The Pentagon on Wednesday announced the sale of advanced “smart bombs” and other high-tech strike arms to Taiwan under a new $5.8 billion arms package to upgrade the island’s F-16 force.
The formal announcement of the arms package by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency was sent to Congress but did not include offers of new F-16 C/D jets that Congress has been pushing the Obama administration to sell.
The arms notification calls for retrofitting 145 F-16 A/B jets with a high-tech radar called the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), GPS navigation, electronic warfare countermeasures pods, and other electronic warfare gear.
Defense officials said, however, the key elements of the package are offers of 140 AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and the 96 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, laser-guided bomb kits, that turn 500-pound bombs into precision-strike weapons.
Another significant element of the package is the announcement that the Pentagon will conduct a study for upgrading the F-16s in the future with new, more powerful engines.
A senior administration official said the airframes of the F-16s need to be strengthened to handle more powerful engines. But with those engines, Taiwan’s jets will be able to fly longer distances with the new bombs and missiles.
According to the Air Force, the F-16 has a range of 500 miles, enough to cross the 100-mile Taiwan Strait and hit targets along the Chinese coast. Its range with 500-pound JDAMs, could be less, however.
The administration’s decision not to offer new F-16s drew a sharp rebuke from several members of Congress.
“Today’s decision bestows upon Communist China a newfound sway over American national security, and this capitulation should be met with concern by U.S. allies everywhere,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who has introduced legislation that would require the F-16 C/D sale.
According to Senate aides, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised Mr. Cornyn a clear decision on the new F-16s by Oct. 1, in exchange for the senator lifting a hold on the nomination of William Burns to be deputy secretary of state.
Administration officials, however, told reporters on Wednesday that F-16 C/Ds could be sold in the future.
Asked about congressional support for new jets, a senior administration told reporters: “It is our belief that we are going to be able to get greater capabilities more rapidly, in a larger number of airplanes into the field in a more decisive way” with the upgrade deal.
Administration officials have said the refusal to sell new jets was designed to avoid another break in military relations with Beijing, as occurred temporarily in 2008 and last year.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the upgrade package is a modest step but “woefully insufficient to meet Taiwan’s increasingly urgent requirements for modern combat fighters and other defensive weapons systems.”
“This deal has Beijing’s fingerprints all over it,” she said.
The lack of new F-16s in the arms deal “calls into question the administration’s commitment to longstanding policy to ensure that Taiwan is able to defend itself from mainland China,” Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said.
Initial reaction from China, which opposes all U.S. arms sales, included comments from retired Adm. Yang Yi, who was quoted in the official People’s Daily as saying: “This U.S. arms sale to Taiwan is lying to and making a fool of the Chinese people.”
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun said the sale will harm China’s core interests and damage U.S.-China military and security cooperation.
The Pentagon estimates the weapons and upgrades are worth $5.3 billion. A separate $500 million defense sale for Taiwan includes pilot training, equipment and logistical support, bringing the total package to $5.8 billion.
Pentagon consultant Michael Pillsbury told Reuters that the arms sale might lead Chinese leaders’ into believing the retrofit package might provide more power than new C/Ds.
“Their propensity to miscalculate us - what they call the ‘hegemon’ - is astonishing,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “From Beijing’s point of view, the F-16 game is not over yet.”