The Obama administration today confirmed what most analysts had long expected – it plans to upgrade Taiwan’s fleet of F-16 fighters, but will stop short of selling the island the latest models as had been requested by Taipei.
The administration has notified Congress of its intention to retrofit 145 F-16 A/B fighters rather than meet a Taiwanese request for 66 new F-16s to replace its aging F-5 aircraft. Both proposals have been criticized by China, but the decision to hold off on the sale of the F-16 C/D will be seen as the lesser of two evils.
Still, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun described the decision as ‘grave interference’ in China’s internal affairs. It is a ‘gravely mistaken signal to pro-Taiwan independence separatist forces,’ the BBC quoted Zhang as saying. ‘It must be pointed out that this wrongful course by the US side will unavoidably damage Sino-American relations and co-operation and exchanges in the military, security and other fields.’
The sale will now need to be approved by the US Congress, many members of which had written to Obama earlier this year urging him to sell the newer models to Taiwan. According to a news release by the Pentagon’s Defence Security Co-operation Agency:
‘This proposed sale serves US national, economic, and security interests by supporting the recipient’s continuing efforts to modernize its armed forces and enhance its defensive capability. The proposed sale will help improve the security of the recipient and assist in maintaining political stability, military balance, and economic progress in the region.
‘The proposed retrofit improves both the capabilities and the reliability of the recipient’s fleet of F-16A/B aircraft. The improved capability, survivability, and reliability of newly retrofitted F-16A/B aircraft will greatly enhance the recipient’s ability to defend its borders.’
Will it? According to James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, the upgrade is a ‘welcome’ step, but no replacement for new acquisitions.
‘Taiwan's existing F-16 airframes are getting old, and improving the avionics, sensors, and so forth doesn't change that,’ he says. ‘The overall fleet continues to get older, less reliable, and more maintenance intensive.’
‘The new F-16s were to have been replaced by Mirage and F-5 aircraft that are set to be retired. So, denying the new F-16 buy will reduce the size of Taiwan's fleet of combat aircraft unless Taipei can further extend the life of these aged planes or obtain replacements elsewhere. The former is a poor option, the latter almost unthinkable.’
More broadly, J. Michael Cole, deputy news editor of the Taipei Times and an analyst with Jane’s Defence Weekly, says that not getting the F-16C/Ds could raise fears of US abandonment and create unease in Taipei. ‘It would also raise questions over Washington's commitment to regional allies,’ he told The Diplomat this month. ‘It’s a very complex marriage,’ he said of US-Taiwan ties. ‘Of course, if the US announces it’s nixing the sale of the F-16C/Ds, you’re going to see resentment expressed in the media, and perhaps even by some Taiwanese officials and legislators.’
Holmes also questions whether proceeding with the sale of the latest F-16s would anyway have unsettled Beijing enough to disrupt cross-Strait ties.
‘From a diplomatic standpoint, I'm not sure it’s our place to deny a foreign country what it believes it needs to defend itself, whether or not we deem its acquisitions wise,’ Holmes says. ‘In no sense would an F-16 purchase destabilize cross-Strait relations, except that it would slow down Beijing's ability to amass overwhelming air superiority.’