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An upgrade of Taiwan’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets to Viper standard is on schedule for completion by 2023, the island’s defence minister has assured parliament. Photo: EPA

Taiwan F-16 fighter jet upgrades on schedule, despite delays

  • Defence Minister tells parliament all problems with retrofitting programme have been solved

Taiwan’s multimillion dollar programme to retrofit its 142-strong fleet of F-16 fighter jets to bring them up to Viper standard is expected to be completed within the next four years.

Defence Minister Yen Teh-fa told parliament on Wednesday that all problems with the upgrade programme had been solved and the air force expected to take delivery of the jets by 2023. The performance of the jets will be further bolstered by the addition of medium-range precision guided weapons and automatic ground collision avoidance systems.

Yen was responding to lawmakers’ concerns that the retrofitting timetable would be affected by the US$8 billion purchase from the US of 66 of the latest Lockheed Martin F-16V Viper fighter jets, after local military critics questioned whether the deal would force the military to axe some spending on the retrofitting programme.

Lawmakers also questioned whether Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC) had sufficient manpower for the project after the company failed to deliver six refitted jets in the first quarter of this year as scheduled.

US Viper jets a boost to Taiwan’s defences ‘but no game changer’ with China

Yen refuted suggestions the delay had been the result of pressure to complete Taiwan’s first indigenous advance fighter trainer jet in September, in line with President Tsai Ing-wen’s policy for the island to develop its own military aircraft.

He said the delay had nothing to do with the purchase of the 66 new F-16V variants as the funding for the purchase and refitting was separate. “Nor does it have anything to do with the advance trainer jet because members of the trainer jet’s production team and the refitting team are two different groups of people,” Yen said.

He admitted there was a manpower shortage problem within AIDC but assured lawmakers that, after coordination with Lockheed Martin and the recruitment of more engineers, the refitting team now had an additional 200 people, which would ensure completion of the project by 2023.

According to the retrofitting schedule – initiated in 2015 under former president Ma Ying-jeou – AIDC was to complete upgrades of four F-16s in 2018, followed by 24, 27, 34, 36, and 15 in the years after. But, after meeting last year’s target, AIDC has only managed to complete work on a further six jets so far this year, instead of six in each quarter of 2019.

Addressing concerns over whether the air force would have enough warplanes on duty once more F-16s were taken out of service for upgrading, Yen said he had been assured the air force would be able to carry out routine missions while safeguarding the island against any invading force.

Taiwan has faced mounting threats from Beijing – which regards the island as a mainland province subject to eventual unification by force if necessary – since Tsai became president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle. In response, Beijing has staged a series of war games to intimidate the island and poached seven of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.

The refitting programme is part of the island’s effort to bolster its defensive capability in the face of these growing military threats.

In addition to the new guidance and ground collision avoidance systems, local news reports said the refitting would include updated radar, computer components, and modified landing gear. The computer components involve weapons systems that improve search, tracking, and targeting capabilities of the F-16V’s integrated AN/APG-83 radar.

According to the reports, the radar’s detection range on the modernised fighters is increased by 30 per cent. Target detection capability is increased 220 per cent, and the self-protection capability of the F-16V is increased by 180 per cent.

Taiwan to get upgraded F-16V fighter jets after US arms sale approved

According to the parliament budget centre, the military has listed an additional NT$10 billion (US$325 million) budget to better the performance of the upgraded jets – with installation of the Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) and the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (GCAS) – previously not included in the refit.

JSOW is a type of standardised medium-range precision guided weapon deployed for the engagement of defended targets from outside the range of standard anti-aircraft defences, increasing aircraft survivability and minimising friendly losses. It is a fire-and-forget weapon that employs a tightly coupled GPS/INS for navigation and is capable of day/night and adverse weather operations.

The F-16 GCAS can significantly reduce the number of accidents attributed to controlled flight into terrain.

With the increase, the entire budget for the refitting now stands at NT$140.2 billion (US$4.56 billion).