F-35 stealth fighters are the new-generation combat aircraft that best serve the nation’s air defense needs, a military official said yesterday, the latest hint that the government might not be as keen to acquire the F-16C/Ds it has been requesting for years.
The F-35s, with their short takeoff capability, would bolster the country’s defense capabilities, since airports are likely to be destroyed by enemy forces in the event of war, the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
However, the fifth-generation aircraft remains under development and has faced a series of problems and rising costs. Defense analysts are also skeptical as to whether the US would agree to sell F-35s to Taiwan because of fears of possible technological transfer to China.
The official’s remarks came after the US House of Representatives voted earlier this month in favor of the US government selling 66 F-16C/Ds to Taiwan to help it close its military gap with China.
Taiwan has long lobbied Washington to sell it the fighters, but US President Barack Obama’s administration decided last year to offer Taiwan a retrofit package for its aging F-16A/B fleet rather than new F-16C/Ds.
Since then, the US Congress has pushed the Obama administration to also sell Taiwan the more advanced fighters, and following the House vote, the Ministry of National Defense issued a statement thanking it for its support.
However, it also said that Taiwan was reassessing its need for more advanced fighters because some of the functions of the upgraded F-16A/Bs were better than those of the F-16C/Ds, and it said that Taiwan, like Japan and Australia, would pursue the purchase of new-generation combat aircraft.
Because Japan and Australia have announced plans to buy F-35s, the statement triggered speculation that Taiwan’s interest in the F-16C/D aircraft had cooled. Asked about the issue, the official said the ministry would make an overall assessment of foreign purchases of military aircraft and make sure the defense budget is well spent.
“There are many options on the table,” the official said. “These include cutting the number of F-16C/Ds we have requested.”
In an interview, Ministry of National Defense spokesman Major General David Lo (羅紹和) reiterated Taiwan’s gratitude for US support and urged Washington to continue selling Taiwan defensive weapons based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
The TRA, enacted in 1979 when Washington and Taipei severed diplomatic ties, obliges the US to help Taiwan defend itself.
In September last year, the US approved the sale of a retrofit package for F-16A/B aircraft and related training at an estimated cost of US$5.85 billion, which the Executive Yuan has ordered should be brought down to about US$3.7 billion.