President Obama has decided to sell a new arms package to Taiwan that will likely include weapons and equipment to upgrade the island’s F-16 jets, according to administration and congressional officials.
Congress will be briefed Friday on the arms package, worth an estimated $4.2 billion, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. A formal announcement is expected soon.
“All we’ve been told is the president has made a decision, and I assume it will be for the F-16 A/B upgrade package,” said a senior congressional aide close to the issue.
The president decided against selling Taiwan 66 advanced F-16 C/D model aircraft, despite several requests from Taipei and Congress, the officials said.
The decision ends nearly two years of debate within the administration and Congress over whether to sell advanced strike aircraft.
The White House declined to comment.
Supporters of the sale say new F-16s, produced by Lockheed Martin, are needed to bolster Taiwan’s defenses against China’s growing air power and to produce jobs for the U.S. aerospace industry.
China, which opposes U.S. arms sales, is expected to react harshly to the upgrade package. China’s military cut off exchanges with the Pentagon in 2008 and last year after two arms packages were announced.
The Obama administration has made its policy of seeking closer military ties with China a high priority, one reason that the president rejected new F-16s in the latest arms sales package, the officials said.
China’s U.S. debt holdings also likely influenced the decision. In February 2010, Chinese military leaders called for punishing the United States for arms sales to Taiwan by calling in some of the $1.1 trillion in China’s Treasury debt holdings.
A senior administration official said the decision not to sell new F-16s is a setback for officials in the administration who are concerned about Taiwan’s declining defenses. The opposition to selling the new jets came mainly from within the State Department, the official said.
The State Department had no immediate comment.
In August, Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, held up the nomination of William Burns to be deputy secretary of state over the jet sale. Mr. Cornyn released the hold after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised that a decision on the next Taiwan arms package would be made by Oct. 1.
In addition, the Pentagon is expected to release a long-delayed study on the air power balance across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait. The study is said by officials to show that Taiwan’s air force urgently needs modernization.
China has been building up its air forces along the coast opposite Taiwan with more advanced warplanes, including Russian-made Su-27s, Su-30s and Chinese J-10 fighters.
Taiwan’s air force is facing serious shortcomings in its fleet, which includes 145 F-16 A/B jets, F-4s, French-made Mirage-2000 jets and domestic fighters.
A congressional assessment supporting the sale of new F-16s stated that “the U.S. government paralysis over sales of these aircraft since 2006 has given China time to develop more advanced capabilities — such as its fifth-generation J-20 — and evaluate capabilities to defeat even more advanced U.S. tactical aircraft such as the F-22, which may be sold to other U.S. allies in the region, such as Japan, in the future.”
According to two U.S. officials close to the arms debate, the White House National Security Council staff, including China military authority Evan Medeiros, worked quietly within the interagency system to influence several assessments on the impact of the F-16 C/D sales that were key to the president’s decision against selling new jets.
One of the assessments argued that the C/D jets were far more capable than earlier F-16s because of their strike capabilities and could be considered as undermining the U.S. pledge to provide only defensive arms to Taiwan.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are guided by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which calls for the United States to provide defense weaponry to Taiwan and prevent the forcible reunification of the island by China.
Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province. Taiwan has had a government separate from the communist regime in Beijing since Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949.
Viewing Taiwan as one of its “core interests,” Beijing has not renounced the use of force against the island if Taiwan formally declares independence.
Before the decision on the arms package, 181 House members from both parties wrote to Mr. Obama Aug. 1 urging him to sell the new F-16s. That followed a similar letter from 45 senators in May calling for the new jets.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana also has pressed the administration on the C/D jets.
Mr. Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated in an April 1 letter to the State Department that “Taiwan has legitimate defense needs and its existing capabilities are decaying.”
In a letter sent Wednesday to Mr. Lugar, State Department official David S. Adams stated that “discussions and evaluations of foreign military requests, capabilities and needs are extremely sensitive and in most cases classified.”
“Although we cannot comment publicly on foreign military sales cases until those cases are notified to Congress, we can assure that this administration pays close attention to ensure that Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities remain adequate to its needs, as the Taiwan Relations Act requires,” Mr. Adams said.
Taiwan’s air force currently includes 150 F-16 A/Bs and 300 F-4, of which 30 are considered airworthy.
Two other jets, the Taiwan-produced Indigenous Defensive Fighter and French-made Mirage 2000, are said by specialists to be of limited use.
According to a Senate aide, since 2006 Taiwan submitted three letters to the administration requesting new F-16 C/Ds and none was approved or discussed with Congress.
By contrast, from 2006 to 2011, the U.S. government approved $3 billion in sales of C/Ds to Pakistan, along with $650 million in weapons.
“Taiwan has requested the sale of 66 new F-16C/D aircraft, but even if that request is finally approved in 2011, its fighter aircraft force structure will still decline by 65 percent over the next decade, owing the state of the rest of its fleet,” the aide said. “This fact alone demonstrates that new sales will not affect the qualitative and quantitative military balance in Taiwan’s region, particularly as China fields more advanced, fifth-generation stealth fighters such as its J-20 over the next decade.”
Approval of the C/D jets now would ensure that deliveries can begin in 2014.
The aide noted that upgrading the older F-16s will require that up to a third of the Taiwan air force be taken out of service for modernization.
What will be included in the upgrade is not known.
The Pentagon’s latest annual report on the Chinese military says that China has 1,680 fighter aircraft, compared with 388 for Taiwan.