The production model of the Taiwanese air force’s new training jet flew for the first time in late October. The T-5 Brave Eagle took off from the airfield in Taichung. A prototype of the two-seat, supersonic trainer accompanied the plane on its inaugural sortie.
The T-5 is the only warplane in production in Taiwan. The Republic of China Air Force plans to buy 66 of the twin-engine jets from Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation for $2 billion in order to replace accident-prone, 40-year-old F-5s. AIDC reportedly plans to hand over the first T-5 in December.
The Brave Eagle isn’t just recapitalizing the ROCAF’s training fleet. It’s also helping the Taiwanese aerospace industry to prepare for an arguably more important task—designing and building high-performance fighters without foreign assistance.
“The next goal is to get the system and even the whole machine all self-developed … and in the future, according to the air force’s operational requirements, create a new generation of fighters,” the defense ministry in Taipei stated in its 2021 National Defense Report.
If the T-5 with its slender fuselage looks familiar, it’s because it’s a development of the F-CK-1 fighter, 137 of which AIDC built for the air force starting in the mid-1990s. The ROCAF and AIDC recently upgraded 71 of the fighters to a new standard with better avionics and a greater weapons capacity. The 47-foot-long T-5 has the same F124 engines as the F-CK-1 but is slightly larger and carries more fuel.
The F-CK-1 was assembled in Taiwan. But owing to shortfalls in Taiwanese expertise during the design phase in the early 1980s, Taipei cut a deal with Washington for American help. Engineers from U.S. aerospace firm General Dynamics, which produced the F-16 until Lockheed acquired the company in 1993, worked with their Taiwanese counterparts to finalize the F-CK-1’s design.
Taipei might have preferred simply to buy F-16s, but Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding China and Taiwan complicated the sale. Taiwan ultimately acquired 216 F-16s in two batches in 1992 and 2019.
Diplomatically speaking, it’s still tough for Taiwan to import foreign warplanes. It might be equally difficult for the island country, population 24 million, to develop and build its own planes. Taipei is trying to do the latter without giving up on the former. “The Brave Eagle is the leader of the restart” of domestic fighter production, the defense ministry stated.
Taiwanese companies produce 55 percent of the parts in the T-5, according to the defense ministry. The goal, of course, is to boost that to 100 percent—and, on the strength of that industrial autonomy, develop either a new variant of the F-CK-1 or a brand-new fighter, either of which should be wholly Taiwanese and thus immune to Chinese pressure on supplier countries.
Who knows when the ROCAF and AIDC might start work on a new fighter. Taipei’s limited resources at present are tied up in an equally ambitious effort to build new attack submarines with as little as possible help from the Americans or other allies.
In the meantime, the T-5 itself can contribute to Taiwan’s defense—and not just by helping to train pilots for other fighter types. It’s widely assumed that the T-5, like all ROCAF trainers, possesses a latent combat capability and, in wartime, would fly into battle alongside F-CK-1s, F-16s and Mirage 2000s.