Taiwan unveiled its first batch of new fighter jets on Tuesday as the island faces increasing military threats from China.
The Republic of China’s new “V-model” F-16 fighter jets will be capable of shooting down ballistic missiles in all phases of flight, making it the first time Taiwan’s air force can do so, Taiwan’s defense ministry said in a statement.
The F-16 is one of the U.S.’s largest export defense items, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, which recently signed a $35 billion deal with Taiwan to sell 70 more. Those planes, which Taiwan says will be completed in 2017, had been delayed because of lack of funding.
China has warned that military sales to Taiwan — which it regards as part of its territory to be re-established eventually — would sour existing deals with the U.S. The Trump administration declined to “interfere in Taiwan’s internal affairs,” but the outgoing Obama administration signed a deal worth up to $6.4 billion to sell Taiwan new submarines and upgrade eight Harpoon Block IIA anti-ship missiles.
Taiwan’s F-16V orders are separate from the 10 Boeing F-18 planes Taiwan ordered under the Obama administration’s so-called 10 percent defense sales program, which allowed Taiwan to buy weapons from U.S. defense firms in exchange for accepting a lower-than-expected level of funding.
“V-model” F-16 fighters began flying in February after roughly four years of development, which included the testing of radar and weaponry in manned flight. The planes’ various fuselage designs will ensure that if one version of a particular model falters, others can be put into service while maintaining operational safety, the defense ministry said.
On top of the new jets, Taiwan’s military is set to acquire 38 refurbished F-16C/D planes and six upgraded older versions. The latter planes have more computing power and more capacity for video-game-like graphics, allowing the planes to play better-resolution games such as “Call of Duty.”
Taiwan regularly upgrades its fighter jets and build a military that is eventually used to engage China in direct combat if necessary. Its air force maintains a squadron of 39 F-16A/B fighters and 11 ground-attack aircraft, and its navy currently operates its first stealth craft: the frigate Huangshi Kai.
The U.S. largely off-limits to the island’s military, China routinely refuses to help Taiwan procure the latest military equipment it needs, preferring instead to urge a peaceful end to the island’s four-decade-old occupation of the isthmus that separates Taiwan from the mainland.
The rare military exchanges that exist between Taiwan and the U.S. come as China’s military is clearly getting a bigger piece of the global pie. China’s defense budget has swelled to $165 billion, surpassing that of the U.S. for the first time last year.
The Republic of China is smaller than China but larger than most other small countries, meaning its military spending is less significant on the world stage. But its military is nevertheless considered at least as powerful as many of the other small countries that traditionally count themselves in NATO.
Meanwhile, over the weekend, China’s government ordered an unprecedented domestic anti-terrorism drill to practice for the possible launch of missiles aimed at Taiwan in the event of a confrontation with the island.
Taiwan’s military sees as a mistake the idea of defense against a possible missile attack by Beijing: if that happens, Taiwan would have to engage in a total takeover of the country, likely leading to an all-out war. In order to protect Taiwan, most analysts agree, the U.S. would likely have to launch missiles and military strikes that could ultimately prove fatal to Chinese leaders.