An increasingly common sight. A ROCAF F-16 intercepts a Chinese bomber snooping around Taiwanese airspace.
The Trump administration’s announcement that they have approved the proposed sale of Lockheed Martin F-16Vs to the Republic of China’s Air Force (ROCAF) has resulted in broad support in United States political circles and thorough condemnation by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which says it is a serious violation of China’s sovereignty and security interests.
The PRC considers Taiwan – also known as the Republic of China – as a renegade province that it has threatened to retake by force if necessary. The USA has since 1979 followed the “One China” Policy, which recognises the PRC as the only “official” state of China, but at the same time has guaranteed support to Taiwan to allow the unofficial country to defend itself.
This policy has seen the US be the primary supplier of military equipment to Taiwan for decades, but that relationship has been strained as the PRC became more important in world trade and to the American economy, with the Chinese Communist Party firmly condemning any arms sales, particularly in the last two decades.
This has seen the Taiwan military gradually losing ground to the PRC as Beijing’s heavy investment in development and new hardware for their forces has seen them not only maintain their massive numerical superiority but also achieve at minimum parity – or even supersede – the Taiwanese in quality.
The current ROCAF fleet is reliant on older model F-16s and indigenously built AIDC F-CK-1 fighters for its primary air defence, supplemented by 46 ageing but capable French-built Mirage 2000s and 25 ancient F-5E Tigers.
Aware that it has been approaching a crisis in terms of the capability of its fighter fleet, Taiwan has sought newer aircraft for almost a decade. Initially seeking F-16C/Ds Block 50 aircraft to replace the F-5s and Mirages 2000s in 2011, US/PRC relations stalled the process. However, the row between America and China over trade has seen a major improvement in the amounts and quality of weapons Washington is willing to supply to Taiwan.
This has seen the US agree to upgrade Taiwan’s 142 current F-16As to the V standard, with the first of these entering service recently. The US also has approved sales of new M1A2T tanks, Stinger MANPADS and other equipment that will help revitalise the Taiwanese army.
The new aircraft will also do much to redress this imbalance. The current proposal is for Lockheed Martin to sell the ROCAF 66 F-16Vs for around US$8 billion, a huge sale. The F-16V – also known as Block 70/72 – has highly advanced AESA radar and pilot integration which makes it effectively a new aircraft in comparison to the original A/B models, and vastly superior to the Mirages and F-5s they are expected to replace.
The PRC is, as expected, furious at the proposal and criticism of Taiwan and the United States has been vocal in both government releases and in the mainland press, with Major General Chen Rongdi, head of war studies at the PLA Academy of Military Science, warning:
“As far as I know, China will sanction those companies involved in this sale. And, of course, we do not exclude the option of taking other measures.”
However, the Taiwanese military is relieved by the decision. In a statement the ROCAF said that:
“The current military strength of the cross-strait is on the decline; as the combat capability of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force continues to strengthen, each type of main fighter aircrafts responsible for the air defense missions in Taiwan has reached half way of their life span…Both the advanced F-16V and F-35 fighter aircrafts are compatible with the combat requirements of the Air Force.”
The mention of the F-35 is intriguing. The ROCAF has pursued the purchase of the advanced stealth attack fighter, but has settled for the F-16V and the upgrade program. Should US/PRC relations continue to deteriorate, it maybe that the F-35 does become available to the Taiwanese. And that will surely REALLY rile up the Chinese Communist Party!