Taiwan Reaches Out to US, France to Acquire Aerial Refueling Tankers, AEW&C Aircraft

Taiwan AEW
A RoCAF (Republic of China Air Force) E-2K Hawkeye. (Image credit: RoCAF)

Refueling and AEW planes will boost defense as well as strike capabilities amid increasing frequency and density of Chinese air intrusions.

With the goal to effectively extend the ability of fighter aircraft to stay in the air and reduce the reaction time, the RoCAF (Republic of China Air Force, or Taiwan Air Force) is looking to purchase aerial refueling tankers and AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) aircraft from international manufacturers, CNA reported.

The MND (Ministry of National Defense) reported to the Legislative Yuan on June 14, 2024, that the RoCAF Command Headquarters had reached out to U.S. and French aerospace companies in 2023. TVBS News identified the E-2 Hawkeye as one of the platforms being considered. The RoCAF invited delegations from these countries “to conduct briefings and discussions on aerial tankers to gain willingness to supply and sell them.”

Taiwan already operates the E-2K Hawkeye and had “given up” a previous plan to buy six E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes, owing to the high price tag. Its existing E-2K fleet meanwhile is slated for an upgrade in partnership with U.S. firms. Therefore, the E-2 Hawkeye program TVBS is referring to might pertain to the E-2D procurement program, which now appears to be pushed again.

While the tanker models have not been specified, they can be assumed to be the Airbus’s A330 MRTT and Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus. Besides France, the A330 is used by South Korea, Australia, U.K. (United Kingdom), Saudi Arabia and UAE for a total of 59 operational aircraft.

An Australian A330 MRTT refuels an F/A-18. (Image credit: Airbus)

The report however maintains that “there is currently no concrete feasible plan.” TVBS added that these invitations were sent from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States and the French Military Association. Beside purchase options, another alternative is “potential wet lease” (or a short-term lease) while also exploring “multiple financing options” for the procurement.

Bolster Taiwan’s defense

The issue was raised by former Taiwan People’s Party legislator Chiu Chen-yuan (Qiu Chenyuan) last year. He raised the need for aerial refueling tankers and AEW planes to “bolster strike capabilities, defense range” amid “increasing frequency and density of harassment” of Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese aircraft.

“Intrusion in the southwest airspace has become normal,” where “aerial refueling can be used.” “His proposal was approved, prompting the MND to assess various procurement strategies and to commit to delivering a detailed report within three months,” TVBS added.

Small AEW fleet

The RoCAF subsequently also pointed to the lack of progress on proceeding with the purchase of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, despite MND’s sanction. This was because of “adjustments in the defense budget” that “delayed finalizing the procurement year with the US.” A phased acquisition strategy is currently under consideration.

Taiwan operates a fleet of six E-2K AEW&C planes, which are an export version of the E-2C variant. In 2022, the MND scrapped one airframe and shelved its repair program after a landing gear damage, owing to prohibitive repair costs.

According to Taiwan News, that particular E-2K was returning to the airbase in Pingtung County on Nov. 25, 2022 when the crew “failed to deploy the landing gear the correct way,” resulting in a belly landing. There were no casualties. The RoCAF also briefly engaged the manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, to assess the damage.

That report added that the military had “given up” an “earlier application to buy six” E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes – that can better detect stealth aircraft – due to high prices. One unit would “cost between $425 million to $660 million.” Whether that plan is being reconsidered, it has not been specifically mentioned. But subsequent media reports prior to the latest development suggest so.

In Feb. 23, 2024 Taiwan’s AIDC (Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation) signed a contract with Northrop Grumman at the Singapore Airshow to upgrade its remaining fleet of E-2K Hawkeyes. AIDC was also involved in the upgrade of Taiwan’s F-16A/B to the F-16V standard.

One of those reports specifically mentioned that the “upgraded E-2K planes will continue to be useful even if Taiwan decides to procure newer E-2D versions in the future.” Therefore, the E-2D Hawkeye is possibly still being considered, informed by the financial, technical and tactical performance of the modernized E-2Ks. If that’s the case, TVBS’s mention of the “E-2 Hawkeye” in the communication between the MND and the Legislative Yuan, that did not specify the variant, might pertain to the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.

Moreover, it has also been claimed that the E-2K upgrade program, that had been announced as far back as 2020, is actually bringing the AEW aircraft to the ‘D’ (E-2D Advanced Hawkeye) standard itself. Newer generation AEW&C aircraft stand a greater chance of tracking stealth or LO (Low Observable) aircraft like the Chinese J-20.

This is owing to powerful electronics, computing, sensors, data fusion, input processing and data linking with friendly assets. A section of combat aviators have long believed that peer militaries, with sufficiently networked assets, can find ways to beat stealth even if they achieve non-track quality detection.

Chinese Harassment Continues

Intrusions by PLA Air Force and Navy aircraft and ships however continue. China on May 24 concluded its two-day military exercise around Taiwan in retaliation to new president Lai Ching-te’s pro-independence speech.

On Jun. 13, the MND reported 23 PLA aircraft and seven PLAN vessels around the island, 19 of which crossed the median line. The intrusions were reported over a period of 24 hours leading up to early morning (6 am) that day.

Maps showed Chinese aircraft flying circuitous routes parallel to its own side of the median line, breaching it in the southwestern ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zones). Other aircraft flew off its southern, southeastern and eastern waters. For the corresponding time period, on June 14, eight PLA aircraft and eight PLAN vessels were detected, three of which entered the southwestern ADIZ.

Taiwan is also pushing its Tengyun II ISR drone towards mass production, after it concluded testing this week. The UAV meets its continuous aerial surveillance needs to watch Chinese naval maneuvers.

About Parth Satam
Parth Satam's career spans a decade and a half between two dailies and two defense publications. He believes war, as a human activity, has causes and results that go far beyond which missile and jet flies the fastest. He therefore loves analyzing military affairs at their intersection with foreign policy, economics, technology, society and history. The body of his work spans the entire breadth from defense aerospace, tactics, military doctrine and theory, personnel issues, West Asian, Eurasian affairs, the energy sector and Space.