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Taiwan’s F-16 fighter jets on display. The island’s defence minister has said the air force needs to inject new blood into its defence capability. Photo: EPA

Taiwan hints F-16V fighter jets are back on its defence shopping list

  • F-35s not an option amid concerns of a backlash from Beijing
  • Taiwan might try again to buy 66 lower grade warplanes from the US

Taiwan has left open the possibility of reinforcing its defence capability with the purchase of 66 F-16V fighter jets from the United States, after abandoning controversial plans to upgrade its ageing air force with F-35 Lightning stealth fighter jets.

Defence Minister Yen Te-fa said on Thursday that the self-ruled island needed to inject new blood into its air defence capability, after local news reports that the air force had abandoned its campaign to buy the F-35s in favour of reissuing a request to the US government for the F-16 fighters.

“As three types of the air force’s major warplanes are reaching their mid-life phase, we will take into account purchasing of the [new warplanes] as long as they meet our defensive needs,” Yen said.

The air force had dedicated significant effort to the assessment of its next-generation warplanes in the face of growing military threats from the enemy side, he added.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province awaiting reunification by force if necessary, has stepped up pressure on the island since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party was elected president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle.

The three types of warplanes now in service include 144 F-16 A/B fighter jets, 55 Mirage 2000s and 129 indigenous Ching-kuo fighter jets, all of which have been in use since the 1990s.

Taiwan earlier sought to buy the upgraded F-16V from the US but failed due to Washington’s concerns about angering Beijing. But, in 2011, the Pentagon relented and agreed to help the island upgrade its F16-A/B fleet to the F-16V.

Asked to confirm if Taiwan intended to place an order for the F-16V, Yen stressed that the air force would take into account whatever options would boost its air defences.

The US weapons Taiwan wants to bolster its defences

According to a military source, the Taiwanese delegation to the US-Taiwan Defence Industry Conference in late October once again expressed an interest in buying the F-35.

However, the US hosts of the conference advised the delegates that Taiwan might need to propose other options, as Washington was not ready to sell the top flight jet to the island, again due to concerns over a possible Beijing backlash.

Taiwan took delivery of its first locally upgraded F-16 in October, the first of four single-seat F-16A/B to be remodelled by the Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation, with key equipment and components provided by the US as part of a US$5.3 billion project – dubbed Phoenix Rising – to upgrade 24 jets each year.

The upgrade includes replacement of the older, mechanically operated, radar with the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar, improvements to the jet’s electronic warfare suite and avionics, as well as the installation of new precision-guided weapons, military sources said.

Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the US had considered selling the production lines of its discontinued F-16 and F-18 fighter jets to India, and it was possible it may also sell the F-16 production line to Taiwan.

“It would definitely be advantageous to Taiwan’s development of its defence industry if it was able to import the F-16 production line,” Song said.

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Taiwan hints thatF-16Vs are back on shopping list