U.S. Debates Taiwan Request for 66 F-16s
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
The U.S. government is quietly debating the wisdom of approving Taiwan’s request to purchase additional F-16s to buttress its Air Force fleet against threats from China.
In July, Taiwan submitted a letter of request for price and availability data for 66 F-16 C/D Block 50/52 fighter jets to the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei.
Defense News first broke the story of the potential $5.5 billion F-16 sale in April, and sources have said U.S. National Security Council and State Department officials are urging the Bush administration to reject Taiwan’s request.
“There’s too much to risk in the relationship with China, and little willingness to take the hit with the Chinese when the record of getting major systems through in the end, given the local political climate, is not good,” said a U.S. defense source.
“In other words, an approval would draw punishment from Beijing — i.e., canceling contracts with U.S. companies and going French or German, etc. — and then it pisses people off in D.C. when Taiwan gets the political brownie points — i.e., showing Beijing how much the U.S. loves it — but then doesn’t follow through with the actual procurement,” said the U.S. source.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in late July that China was urging Washington not to supply the fighters, but no direct threats were made at that time.
A U.S. State Department official said Aug. 25, that Washington was “aware of reports that Taiwan is interested in advanced fighter jets. We would consider any request in terms of the Taiwan Relations Act and arms transfer policies and consult with Congress accordingly.”
The official said the State Department would “encourage Taiwan to focus efforts on boosting defense spending, concentrating in particular on immediate challenges of hardening defense and increasing sustainability.”
Local media have reported that the Ministry of National Defense has already allocated $3.6 billion for the F-16s in the 2007 budget. But naysayers note that the Legislative Yuan has refused to approve any significant arms sale since June 2003, when members narrowly voted to allocate $723 million for four Kidd-class destroyers.
In Washington, the unease over the requested F-16 sale stems in part from Taipei’s refusal to buy the eight diesel submarines, 12 P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and several Patriot Advanced Capability-3 air defense systems offered by President George W. Bush in 2001. Taiwan’s legislature has refused to approve the budget to buy them for a tangled web of political, economic and strategic reasons.
U.S. government officials “feel burned” by the affair and have vowed not to go any further on major arms sales without solid backing for the purchase in Taipei, said a Taiwan defense source.
“Unless there is a firm commitment by Taipei, in the form of an already approved budget for the F-16s, the U.S. government will do nothing,” said the Taiwan source.
To make matters worse, controversy erupted after recent revelations that James Huang, Taiwan’s minister of foreign affairs, secretly met in April with Hizbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut. After the visit was revealed in August, U.S. and Israeli officials decried the visit with Hizbollah, which the U.S. State Department lists as a terrorist organization.
Ministry officials said it was an attempt to build bilateral ties with Lebanon. Taiwan’s Military Spokesman’s Office refused to comment on the F-16 issue.
Taiwan, whose doctrine calls for a force of at least 400 fighters, currently operates about 390, including: 146 F-16A/Bs, 128 locally produced F-CK-1A/B Ching-kuo Indigenous Defense Fighters, 56 Mirage 2000-5s and 60 or so aging F-5 Tigers.
The new F-16s are intended to plug the gap between the planned retirement of the F-5s and the expected procurement of advanced fighters.
Taiwan purchased 48 F-5s from the United States in 1978 and leased the rights from Northrop to assemble about 250 F-5s at the state-run Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. At present, Taiwan has six F-5 squadrons, including the Tigergazer reconnaissance squadron. Taiwan has been in discussions with U.S. officials over the sale of some of its remaining F-5s to the Philippines, but Manila may lack the necessary funds.
Some critics argue that buying more F-16s makes little sense when, they say, pilot shortages are forcing the Air Force to consider mothballing part of its Mirage fleet.
If the F-16 deal does not materialize, there are at least two options.
Some say an upgraded Indigenous Defense Fighter would fill the gap and create much-needed local jobs. Two prototypes of an upgraded model have already been produced under a program called Hsing Shing (Soaring Upgrade) by the Aerospace Industrial Development Corp., which developed and built the fighters in the 1990s. The upgraded planes have better avionics and electronic warfare gear, and they can carry more weapons and fuel.
Aerospace Industrial Development officials hope the Air Force signs a contract to upgrade the rest of the fleet.
Additionally, Taiwan has upgraded its F-16s since they went into service, and sources say the present F-16 fleet’s life is being extended. For example, in April, BAE Systems received a $9.3 million contract to provide Taiwan’s F-16s with software and hardware upgrades for the AN/ALR-56M radar warning receiver systems on the aircraft.
However, Taiwan got stung when the U.S. rejected a 2005 request to purchase AGM-88C High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions for Taiwan’s F-16s. Taipei has responded by pushing forward on the indigenous development of similar wea-pons for its Indigenous Defense Fighter.
Still, Taiwan has expressed a special interest in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II and received a U.S. Defense Department briefing on it last year.
Military officials are especially interested in acquiring a fighter with short take-off and landing capabilities, due to fears that China could quickly destroy the island’s air bases and runways with precision-guided missiles and bombs.