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Sorry, Taiwan: US Agrees On $5.3 Billion F-16 Upgrade

September 27, 2011

Note, “Upgrade.” That means Taiwan’s existing fleet of aging F-16’s get a makeover, nothing more. As for the huge F-16 Block C/D deal Taiwan has hankered for since 2001? It’s not happening.

The bittersweet part is the sizable package is a paltry service rendered to the Republic of China (ROC) air force after years and years of high stakes lobbying for the good stuff. Back in the day, when George W. Bush was still president (see how old this non-transaction is?), the original grocery list included several dozen F-16 Block C/D’s plus diesel submarines, Patriot missiles, and lots of helicopters. Throw in precision guided ordnance, ATGMs, etc. etc.

Like most arms deals gone sour, politics and its attendant vagaries played a significant role in the Taiwan F-16 issue.

Though the US is obligated to sell Taiwan weapons under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, carrying out the deed has fallen short of expectations. Taiwan currently maintains 145 F-16’s of the A/B variant together with F-5 Tigers and its own indigenous multirole aircraft.

The multi-billion dollar upgrade package that includes new avionics and munitions was announced Wednesday last week. Republicans wasted no time denouncing the move, especially Texas Senator John Cornryn who advocates arms sales to Taiwan as a matter of jobs. Lockheed Martin’s F16’s are built in Texas and a substantial order for 86 Block C/D fighters could maintain a production line until 2013.

The reluctance of the US to follow through with large arms sales is understandable considering mainland China’s real threats and not the empty rhetoric that accompanies any Taiwan arms-related matter. Not only is China a large owner of US debt, but its industries can hurt the very contractors who are supplying Taiwan.

Since the F-16 purchase is already so controversial in the sphere of China-Taiwan-US relations, a potential middle way solution suggested by a recent State Department report are bulk orders of VTOL AV-8B Harriers instead. In the event Taiwan’s airfields are destroyed by Chinese ballistic missiles, it argues, a Harrier fleet ensures a second-strike capability.

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