U.S. Seeks to Accelerate F-16 Deliveries to Taiwan Following Recent Crashes

In 2019 the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF), the official name of Taiwan’s Air Force, became the largest foreign client for modernised ‘4+ generation’ variants of the American F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet when a contract for 66 F-16 Block 70 fighters was signed for over $8.1 billion. These fighters were due to complete deliveries by the end of 2026, but on January 20th reports emerged from a number of Western media outlets citing anonymous sources that the United States was looking for ways to accelerate deliveries. This came after the Taipei government reportedly privately expressed interest in receiving the aircraft faster. These fighters represent Taiwan’s first acquisition of new combat jet aircraft since the 1990s, and are expected to replace its troubled French-supplied Mirage 2000 aircraft in service ten percent of which have crashed since deliveries begun. The RoCAF already operates two F-16 squadrons, having ordered 140 F-16A/B Block 20 airframes in the 1990s, and domestic industries have since begun modernising these to the F-16V standard with entirely new avionics and the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam AESA radar, the first of which entered service in 2021. Taiwan’s fighter fleet has faced multiple crashes in the last 14 months including four in under six months from November 2020 to March 2021, losing three F-5s and an F-16A/B, and one newly upgraded F-16V on January 11 2021 just 54 days after it was commissioned.

The F-16 has seen relatively few orders since the early 2010s with the large majority of clients being countries unable to afford higher end combat jets such as the F-35 or F-15 such as Bahrain, Bulgaria and Slovakia. The U.S. Air Force itself ceased F-16 acquisitions in 2005, and it is currently the cheapest Western fighter jet in production. With Taiwan recognised by the United Nations and all UN member states as a part of China, as well as by its own constitution, the Taipei government is technically a non state actor which has made arms acquisitions less straight forward than for independent countries. F-16s were sold to Taiwan after it's requests for modern F-35 fighters were refused by Washington, with a history of pilot defections to the Chinese mainland and prevalence of pro-mainland sympathisers on the island reportedly having raised concerns in the U.S. that F-35 technologies would be seriously at risk. With the F-16 having been in service since 1978, and increasingly considered obsolete with many major air forces moving to phase it out of operations, it is considered far from sensitive with the Chinese mainland already deploying fifth generation and ‘4++ generation’ fighters that are much more sophisticated. The F-16 is currently only in production at a single facility in Greenville, South Carolina, and although none have been produced for the U.S. Air Force in close to two decades the low rate of production at the facility means there is a backlog of orders yet to be met before deliveries to Taiwan begin. It thus remains to be seen whether deliveries can indeed be meaningfully accelerated, with investments to expand production lines remaining unlikely due to limited demand.

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