The National Interest
Date: August 22, 2020
Taipei's military capabilities compared to Beijing have slipped. While one military sale won't change that, new F-16v fighters are a step in the right direction–for many reasons.
by Dean Cheng
After an arduous trek of nearly 20 years, the United States and the Republic of China, the governing entity on Taiwan, this week made the final arrangements for the sale of 66 advanced F-16s to Taiwan. Valued at some $62 billion over 10 years, it is the largest arms sale to the island in years. Its jagged course also reflects the undercurrents that have long affected arms sales and the broader US-Taiwan relationship.
The idea of selling more advanced F-16s to Taiwan arose toward the end of the 1990s. Taiwan’s air force was confronted with the obsolescence of the F-5, a 1960s-vintage fighter designed as a lightweight, cheap aircraft primarily for export. On the mainland, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) had begun a massive modernization effort and was adding more and more advanced Su-27/J-11s to its inventory, as well as the HQ-9 advanced surface-to-air missile. It was clear that the F-5 would be unlikely to survive in the face of increasingly sophisticated Chinese fighters and missile defenses. The US and Taiwan governments both concluded that the best solution would be to sell Taiwan F-16C/Ds, which were more advanced than the F-16A/Bs sold by President George H.W. Bush to the island in 1992. The F-16C/D not only had more modern avionics, but was better suited to undertaking ground support missions.
Unfortunately, politics on both sides of the Pacific led to constant delays. In 2000, when Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the race for the presidency of Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT) opposition in the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s legislature) voted against appropriating the funds necessary for the purchase of F-16C/Ds. The Taiwan legislature’s obstructions frustrated the George W. Bush administration, who eventually pulled the entire sale in 2005.
When Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008, there was renewed interest in Taipei, but the Obama administration, intent on fostering improved relations with China and focused on obtaining Beijing’s cooperation on climate change, actively discouraged the F-16C/D sale. They opted, instead, for a modernization program for the island’s F-16A/B fleet. While this improved the 100+ F-16 fighters already in the ROC Air Force inventory, it did nothing to address the aging of the F-5s. [FULL STORY]