Taiwan and China plan to turn F-5E and J-7 fighter aircraft into unmanned jets  

Taiwan and China are planning to unman the "Cold War" fighter jets that were once the backbone of their air forces.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology President, Zhang Zhongcheng, said he can “unmanned” the F-5 fighter jets being retired by the Taiwan Air Force to deal with frequent incursions of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace.

The F-5E, which has been in Taiwanese Air Force service for more than four decades, marked the start of Taiwan’s “National Aircraft National Manufacturing” During that period, the government and Aviation Industry Development Centre (AIDC) collaborated on the “Huan Project,” which produced a quarter of the world’s F-5E fighters for Taiwan.

According to reports from the Central News Agency, China Times, and United Daily News, Taiwan’s AIDC T-5 Brave Eagle advanced trainer aircraft will be mass-produced and gradually delivered to the Air Force. It will replace the approximately 40 F-5 fleet training aircraft in service for over 50 years. The F-5 is expected to be completely retired in the fourth quarter of next year, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence, and 45 Brave Eagle advanced trainer aircraft will be produced that year, with 33 deployed at the Taitung Chihhang Air Base and 12 at the Gangshan Air Force Base.

On May 4, Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense, Chiu Kuo-cheng, went to the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee to report on the “Sea and Air Power Enhancement Plan, the Progress of the F-16V New Fighter Aircraft Procurement, and Response Measures,” and was prepared for questioning.

Democratic Progressive Party legislator Wang Dingyu asked whether it was possible to “unman” the retired F-5 fighter jets to deal with PLA aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, which not only consumes the time of Air Force pilots but also compresses the training time of young pilots, as well as safety and fuel issues.

Zhang Zhongcheng verified in response that the Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology is researching unmanned and target drones. He emphasised that the extant technology at the Institute can certainly accomplish this.

The “Cold War” fighter jets that were once the backbone of Mainland China are also about to be retired, and the Beijing government plans to convert hundreds of deactivated armed aircraft into Drones that could be used to attack Taiwan.

The state-run Global Times reported on February 21 that the last Chengdu J-7 fighter jet, a Chinese copy of the Soviet MiG-21 from the 1960s, could be retired entirely this year. However, that does not mean they will no longer fly. There are signs that the Chinese government will convert the J-7 into a “suicide” drone for large-scale attacks against Taiwan.

According to the Global Times, the decommissioned J-7s can be used for training and testing or converted into unmanned aerial vehicles and serve new roles in modern warfare. 

Retrofitting conventional aircraft into unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) is relatively inexpensive, but they retain many human-specific features. The modified airframes’ performance, manoeuvrability, and payload capacities are identical to those of the original platforms. They also reduce the risk of combat casualties.

Taiwan’s F-5 aircraft

The F-5 series of fighters, consisting primarily of the A/B and E/F variants, is one of the most successful export fighters of the United States; in truth, the U.S. military has never used the F-5 in front-line combat, except its initial deployment. As a test, it was deployed on the battlefield in Vietnam, where it served as the primary aircraft for fictitious enemy fighters. During the Cold War, however, the Western Camp opted for the low-cost F-5 series fighters, which had a price tag of only $756,000 and were simple to maintain.

Today, the F-5 fighter is still one of the primary fighters in many nations, and the Air Force of the Republic of China is the most loyal “old customer” of the F-5 series of fighters.

Taiwan and the United States signed an agreement on February 9, 1973, to produce F-5E in Taiwan. Northrop Corporation authorised the Aviation Industry Development Centre to produce 100 F-5E fighters. 

Under “Project Huan,” Taiwan produced 242 single-seat F-5E fighters and 66 two-seat F-5F trainers until the last Hu’an 6 project in the mid-1980s. It became the largest operator of F-5E/F series fighters on the globe.

During the heyday of the F-5E of fighters, five Air Force divisions were equipped with F-5E/F fighters. In the 1990s, the Taiwanese Air Force began to induct the F-16 fighter aircraft, and the F-5E/F was officially relegated to training Air Force pilots.

F-5E fighter jets that have been upgraded for use as military instructional aircraft are in short supply. It should have been retired officially in 2019. The F-5E is expected to serve till 2024 in Taiwan.

Taiwan and China plan to turn F-5E and J-7 fighter aircraft into unmanned jets


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