The AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo is a multirole combat aircraft. The aircraft made its first flight in 1989. It was delivered to the Republic of China Air Force in January 1994 and entered service in 1997. All 130 production aircraft were manufactured by 1999.
The General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon is a single-engine multirole fighter aircraft originally developed by General Dynamics for the United States Air Force. Designed as an air superiority day fighter, it evolved into a successful all-weather multirole aircraft. Over 4,600 aircraft have been built since production was approved in 1976.
F-16 Fighting Falcon vs F-CK-1 Ching-kuo
Taiwan’s air force officially called the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), currently fields four classes of fighter aircraft, all of which are lightweight designs and all but one of which are from the fourth generation.
These include the U.S.-supplied F-16 Fighting Falcon, the indigenously developed F-CK Ching Kuo, the French-built Mirage 2000, and the older American F-5E Tiger II.
Of these four classes of fighter, the F-16 and Ching Kuo are considered the more capable – with the F-5’s age and the Mirage 2000’s multiple performance issues meaning both are scheduled for retirement in the coming years.
Although the Mirage 2000 was the most expensive fighter Taiwan purchased, its lack of modern missiles or a viable upgrade package and its high crash rate and airframe quality issues will lead it to be retired earlier than the F-16 or the Ching Kuo. Of the two other fourth-generation fighters, however, it remains contested which is the more capable aircraft.
Taiwan’s F-16s are among the oldest in the world, with its two squadrons comprised of some of the oldest F-16 airframes in service anywhere in the world – F-16A Block 20 aircraft which are a design that has served since the late 1970s.
Taiwan received approximately 150 F-16s in the 1990s, and with the F-16A having been widely been retired in countries such as Israel, Egypt, and the U.S., its only major operators today are Taiwan, Pakistan, and Venezuela.
Taiwan is expected to rely much more heavily on the F-16 in the coming decades than was originally anticipated since Taipei’s efforts to acquire F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighters from the U.S. failed. Although the F-35 was the natural successor to the F-16, the U.S. was concerned that widespread support for the Chinese mainland on Taiwan would lead to its technologies being lost through espionage.
Taiwanese F-16s were upgraded in the mid-2000s, which allowed them to integrate modern AIM-120C long-range air to air missiles to narrow the gap with the latest fighters fielded by the Chinese mainland, with the active radar homing missile providing ‘fire and forget’ capabilities and an engagement range of approximately 100km.
The F-CK Ching Kuo is fielded in similar numbers to the F-16 with two full squadrons in service, with 131 serial production models built and a much larger proportion of these remaining operational. Introduced into service in 1994, the fighter is the lightest of the fourth generation deployed worldwide that integrates twin engines, and benefits from the integration of a range of advanced indigenous technologies.
The Ching Kuo is marginally slower than the F-16 and has a lower endurance, although its electronics and sensors are more modern than those of the F-16A. The fighter integrates the Sky Sword II air-to-air missile, which has a similar range to the AIM-120C but is considerably faster.
The Taiwanese-built aircraft also integrates indigenous cruise missile designs – most notably the Wan Chien – which is considered superior to anything deployed by its F-16s. The Ching Kuo benefits from the ability to more frequently incorporate upgrades, often much more cheaply than the F-16s can, meaning that they are usually at the cutting edge of the Taiwanese fleet.
The fact that the design is not widely used, with Taiwan being the sole operator, is also highly advantageous particularly considering China’s high degree of familiarity with the F-16 which is operated by several Chinese security partners.
While the F-16A is in many ways a less capable fighter than the Ching Kuo, Taiwan has invested in both upgrading its existing American built airframes to a ‘4+ generation’ standard and in acquiring new F-16 airframes from the United States – with an $8.2 billion contract for 66 of the jets having been signed in 2019.
F-16A airframes are being upgraded domestically by Taiwan’s state-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) under the $5.3 billion Phoenix Rising program, which involves providing the aircraft with Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar, new mission computers, an improved electronic warfare suite, modern avionics and the ability to integrate precision-guided weapons.
The ROCAF received its first domestically upgraded F-16 in October 2018, which was known a the F-16V. The integration of the AN/APG-83, an AESA radar, provides a revolutionary upgrade to the fighters’ situational awareness and ensures higher reliability – with the new radar being more difficult to jam. The radar also potentially allows the aircraft to integrate AIM-120D air-to-air missiles, which have an engagement range of over 160km.
Taiwan activated its first squadron of F-16V Fighting Falcon ‘4+ generation’ fighter jets in March 2021, with 22 modernised fighters are now in service under the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Chiayi Air Force Base in southwestern Taiwan. The F-16V is overall a more capable and sophisticated fighter than the Ching Kuo, and the activation of this squadron stripped the indigenous fighter of its long held title of Taiwan’s foremost combat jet.
The possibility of the Ching Kuo fleet integrating AESA radars has been raised in the past, which could do much to bridge the gap between the two aircraft. Taiwan has notably developed a heavier and more capable successor to the Ching Kuo which is based on the same airframe design, with the new fighter unveiled in 2019 as the Brave Eagle.
The new aircraft will integrate an AESA radar and will likely eventually deploy more advanced successors to the Sky Sword II missile – potentially allowing it to complete on the same level as the F-16V. Particularly notable are reports that the Brave Eagle could use indigenous engines, rather than relying on ones sourced from the U.S. as the Ching Kuo does, and the possibility remains that these could also be fitted onto Ching Kuo fighters already in service.
Taiwan’s inability to acquire higher-end fighter aircraft from the United States has seriously undermined its defense capabilities, and despite beginning to integrate a small number of ‘4+ generation’ aircraft it still faces an overwhelming qualitative disadvantage against China’s own air force – which widely deploys fighters which are both much heavier and more sophisticated such as the J-20 fifth-generation stealth platform.