The Republic of China (ROC) Air Force, the official name of the air arm of Taiwan’s armed forces, currently fields approximately 380 fighter planes divided between six units, with the ROC Defence Ministry having ordered a full units’ worth of F-16 Block 70/72 Fighting Falcon aircraft in 2019 to replace 49 problematic French-supplied Mirage 2000 jets. While the controversial $8.2 billion deal has gained significant attention, what is less well known is that the ROC Air Force is that alongside 66 F-16s, priced at approximately $124 million each, the service is also set to receive 66 more fighters produced domestically for little over a quarter of the cost. The ROC Chung-shan Institute of Science and Technology president Chang Guan-chung was awarded $2.22 billion to build XT-5 “Blue Magpie” fighters designed by Aerospace Industrial Development Corp, otherwise better known as Brave Eagle fighters, which will be commissioned to replace a unit’s worth of accident prone F-5E/F fighters that will be retired before January. This would allow the F-16s and the Brave Eagles to between them replace a full one third of the ROC’s fleet, with both new fighter classes notably integrating active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars and the latter using one developed indigenously in Taiwan. Where new variants of the F-16 have been criticised as being very far from cost effective, however, with a unit cost estimated to exceed that of Chinese J-20 fifth generation stealth fighters over double their size, the Brave Eagle by contrast is a close contender for the title of the world’s most cost effective fighter at just $33.6 million each at current exchange rates.
The Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation gained extensive experience manufacturing over 300 third generation F-5E/F lightweight fighters under licence, and subsequently developed the F-CK Ching Kuo twin engine light fighter in the 1980s as an indigenous alternative to the American F-16. Ching Kuos currently form two of the ROC Air Force’s six air units. The Brave Eagle’s design is heavily based on that of the Ching Kuo, but is larger and uses a range of new production techniques for cheaper manufacturing and reduced maintenance requirements. The aircraft uses the same F125 engines as the Ching Kuo, but 80 percent of other components are new including greater use of composite materials, new avionics and electronic warfare systems, thicker wings and an increased fuel capacity for higher endurance. The Brave Eagle’s price is comparable to that at which the Chinese mainland has exported JF-17 Block 2 fighters and South Korea its FA-50 fighters – both of which have similar sizes and flight performances but lack comparably advanced avionics. While the Ching Kuo’s operational costs were slightly higher than those of the F-16, if the Brave Eagle can realise lower operational costs it has the potential to prove one of the most cost effective fighters in the world particularly by the standards of NATO-compatible aircraft.