Explaining the Rumors About Taiwan's Planned F-16 Purchase From the US

Explaining the Rumors About Taiwan's Planned F-16 Purchase From the US
Credit: Editors at Illustrated Guide for Weapons and Tactics
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Answering some common questions on Taiwan's request to purchase F-16V fighter jets from the United States.

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By the Editors at Illustrated Guide for Weapons and Tactics

The US military’s FMS process

The procurement of weapons is not your run of the mill transaction. There is a strict and official procedure that needs to be followed. If Taiwan is interested in a certain piece of equipment from the United States, for instance, it must first send an LOR (Letter of Request) for the P&A (Price and Availability) data. After the U.S. responds with the initial quote, Taiwan then has to produce a "Request for a LOA (Letter of Offer and Acceptance)," before the US officially sends out a “LOA.”

According to the regulations of the U.S. government’s FMS (Foreign Military Sales), in the first stage, the DOD does not have a definite time limit to respond to the buyer after they receive the “LOR.” However, in the second stage, after receiving the “Request for a LOA,” they need to make a decision on whether or not to sell within six months.

In the 40 years since the severance of Taiwan-U.S. diplomatic relations, the most significant military transaction was when President George H.W. Bush announced the sale of 150 F-16A/B jets in 1992 as he pushed for re-election. When his son, President George W. Bush, was in charge, the U.S. declared their willingness to sell submarines to Taiwan. However, after Taiwan sent out an “LOR,” the transaction was sunk to the bottom of the ocean due to some constraints enforced by the U.S. Department of State. Following that, Taiwan sent another LOR for the then newly developed F-16C/D fighter jets, but yet again, the order did not materialize.

Therefore, from the beginning of this century, throughout both the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) governments, Taiwan has been pushing to upgrade its relationship with the U.S. to something similar to close-knit allies, so that Taiwan would be able to skip to the second stage of the process and directly propose a “Request for an LOA” instead, allowing the U.S. executive branch to simply respond before the given deadline. At the end of 2018, after many years of hard work, the U.S. finally agreed to move toward a “more normal foreign military sales relationship” with Taiwan.

Therefore, with this current purchase of F-16 jets, the U.S. government must decide whether or not to approve the “Request for a LOA” within the time limit. If they do agree to it, then the U.S. will sign the LOA before signing contracts with domestic U.S. defense contractors to kick-start production.

Fact or fiction: ‘Spending big on outdated weapons?’

After news broke of the military aircraft procurement, some of the public voiced their opposition over the internet. Among the many voices, there were some who claimed that ‘the United Kingdom bought 138 of the latest F-35s for only NT$361.9 billion, yet the Tsai [Ing-wen, 蔡英文] government needed to spend NT$390 billion for 66 20-year-old F-16Vs.’

In response this statement, the Ministry of Defense had to release an announcement in order to explain the situation. The total price of the British F-35 procurement was GBP£9.1 billion, which is indeed equivalent to NT$361.9 billion, but the amount purchased was not 138 but rather only 48 jets. In addition, the United Kingdom was one of the countries that participated in the F-35 R&D program and has been involved in its investment since 2001, which means the country’s overall investment for this particular aircraft model is most definitely more than GBP£9.1 billion.

Furthermore, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense also explained that, at present, Taiwan has only proposed the specifications for a new batch of fighter jets, but there has been no confirmation of which model of fighter jet they would be purchasing. The ministry also emphasized that the “F-16V is not an old aircraft, even though the F-16A / B are,” effectively busting the myth surrounding the controversy.

Also, the reason Taiwan is not purchasing the F-35 “Lightning II” is very simple” The stealth technology, and its ability to sustain Mach speed for a brief period without the use of an afterburner, are both far too advanced. When the United States started the "Joint Strike Fighter" (JSF) program to help develop this aircraft, it considered what Beijing’s reaction would be, so they didn’t even think about inviting Taiwan to participate in the program. Moreover, it is only now that the countries that were involved in the program are starting to receive their shipments to update their squadrons, so even if U.S. President Donald Trump promised to add Taiwan to the waiting list, Taiwan would have to wait well over 10 years for the delivery. With cross-Strait relations as unpredictable as they are, Taiwan just cannot take that risk.

On top of this, the biggest threat currently facing Taiwan emerged last year, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with its warplanes and battleships has continued to surround Taiwan’s waters in order to demonstrate their ability to attack from all directions. Prior to this happening, the Taiwanese Armed Forces had always felt that the southeast coast was relatively safe, so the anti-submarine and air transport units are stationed in Pingtung, whereas all the old F-5E/F fighter jets are stationed in Taitung.

At the beginning of last year, in one of their drills, the Air Force gave a very “implicit” hint about their operations, that drill was the military exercise involving Taitung’s 7th Wing, F-5E / F fleet, where during the exercise, two F-16A/B jets from the 4th wing in Chiayi came over the Central Mountain Range and landed at Taitung Airport. After being wheeled into the steel hangers, they were refueled, but no one in the air force battered an eyelid, and the actions of all personnel were very well drilled, which suggested that this sort of cross-regional support had been going on for quite some time.

However, each Air Force base has its own area of patrol that it needs to protect, so if it is necessary for the West Coast fleets to fly over the mountains to support the East Coast regularly, then surely something is wrong and a long-term solution must be found. The 66 new fighter jets purchased this time around are the required number of jets the Air Force Wings need, so we can expect that they will be stationed at the two bases mentioned above in order to bolster Taiwan’s air defense.

