Trump Administration Approves Sale of F-16s to Taiwan

Jet export reverses Obama, Bush appeasement of China

Two F-16 Fighting Falcon launch flares during an annual drill at a Air Base in Taitung City
Two F-16 Fighting Falcon launch flares during an annual drill at a Air Base in Taitung City, Taiwan / Getty Images
March 15, 2019

The Trump administration has approved the sale of dozens of new F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan, the first major warplane sale to the island state in nearly 30 years.

The interagency decision, to be announced in the near future, authorized the sale of up to 66 F-16V jet fighters at an estimated cost of $13 billion, according to administration officials familiar with internal discussions.

The jets are among several new weapons systems, including missiles, that are part of the administration's latest arms sale to Taiwan, a key U.S. partner in the Asia Pacific region.

The jet sale reverses the Obama administration rejection of Taiwan's request for the same number of F-15C/D jets over fears of upsetting China. The George W. Bush administration also blocked F-16 sales in 2007, amid worries about triggering a backlash from Beijing.

A Pentagon spokesman referred questions about the arms sale to the State Department. A State Department spokesman said the department does not comment on arms sales until Congress is first notified.

The jet sale is part of the Trump administration's more hardline policy toward China. Last year, President Trump signed legislation authorizing greater amounts of high-level U.S. visits to Taiwan.

The arms sales are being carried out under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act that authorizes the United States to provide defensive weapons to Taiwan to counter any mainland attack.

The last sale of 150 F-16A/B models took place from 1992 to 1999 under the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

As with the 1992 transfers, the sale is expected to upset Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and not an independent state.

After a smaller $330 million arms sale for F-16 spare parts was announced in September, Beijing spokesmen denounced the weapons transfers as a violation of U.S.-China agreements.

"The sales severely violate international law and basic norms governing international relations, and severely violate the one-China principle as well as the principles of the three China-U.S. joint communiques," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, adding that China protested the earlier sale.

The Chinese military protested the sale as interference in China's internal affairs and damaging Chinese sovereignty and security interests.

The official newspaper China Daily stated that same month that the United States was threatening to cross a "red line" with Taiwan arms sales.

The Obama administration sold around $14 billion in arms to Taiwan. However, that administration blocked a $1 billion arms package in December 2016.

In the first two years of the Trump administration, a total of $815.5 million in weapons were sold to Taiwan. The aircraft sale is expected to boost that number to around $14 billion.

China has stepped up pressure on the island in recent months by conducting provocative military flights around Taiwan.

The island, located 100 miles from the southern Chinese coast, was set up as the Republic of China in 1949 when Nationalist forces fled the mainland during a civil war.

The Pentagon 2018 report on the Chinese military stated that the military balance is shifting in China's favor. In terms of air power, between 2016 and 2017 China added 130 strike aircraft and bombers, increasing the numbers from 400 to 530.

The jet sales will be announced amid increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing. Both remain locked in a trade dispute over China's unfair trade practices and technology theft.

Despite several months of talks and the imposition of tariffs, an agreement resolving the trade dispute has not materialized.

The manufacturer of the F-16V, Lockheed Martin, describes the aircraft as the most technologically advanced fourth generation fighter in the world. The first V variant was flown in 2015.

A central feature is the jet's Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, an advanced avionics system. Other features include the capability of carrying advanced missiles, the Sniper targeting pod and precision GPS navigation.

Taiwan's military has said for more than 10 years that it urgently needs new warplanes to replace older F-16s and other jets, to upgrade air power.

A senior Taiwan defense official said in December 2009 that new jets are needed because 10 pilots had been killed in training accidents as a result of flying older jets.

"Our pilots don't mind dying in combat, but they don't want to die in training accidents because their aircraft are too old," the official said.

The Obama administration rejected the F-16 request at the time over fears of a disruption in ties.

In April, the U.S. government granted a license to Taiwan permitting technology transfers that will assist in building its own submarines. Taipei is currently in the process of designing an indigenous submarine needed to deter mainland China's large naval forces.

The U.S. government also indirectly has assisted Taiwan in building land-attack cruise missiles, both ground- and air-launched, that can range Chinese cities.

After China began conducting provocative flights near Taiwan, the Pentagon in January 2018 authorized the sale of 250 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Taiwan.

Two senior Republican senators urged the president to sell new jets last year.

"After years of military modernization, China shows the ability to wage war against Taiwan for the first time since the 1950s," Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) and Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) stated in a March 2018 letter.

"However, with your leadership, it is possible to help Taiwan remain a democracy, free to establish a relationship with China that is not driven by military coercion. Taiwan has a legitimate requirement to field a modern fighter fleet to address a myriad of defense contingencies."

Cornyn and Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said if the F-35B could not be released, then F-16Vs should be sold.

New fighters "will have a positive impact on Taiwan's self-defense and would act as a necessary deterrent to China's aggressive military posture across the Asia-Pacific region," the senators said.

Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said Taiwan is threatened by advanced jets from China, including stealth fighters, that justify selling Taiwan more advanced F-35s.

"The administration should be applauded for selling F-16s to meet an immediate need, but why not commit the U.S. to victory on the Taiwan Strait?" Fisher said.

"This would require selling new long-range, anti-ship and land-attack missiles, in addition to F-35s. Sure, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping will be mad but will also be better deterred from starting a war that could result in the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party."

Defense journalist Wendell Minnick reported recently that Taiwan chose the F-16V after abandoning a proposal to buy the more advanced F-35 fifth generation stealth jet from the United States.

Taiwan was seeking the vertical-takeoff version, the F-35B, but rejected the jet as too costly.

Washington in the past has balked at some arms transfers to Taiwan over concerns of compromising weapons secrets through Chinese espionage on the island.

As part of its defense modernization, Taiwan also is upgrading its force of Indigenous Defense Fighters that will give the jets great weapons-carrying capacity and replace radar and combat computers.

Taiwan's fleet of 144 older F-16s have been undergoing upgrades under a $3.7 billion arms sale in 2016. The upgrades include adding advanced radar used on the most modern F-22 and F-35 jets.

Taiwan plans to upgrade the entire F-16 force by 2023.

China has deployed a massive force of an estimated 1,200 ballistic and cruise missiles within range of Taiwan. In a conflict, China is expected to launched hundreds of missiles at Taiwan, including its air bases.

The Pentagon has been seeking to end the cumbersome bureaucratic process of selling arms to Taiwan in large, multi-billion packages.

A new policy would sell needed arms on a more normal basis similar to transfers with other allies under the Foreign Military Sales program.

Published under: China , Taiwan