The dark horse of Taiwanese politics, Taiwan Statebuilding Party Legislator Wonder Chen (陳柏惟), was elected to represent Taichung’s Shalu District (沙鹿) in last month’s legislative elections. The district, located on the west coast, made waves in local media after it was tipped to house a major new Asia-Pacific maintenance and repair center for F-16 Fighting Falcon warplanes.
The air force has been steadily modernizing its fleet of F-16s through a series of upgrade programs. To assist with those efforts, the aircraft’s manufacturer — US-based Lockheed Martin, the world’s pre-eminent manufacturer of military hardware and equipment — has sent a steady stream of specialist training staff to Taichung-based Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC). Taiwan is to become the first nation to upgrade older F-16 airframes to the new F-16V variant.
The two companies in December signed a “strategic alliance agreement” that gave the go-ahead for technology transfer and component construction under license so that AIDC can help other Asia-Pacific nations upgrade their F-16 fleets.
The agreement laid the foundation for the establishment of a major F-16 maintenance and repair center in Taiwan. However, due to potential competition from India, there was no guarantee that the plan would come to fruition.
During the Cold War, India was granted a production license by the Soviet Union to produce large numbers of MiG-21 fighter jets for its air force. However, due to the MiG-21’s extended period in service and its high accident rate, the Indian government is investing US$18 billion to replace it.
New Delhi has previously expressed an interest in purchasing a combination of an upgraded F-16 variant, called the F-21 by Lockheed Martin; Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; the French-made Dassault Rafale; the Eurofighter Typhoon; and the Russian-made MiG-35 and Su-35.
Lockheed Martin has offered a number of incentives to seal the deal, including basing the main assembly line in India and providing customized upgrades to the Indian Air Force’s existing F-16s. Given that several air forces operate the F-16, making components for the aircraft relatively inexpensive, most observers had expected Lockheed Martin to win the contract.
However, US defense and foreign affairs publication the National Interest has reported that testing is going well on 36 Dassault Rafales, which were ordered by the Indian Air Force as part of an earlier tender for evaluation purposes. This now makes it more likely that New Delhi would choose the Rafale over the F-16.
Meanwhile, a trade dispute between New Delhi and Washington has been simmering since the end of last year. While the scope of the dispute pales in comparison with a full-blown trade war between the US and China, it is an as yet unresolved point of contention between the two nations.
Washington has been trying to draw India into its Indo-Pacific strategy as a way to encircle and contain Beijing’s expansionist military ambitions. However, New Delhi has politely declined to take sides, citing its membership in the Non-Aligned Movement, a Cold War-era grouping of developing nation states that explicitly rejects alignment with any major power bloc.
Within the wider Asia-Pacific region, other nations that operate the F-16 include South Korea, Japan (made under license by Mitsubishi and called the F-2), Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Pakistan.
The air forces of these nations are operating hundreds of F-16s in total, all of which have been in service for a number of years and are at the point within their service history where they require performance upgrades. AIDC is Lockheed Martin’s only licensed maintenance and repair provider in the Asia-Pacific region.
AIDC and other Taiwanese companies are perfectly placed to benefit from this upgrade requirement over the coming years. It should also have the knock-on effect of promoting increased innovation and research within Taiwan’s aeronautics industry and universities.
Chen must ensure that he keeps the foot on the gas and continues to promote Taitung as a regional center for F-16 upgrades and maintenance.
Yang Chung-hsin is a researcher of China affairs.
Translated by Edward Jones
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