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Credit: Editors at Illustrated Guide for Weapons and Tactics
An F-16A fighter jet from Chiayi, which flew over the Central Mountain Range to support Taitung.
The difference between the F-16V and F-16A/B

The F-16V has actually been appearing in the skies of Taiwan since last year. They are upgraded versions of the F-16A/B that the Taiwanese Armed Forces already owned, but how have these models made such a big jumped from the letters A/B to V? Well, the letters signify something other than upgraded releases.

In the U.S. military, the letters found after the model number usually represent what modifications the aircraft has been released with, and as the F-16 has been in production for 40 years, there have been numerous upgrades and modifications – so many that the 26 letters in the English alphabet aren’t even enough to represent them. Therefore, each lettered model will instead have “Blocks” – where the manufacturer usually makes some detailed modifications as a response to user experience and demand, usually for implementing different configuration management (CM) systems, and will then subsequently launch the aircraft under the same model name.

The first generation of the U.S. military’s F-16, the A/B, included Blocks 5, 10, 15 as secondary model numbers, while the second generation, the F-16C/D, continued the numbering directly from Block 25. When Taiwan first purchased the F-16 27 years ago, there were quite a few add-ons and equipment on the aircraft that put it on par with the F-16C/D, however, in order to not cause any problems with the opposite side of the strait, the United States deliberately tried to pull the wool over their eyes and referred to the aircrafts as F-16A/B Block 20.

As for where the model number V comes from, that is a little more interesting. Although the official name given to the F-16 by the U.S. military was the “Fighting Falcon,” when it was launched into service in the late 1970s, it coincided with the popularity of the original “Battlestar Galactica” TV show. Owing to the fact Americans have a natural tendency to give everything nicknames, many U.S. Air Force pilots and crews used the name “Viper” from the show to refer to these aircrafts, and as there were so many using it, that became the aircraft’s honorary name.

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Credit: Editors at Illustrated Guide for Weapons and Tactics
Due to so many US Air Force officers calling the F-16 fighter jet the Viper, it became prevalent even in public publications.
That’s where the V in F-16V comes from.

The V comes from the original nickname Viper, but the model name F-16V was actually only used for the “R&D model” when the upgraded aircraft was first announced by Lockheed Martin at the 2012 Singapore Air Show, and has no official record in the USAF, but if we wanted to know where it sits against the rest of the model variants, then it should be something like Block 70/72.

As the USAF has F-22 fleets, and now, the technologically more advanced F-35, it is impossible for the USAF to go back to the F-16 series, so there will be no new model numbers released. That means the current informal model number the F-16V is likely to become the general nickname for the aircraft (which, in a country such as Taiwan where we don’t pay much attention to model numbers, that has pretty much already happened).

The reason why Lockheed Martin (“Loma” [洛馬] for short in Chinese) continues to produce the F-16 aircraft is because the price tag of the F-35 is far too high and production is incredibly slow. In addition, the 25 countries that still have operational F-16’s probably don’t all intend to replace their fleets with F-35’s, but they do still have the need to improve the performance of the aircrafts they still have in service. Therefore, the F-16 Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) was also introduced, with some upgrades introduced being new technology that is found on the F-35.

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Credit: Editors at Illustrated Guide for Weapons and Tactics
Taiwan’s first official F-16V fighter jet emblem.

Although Taiwan has landed itself in the situation where it will have to wait an eternity for either of the F-35 or F-16C/D, it has suddenly found a compromise that could help solve our problems. Therefore, Taiwan struck while the iron was hot instead of hesitating like it had done before. The whole operation was codenamed “Phoenix Rising,” with the goal of upgrading the 140 strong F-16 fleet (several jets cannot receive upgrades due to various reasons), for a cost of around US$3.8 billion.

The main piece of equipment in the F-16V upgrade was the APG-83, which is a multi-functional active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. It works similar to compound eyes found on insects as it is composed of hundreds of small transmitting and receiving units, so it does not need to rotate like traditional antennas in order to scan an area; that also allows each unit to be assigned different tasks, so when compared to one of its predecessors, the APG-66 (V) 3 radar, its maximum radar range is longer by over 30 percent.

The biggest advantage this new radar system will give to the Taiwan Armed Forces is the substantial increase in its ability to detect the ever-increasing amount of the PLA’s stealth fighter jets, blow their cover and then use the HDMS’ (helmet mounted display system) visual targeting to lock the latest AIM-9X sidewinder missile on their tails. This technology is one of the only ways to help prevent Taiwan’s Air Force from becoming inferior to China’s in the short-to-medium-term future.

In addition, NT$19.6 billion was added to the fund last year, so that the upgraded aircrafts will all include DRFM (digital radio frequency memory), radar jammer pods; MTC (mission training center); SNIPER Advanced Targeting Pod; BRU-57, a multiple bomb rack unit; NVG (night vision goggles); ARC-210, multi-mode radio; AGM-154C JSOW (joint standoff weapon), a medium range precision guided weapon; AGM-88B HARM (high-speed anti-radiation missile), an air-to-surface missile, as well as eight other technologies.

Read Next: Military Launches Into Live-Fire Drills to Deter Chinese Invasion

This article first appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens and can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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