U.S. Blocks Taiwan's F-16 Request Again
By WENDELL MINNICK
Taipei - A U.S. defense industry source said that Taiwan's de facto embassy in Washington, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), was preparing to submit its fourth LoR for price-and-availability data for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). But it was told by AIT that the LoR would not be accepted. AIT declined to comment.
"AIT is not opposed to the sale," the source said. "This is a State Department and National Security Council issue."
The issue has become a Catch-22 for Taiwan, in which TECRO cannot submit an LoR to AIT because it is under State Department orders to deny it, and then TECRO is told by the State Department that the LoR cannot be processed because it was not received, he said.
Taiwan's requests for F-16C/Ds and an upgrade package for 146 aging F-16A/B fighters have been on hold since 2006 and 2009, respectively. The U.S. government blocked three earlier LoR attempts for C/Ds made between 2006 and 2007.
Pro-Taiwan groups in Washington are urging Taiwan to formally request the right to resubmit the LoR before the opportunity passes.
"They need to [resubmit] if they're going to take advantage of this window," said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council. "If they do nothing, the moment will pass."
Support for an F-16 sale has gained momentum over the past month as members of the U.S. Congress, Lockheed and pro-Taiwan lobby groups have been working in concert to push the White House to release the fighters.
"They have submitted an LoR on three occasions and had it rejected," said Mark Stokes, a former U.S. defense official, now with the Project 2049 Institute. He said this is one reason the U.S. and Taiwan should bring back the annual arms sales talks held between 1982 and 2001.
"At least Taiwan could make its requests formally" to the U.S. government, he said.
After 2001, the arms talks were replaced with a policy that allowed for LoRs to be submitted when ready to AIT, instead of holding them until the next round of talks with the Pentagon.
The clock is running out for Taiwan. Lockheed indicates that unless there are new orders, the F-16 production line will end in 2013. Taiwan has already begun preparing for the worst.
In 2009, it began a $588 million, four-year upgrade program for 71 Ching Kuo Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs), allowing them to handle greater payloads at longer ranges.
Taiwan has 126 IDFs produced by the state-run Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. during the 1990s. On June 30, the first batch of upgraded IDFs will be handed over to the Taiwan Air Force in an official ceremony in Taichung. If additional F-16s are not released, the Air Force has the option of upgrading the rest of the IDF fleet.
However, new F-16C/Ds are needed to replace older F-5 and Mirage 2000 fighters scheduled for retirement within the next five to 10 years. Upgrading additional IDFs will not fill the fighter gap Taiwan is facing against China's fighter modernization efforts.
In December, China unveiled its first fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20. Sea trials are expected in July of China's first aircraft carrier. And China has been replacing older fighters with newer Su-27/J-11, Su-30 and J-10 fighters over the past 10 years.