A US official confirmed on Thursday that Taiwan is seeking to buy as many as 66 advanced Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 fighter aircraft over a period of five to 10 years to guard its skies from any Chinese assault.
The Chinese-language China Times reported earlier this month, without identifying any sources, that a Taiwanese delegation had proposed the procurement of F-16C/D fighters during an annual military meeting with Washington.
Such a deal could be worth as much as US$5.5 billion based on prices quoted by the Pentagon last month for up to 36 such F-16s and related gear sought by Pakistan.
If the US agrees to sell the fighters, it would be the biggest arms deal Washington has offered Taiwan since 2001, when US President George W. Bush agreed to provide Taiwan with eight diesel-powered submarines, 12 P-3C submarine-hunting aircraft and an improved version of Patriot missiles.
Taiwan's Air Force has been pursuing the Block 50/52 F-16C single-seat configuration and the F-16D two-seat version for at least a year, said the US official, who asked not to be named.
Its "top priority is to protect the skies," the official said. He said the F-16C/Ds would replace the Indigenous Defense Fighter, F-5 supersonic fighter and perhaps the Mirage 2000 multirole fighters built by Dassault of France.
Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesman Wu Chi-fang (
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao (
A Washington-based representative of the Taiwanese Air Force declined to comment, as did Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's biggest supplier.
US arms sales to Taiwan are particularly thorny. They are opposed by Beijing, mired in partisan wrangling in Taipei and viewed by Washington as a test of Taiwan's willingness to invest in its own defense and cut the danger of a cross-strait clash into which US forces could be drawn.
Since Bush approved Taiwan's request for submarines, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, four decommissioned Kidd-class destroyers and other weapons in 2001, most of these deals have been held up in Taiwan's legislature, highlighting similar potential snags to an F-16 deal, assuming it is approved by the US, as is expected.
Still, Taiwan must make a major fighter purchase in the next few years if it is to maintain a credible Air Force, said Richard Aboulafia of the Fairfax, Virginia-based TEAL Group, an aerospace consultancy.