Taiwan thinks it needs new long-range weapons to keep China at bay, and now it has an innovative (if weird) solution. The nation is reportedly pulling engines out of old fighter jets to figure out how to make one for a cruise missile.
The J85 turbojet engines in question come from Northrop F-5E/F jets, called the Tiger II. Produced in the 1970s, the Tiger II was a low-cost multi-role jet in the same vein as today’s F-16. The F-5E/F had one engine, a , a design that is still around: A variant of the J-85 powers the U.S. Air Force’s T-38 trainer, and another version will Boom’s upcoming 50-passenger supersonic jet.
Over the years, Taiwan bought or produced 308 Tiger IIs, including 242 single seat -E versions and 66 two seat -F versions. Now a states that Taiwan’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, in conjunction with the Republic of China Air Force, is pulling engines from decommissioned Tiger IIs with the hopes of producing a “simplified, improved” turbojet engine expected to go into a new missile to threaten China.
The J-85 engine is small, just over 17 inches wide and 45 inches long, and produces 3,000 pounds of thrust. The size makes it a good fit for a cruise missile. Indeed, during the Cold War the J-85 powered the , a drone designed to mimic (and draw fire away from) B-52 bombers. The J-85-21 variant of the engine had the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of its time, 7.3 to 1, providing the F-5E/F with the power to reach speeds of up to Mach 1.6.
Why is Taiwan going to all this reverse-engineering trouble? The island split from China in 1949, the result of a bloody civil war, and the old Republic of China government fled to the island after communist forces won victory on the mainland. Over the decades, Beijing has repeatedly threatened to invade and complete its victory, a idea that becomes more plausible with each passing year as China’s military strength grows.
One way for Taiwan to prevent invasion is to hold targets on the mainland at risk. The Formosa Strait separating the two countries is only 110 miles long, so a cruise missile with a 300-mile range could strike targets more than 150 miles inside mainland China, threatening airfields, ports, command centers, and anything else that would support an invasion. A preemptive strike against such targets could disrupt, delay, or even cancel a cross-strait attack before it begins.
It would happen something like this: Taiwanese intelligence would suddenly be overwhelmed by reports of Chinese fighter jets massing at airfields, tactical ballistic missile convoys headed for the coast, and army and marine convoys streaming towards ports of embarkation. These would be corroborated by social media. An invasion force would be so large it would be impossible even for China’s censors to keep images posted by curious Chinese citizens off the internet.
With evidence of a massing invasion force overwhelming, Taiwan would launch a barrage of cruise missiles against preset targets. Any fighter jets Taiwan destroys on the ground in China are jets it doesn’t have to face in the air. Y-20 transports blown up on the tarmac deprive Chinese paratroopers a means of crossing the strait. While ships move, port facilities do not, and blowing up fuel storage depots can ensure China’s invasion force won’t have the fuel to complete a strait crossing. Taiwan’s cruise missile force will ideally introduce just enough uncertainty into the minds of Chinese military planners that they decide an invasion is too risky to pull off.
The report outlining this new engine project is badly sourced, but the basic idea fits in with Taiwan’s other unusual attempts to study old military technology to develop new equipment. China is using its new economic and political clout to dissuade foreign countries from transferring military tech to what it considers a “rogue” province, choking off the flow of arms to Taiwan. Unable to source diesel electric submarines, Taiwan finally decided to design its own submarine, and was prepared to cut one of its World War II-era subs in half to study the design.
When a country is prepared to cut an entire submarine in half lengthways, studying old fighter jet engines doesn’t sound so farfetched.