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

  • US$330 million deal is the second since US President Donald Trump took office, as defence ties deepen between Washington and Taipei
  • Some 144 fighter jets will be revamped so they can better detect, track and identify a larger number of targets
PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 9:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 9:56pm

Upgrading Taiwan’s fighter jets to F-16Vs will boost the self-ruled island’s defences, but in terms of combat capability the revamped aircraft will still lag behind Beijing’s, military analysts said.

The upgrade is expected to move ahead after the US Congress approved a new round of arms sales to Taiwan as it comes under increasing pressure from mainland China.

The US$330 million deal was approved after a 30-day review process that expired at midnight on Wednesday. It is the second US arms sale to Taiwan in less than 18 months under US President Donald Trump and signifies a deepening of defence ties between Washington and Taipei.

Under the deal, the United States will provide spare parts for Taiwan’s F-16 fighter jets, C-130 cargo planes, its Indigenous Defence Fighters, and all other aircraft systems and subsystems.

But it is Taiwan’s plan to upgrade its fighter jets to F-16V multi-role supersonic fighter jets that has caught attention. It will involve a total of 144 aircraft – the F-16A and F-16B fighters – which will be upgraded to the latest “Viper” model, according to the island’s Central News Agency.

The most significant change to the single-seat aircraft will be equipping it with an AN/APG-83 active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire-control radar. That will mean it can better detect, track and identify a larger number of targets, which could include stealth fighters.

The new configuration also features advanced avionics including a new modular mission computer, electronic warfare suite, and an automated ground collision avoidance system.

Behind the US’ smaller arms package to Taiwan lie bigger problems for China

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the upgraded F-16V would still have limited long-range abilities, but was comparable to mainland China’s J-10 fighter jets.

“It’s important to note that both sides on the Taiwan Strait have every reason and incentive to champion certain claims about their capabilities, and even in certain cases try to inflate them,” he said. “But in terms of overall capability, especially in avionics, the Viper appears to be a tough opponent against the J-10.

“The F-16V is merely an interim stopgap measure to arrest the decline in Taiwan’s air power balance vis-à-vis China, that started almost two decades ago,” Koh said, adding that the F-16V would have to “suffice” until Taiwan’s air force got some next-generation fighters.

Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps, said upgrading the F-16 jets showed how desperate Taiwan was to improve its defences.

“Despite the upgrades, these jets are over 20 years old and normally fighter jets would gradually be retired when they get past 30 years. No matter how they upgrade them, the combat ability will not improve drastically,” Song said. “So Taiwan has spent a lot of money but failed to do anything impressive.

“It also shows that they are unable to buy better fighter jets, or to catch up with the 3.5- to fourth-generation jets that China already has … the only option Taiwan has is to settle for less right now,” he added.

Beijing sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory to be taken back, by force if necessary. Despite Beijing’s overwhelming military advantage, Taiwan has stepped up efforts to procure more arms under President Tsai Ing-wen, who has pledged to safeguard the island’s sovereignty. Arms sales from the US government have always been a sensitive issue for Beijing, which frequently warns Washington against seeking closer military ties with Taipei and protests when such deals are made.

Taiwan military starts war games simulating attack by China’s PLA

The latest deal comes amid rising tensions between the US and China, and is the second arms sale approved since June last year, when the Pentagon agreed to sell a US$1.4 billion arms package to Taiwan that included missiles, torpedoes and technical support for an early warning system.

The first upgraded F-16V was tested in the US and sent to Taiwan’s air force on Friday last week, according to CNA. Three more revamped jets will be sent by the end of the year.

The remaining fighter jets are to be upgraded in batches of 20 to 24 per year in Taiwan under a collaboration between Taiwan’s government-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corp and US weapons maker Lockheed Martin. The total cost to upgrade all of Taiwan’s F-16s will be TW$110 billion (US$3.55 billion), according to CNA.