Taiwan urgently needs newer model F-16 jet fighters to bolster its air defenses and overall security because of growing missile and aircraft threats from China, Taiwan's deputy defense minister said Wednesday.
Andrew Yang, deputy minister for policy, also said in an interview with The Washington Times that the island's military is interested in buying more advanced F-35 jets in the future.
"We have about 90 F-5s as part of our air defense aircraft, and obviously it is urgently in need of replacement," Mr. Yang said at the end of a four-day U.S. visit to attend a defense industry conference. "That is the foundation for the proposal to acquire the F-16 C/D model to replace the aging F-5 fleet."
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are based on a 1979 law that calls for the United States to supply defensive weapons to the island. This came after diplomatic recognition was shifted to Beijing.
China, however, has reacted harshly to recent weapons deals, cutting off military exchanges in 2008 and again in January after Congress was notified of the latest $6.5 billion Taiwan arms package.
The Obama administration, according to U.S. officials, has held up its decision on the sale of 66 new F-16s, worth an estimated $3.1 billion, to avoid further upsetting defense ties with China. They are to resume with a meeting of U.S. and Chinese officials this week in Hawaii.
Pentagon spokesman Mark Ballesteros declined to comment on the pending arms sales except to say that "we continue to evaluate Taiwan's defense needs."
Mr. Yang said other weapons purchases already in the pipeline from earlier arms sales include Patriot anti-missile systems, Black Hawk troop transport helicopters and Apache attack helicopters.
The missile defenses are needed to counter a growing threat from Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles now deployed by the hundreds in positions within reach of Taiwan, Mr. Yang said.
"Of course, missiles are the primary threat for us," he said. "That's the reason why we want to acquire the anti-missile systems and long-range radar early warning systems."
Chinese missiles currently are targeted against air force bases and major military assets, which is another reason the F-16s are needed to bolster overall defenses.
"Protecting our military capability is vitally important so that we can still have the capability to conduct counterattacks, as China is going to use their air force to try and control the airspace over Taiwan area in order to conduct … amphibious attacks followed by those [missile] operations," Mr. Yang said.
Mr. Yang said a Pentagon study of Taiwan's air-defense needs is nearly complete and that different U.S. agencies will then weigh in on whether to approve the F-16 sale.
The request for the jets is "rational and justifiable" and should be granted, he said.
Mr. Yang said Taiwan's military also plans to ask for U.S. equipment to upgrade 146 older F-16s purchased in the 1990s.
"The [F-16] A/B model has been operational for nearly 20 years, so it is also aging and in need of upgrade as well," he said. "It also rational and justifiable to actually upgrade those. We are going to be asking for that, and the U.S. government has been notified that this will be another request proposed from our side."
However, the 66 new F-16s are "an urgent need" and "very much a crucial element for our follow-up defense transformation as well."
Mr. Yang said of the request for new F-16s that "we are not putting all the apples in one basket. But this is one of the big apples in the basket, so we want to see that the request will be fulfilled, the sooner the better."
China has not renounced plans to use force to retake the island, which broke with the mainland during the civil war of the 1940s when nationalist forces fled the communists to Taiwan.
Mr. Yang said one likely scenario in any conflict with China would be an amphibious assault, which is why strengthening air power is so important.
"We are acquiring the Black Hawks to enhance our troop mobility and also acquiring the Apache gunships to conduct counterattacks over the amphibious landing operations," he said, noting that other military modernization are part of what he called "early defense."
China currently has between 1,200 and 1,400 missiles — cruise and ballistic — near Taiwan, and Beijing has been adding and upgrading the weapons with more accurate systems, he said.
China's growing "precision strike capabilities over their targets in Taiwan" are "a major concern for us," he said.
Mark Stokes, a retired Air Force colonel and former Pentagon policymaker for Asia, said selling new F-16s is needed.
"A follow-on sale of additional F-16s is a measured and appropriate response to the PLA's [People's Liberation Army] increasingly ambitious force modernization program, and consistent with U.S. legal obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act," he said.
John Tkacik, a former State Department Asia specialist, said recent tensions between China and Japan over disputed islands have changed some views within the Obama administration on Beijing's direction.
"Obama's top Asia policy people are now coming around to the realization that Japan is an absolutely essential ally in organizing our democratic partners in Asia if we hope to balance China's rise," he said.
"That has also brought an entirely new rethink of where Taiwan is going. Taiwan is geographically and strategically key to Japan's defenses in the Western Pacific, and Taiwan's significant territorial presence in the South China Sea means that it is a key player there, whether we or the Southeast Asians like it or not," he said.
Mr. Tkacik said the Bush administration refused to acknowledge major shortfalls in Taiwan's defense, including the fact that F-5s were so old they were crashing regularly.
"I think a modernization of Taiwan's existing F-16 fleet is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't answer Taiwan's main problem that over half of its fighters can't fight in any kind of showdown with China," he said.
Mr. Tkacik noted that the F-16 sale also would create thousands of jobs for the U.S. economy.
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