan’s military has suffered a number of accidents which have resulted in the deaths of more than 10 personnel, and that have involved different types and models of aircraft. After almost each incident the military will suspend flights for the model involved, but very rarely will this extend across a wider scope of models. Mainland military affairs expert Zhang Xuefeng, in an interview with the Global Times, said that the suspension of flights virtually across the board in the wake of the F-5E crashes indicates that Taiwan’s military has identified a systemic problem, and that this has reached a fairly grave level. In recent years, after Taiwan’s military aircraft have had incidents, before the cause of the problem was revealed, only aircraft of the same model, or perhaps only those of the same squadron, would cease flying and undergo inspections in order to prevent other aircraft of that model being exposed to the same dangers.Zhang noted that the earliest news was that in this incident, and in the incident of October last year, the F-5E suffered ejection seat failures. The military was concerned that their ejection seats suffered flaws and decided to suspend flights across a wider range of models. But in reality, different fighters in Taiwan’s air force use different ejection seats, and C-130H and P-3C’s don’t have ejections seats. Henceforth, the inspection of ejection seats is not the problem for the more broadly encompassing suspension of flights.

Zhang argues that the suspension of all models reveals general, systematic and pervasive problems in Taiwan’s military. These problems have already manifest in this year’s publicly known crashes, however, he believes there have been more mishaps or causes of incidents than has been made public. Among them is not only technical issues related to the F-5E or inadequacies in the training of this squadron , but perhaps also irregularities and non compliance in training and maintenance across a wider spectrum, laxities in readiness and training, etc. This shows that overall morale, training and readiness in Taiwan’s air force are facing serious issues.

Suspensions of flights that are wide in scope and relatively long lasting will have a definite impact of pilot training. This is because flying skills need constant training to be maintained or heightened. If the lapse between flights extends beyond a certain time frame, then a pilot needs to undergo training and an assessment in order to resume flying, and this can create a degree of repetition in the level of training. This is why Taiwan’s military hastily announced the resumption of flights.

In addition, while fighters stations on alert said to have been exempted from this suspension of flights, and during this time some confronted PLA aircraft in Taiwan’s ‘southwest air defence identification zone,’ Taiwan’s alert crew must have been impacted. Taiwan perhaps focused on responding by using surface to air guided missile systems. Taiwan’s ‘vice minister of the Ministry of National Defence’ Chang Che-ping stated in Taiwan’s ‘Executive Yuan’ that Taiwan is mainly responding by “guided missile tracking” in order to avoid falling into a war of attrition.

A mainland military expert who did not want to be names stated that Taiwan’s guided missile tracking means responding by using surface to air radar guidance systems to track targets. Taiwanese media first exposed Taiwan’s use of this method last year, and it has already become a very important responsive measure. This shows that Taiwan’s air force personnel are overstretched.