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TAIPEI — The Jan. 21 crash of an F-16 fighter aircraft stationed at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, was one of the few times the US government had acknowledged the existence of a Taiwan fighter trainer program within the continental United States.

According to a statement released by the Taiwan Air Force, Maj. Kao Ting-cheng died during air-to-air combat training when his fighter crashed in Yavapai County, north of Phoenix. He was a member of Taiwan’s 455th (4th) Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), 22nd Fighter Group (FG), at Chiayi Air Force Base in west-central Taiwan.The American Institute in Taiwan (the de facto US Embassy) in Taipei acknowledged the crash and the death of the pilot in a news release issued by its director, Kin Moy, on the same day.

On Tuesday, Defense News will be given access to Chiayi AFB for a live exercise of the Air Force’s preparedness during the upcoming Chinese New Year, scheduled for Feb. 7 to 13. The 455th will demonstrate the F-16's capability in the event of a surprise attack by China.

Since Washington switched relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, China has pressured the United States to end all military activities and arms sales with Taiwan. Despite China’s best lobbying efforts, arms sales, including training, have continued to shore up the fledgling democracy.

Taiwan's 21st Tactical Fighter Squadron, "The Gamblers," has been training at Luke since 1997. Made up of 14 Block 20 F-16A/B fighter aircraft, the program is part of the Foreign Military Sales program under the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

Taiwan procured 150 F-16s in the early 1990s under the Peace Phoenix program. The F-16s make up two TFWs, the 455 and 401 (Hualien AFB), comprising six FGs (21, 22, 23, and 17, 26, 27, respectively).

Taiwan’s F-16s are currently undergoing a midlife upgrade. In October 2012, Lockheed Martin was awarded a $1.85 billion contract by the US government for a major upgrade of Taiwan’s remaining 144 F-16 fighter aircraft. Then in December 2014, the US awarded a $308 million contract to Lockheed Martin to supply the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for the upgrade. The AESA radar is the Northrop Grumman APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar.

Though Taiwan wants to procure F-35s as replacements for its aging fighter fleet of Mirage-2000s, F-5s, and Indigenous Defense Fighters, the US appears reluctant to release the advanced stealth fighter. Over the past 10 years, the US followed a policy of not enraging China by not releasing the F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighter and instead insisted that Taiwan’s Air Force upgrade its current fleet of F-16s.

Taiwan has a requirement for vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft, which the F-35B would fulfill, but new fighters for Taiwan would once again cross China’s red line spelled out when Taiwan attempted to procure new F-16C/Ds.

US government sources in Washington now suggest that the V/STOL requirement could be fulfilled via either a hot transfer of the US Marine Corps subsonic AV-8 Harrier or refurbishing the older aircraft with new engines and avionics. Though China is expected to complain about such a sale, the procurement does not violate an alleged promise by the White House not to sell new fighter aircraft to Taiwan.

The AV-8 is considered an air-to-ground support aircraft, though it can carry air-to-air missiles. China’s 1,400 short-range ballistic missiles are expected to pulverize Taiwan’s air bases within the first hours of any potential war, making landing and takeoff of conventional fighters, like the F-16s and Mirages, impossible. The AV-8 would allow the Taiwan Air Force to hide aircraft within its rugged mountainous interior. The Harrier would also be perfect for attacking amphibious ships transporting China’s invasion force across the Taiwan Strait.

Email: wminnick@defensenews.com

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