Taiwan deployed the F-16V unit, which is an improved version of the F-16 fighter, for the first time, and held the inauguration ceremony of the unit on the 18th. The US-made F16V is a state-of-the-art aircraft for Taiwan and will be a move to strengthen its defense against China’s threats.
The F-16V, although it has significantly improved performance compared to the F-16 owned by Taiwan in the 1990s, may not be as good as the J20 deployed by China but maybe comparable or better than the 4th generation fighters deployed by China. Taiwan is in the process of updating 141 F-16s to F-16Vs and has already ordered 66 F-16Vs. In addition to F-16’s, Taiwan operates the US made F-5’s, the French-made Mirage-2000s and a domestic fighter called AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo or the Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF).
The inauguration ceremony of the F16V unit caused fierce opposition from the Chinese government. “China opposes any formal contact between the United States and Taiwan,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a press conference.
On March 17, Huang Zhiwei, the Taiwan Air Force of Chief, revealed that the Taiwan Air Force had 42 upgraded F-16V fighter jets. He also said that the F-16V has taken on the task of combat readiness, “seeing farther and fighting farther.”
According to the current plan, Taiwan will retire the F-5 fighter jets and the Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets in batches, which will make the F-16 series the main fighter. The Taiwan authorities are upgrading more than 140 existing F-16A/B to F-16V by 2022. At the same time, they are also actively pursuing the purchase of 66 Lockheed Martin’s latest F-16Vs. The Taiwanese authorities have signed a pilot training contract with the United States to provide them with pilot training plans and maintenance/logistics support.
Upgrading the F-16A/B in active service
As early as November 2016, the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin signed a foreign arms sales (FMS) contract to replace the 20th batch of about 140 F-16 A/B in Taiwan. The Block 20 aircraft were to be upgraded to the F-16V standard. The F-16V upgrades bring the aircraft to the same level as the F-16 block 70 aircraft. This US$5.3 billion upgrade plan is called the “Phoenix Upgrade”. It was planned to carry out a series of upgrades between 2018 and 2022. After the upgrade to F-16V, it will be equipped with Northrop Grumman’s AN/APG-83 active phased array control or AESA radar, new mission computers, electronic warfare kits and other improved avionics equipment, etc., and integrate new precision-guided weapons.
Taiwan is the initial customer for the F-16V upgrade. Han Xiang Aviation Industry Corporation (Han Xiang Company) has cooperated with Lockheed Martin Corporation to carry out this work at the new factory in Taichung. This is the first F-16V upgrade and maintenance centre in the Asia-Pacific region. Lockheed Martin’s branch in Taiwan as an equipment manufacturer signified that the United States plans to strengthen cooperation with its defense industry. The “Phoenix Upgrade” program encountered some delays in the early days due to the staff shortage in Han Xiang and software problems. Han Xiang initially planned to upgrade 24 aircraft per year under the “Phoenix Upgrade” program. Prior to this, Lockheed Martin had upgraded two Taiwanese aircraft.
In October 2018, Hanxiang completed the upgrade of the first F-16V and delivered it to the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing in Chiayi City, paving the way for the upgrade of the remaining aircraft.
The Obama administration had rejected the purchase request of F-16 Block 70 from Taiwan, considering that it would destroy the relationship with China, and only approved the upgrade plan. In August 2019, the Trump administration formally approved a US $8 billion military trade agreement to sell about 66 brand-new F-16 Block 70 aircraft to Taiwan.
This plan is called “Phoenix Flying” and requires the first two F-16Vs (single and two-seater) to be delivered before 2023 for initial testing, and all 66 aircraft will be delivered by 2026. As per open sources, there are 56 single-seater and ten two-seater aircraft in this batch.
The approval list is very comprehensive, including 75 General Electric Company F110 engines, 75 AN/APG-83 radars, 120 sets of ALE-50 towed decoys, 70 night vision devices, and 27 Compatible with night vision function “Joint Helmet Prompting System” II or “Scorpion” (Scorpion) helmet display/targeting system, 20 ground briefing/comment stations, etc. It also includes electronic warfare database and mission data file (MDF) development, support equipment, test equipment, software delivery/support, personnel training, flight/tactical manuals, technical documentation, and ground training equipment, including flight and maintenance simulators.
MS-110 Pods for Taiwan
The US has approved the sale of SLAM-ER and the MD-110 pods for Taiwan Air Force’s F-16’s in August. When the Chinese PLA Navy (PLAN) ships sailed through the Taiwan Strait, the F-16 at the Hualien base was also responsible for reconnaissance and patrols. The RF-16, the reconnaissance version of F-16, assigned to the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, is equipped with the “Phoenix Eye LOROP” tilted photographic reconnaissance pod. The Taiwan Air Force can now install the MS-110 long-range tilt camera pod on a large scale to upgrade the F-16 reconnaissance capability.
MS-110 is a derivative product of DB-110, which adds a multi-spectral function to the photoelectric/infrared function, which is expected to solve the current low-efficiency problem in the night and all-weather environment. According to Collins Aerospace Systems (formerly United Technologies Aerospace Systems), a subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies, the DB-110 is a 110-inch (2.79 meters) focal length reconnaissance system capable of detecting more than 80 nautical miles (Approximately 148 kilometres) day and night. High-resolution images of more than 10,000 square miles (approximately 26,000 square kilometres) per hour can be collected. The narrowest part of the Taiwan Strait is 68 nautical miles (about 126 kilometres). The F-16 equipped with MS-110 can observe the coastline of the mainland without leaving the Taiwanese airspace.
Taiwan has begun to set its sights on buying the F-35, especially B-type. Its short-range take-off and vertical landing capabilities are in line with Taiwan’s strategy of decentralizing operations during a major conflict, reducing its dependence on air bases and combat readiness roads. However, it is unlikely that the United States will sell the F-35 to Taiwan in the short term. There is another option that may be more feasible, which is to sell or lease F-15C aircraft to Taiwan. These aircraft do not have strong air-to-ground capabilities, but they are more suitable for defensive air control than F-16s. The number of air-to-air missiles can be increased through upgrades, which does not violate the United States’ ability to sell “defensive” weapons to Taiwan.