Taiwan has finally committed to building its own advanced jet trainer, based on the Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF), instead of buying an off-the-shelf design. The long-awaited move was confirmed last week when Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) commander Gen. Shen Yi-Ming signed a contract worth approximately $2.1 billion with the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCIST), the government’s own defense research and production agency. NCIST will in turn subcontract the airframe from the semi-privatized Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC), which designed and built the IDF from 1980 to 1999 with U.S. assistance. NCIST will retain responsibility for the overall system, including ground-based training.
The ROCAF will receive 66 of the new jets, designated the XT-5 and named the “Blue Magpie.” They will replace a previous jet trainer produced by AIDC designated the AT-3, which entered service in the 1980s, and Northrop F-5E/F fighters. Both types are nearing the end of their service lives. The first flight of the Blue Magpie is scheduled for 2019, with deliveries running from 2020 to 2028.
The decision is controversial. The ROCAF evaluated jet trainers produced by Korea Aerospace Industries (the T-50) and Leonardo (the M346). In 2014 AIDC signed an MoU with what was then Finmeccanica to buy 66 M346s for approximately $2.1 billion. Most of them would have been built by AIDC in its Taichung facility. But following the victory of Taiwan’s pro-independence party in last year’s general election, new President Tsai Ing-Wen pledged to boost the island’s own defense industry. Leonardo reportedly reduced the price of its M346 offer by about 25percent, but to no avail.
Early last year, a former director of AIDC who was known in Taiwan as “the father of the IDF” publicly criticized the plan to develop the XT-5, which will be derived from the existing two-seat operational conversion version of the IDF. Retired ROCAF General Mike Hua Hsi Chun said that it would be better to adopt an alternative proposal from AIDC, to produce a new version of the AT-3. Another prominent retired ROCAF general told AIN last week that he also opposed the XT-5 development, on cost and timescale grounds. He said that Taiwan should have waited for the outcome of the U.S. T-X competition, and then negotiated for licensed production with the winning American contractor. The additional cost to Taiwan of developing the XT-5 is likely to be about $1.5 billion.
(General Hua died just days before the go-ahead for the XT-5 was given. He was honored in an elaborate funeral service last week that included flypasts by formations of the IDF and the AT-3. In addition to his stewardship of AIDC, Hua was noted for being one of the ROCAF’s first cadre of U-2 pilots. In a joint operation with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency , Hua and other ROCAF pilots flew the spyplane over mainland China in the early 1960s.)