MELBOURNE, Australia — Taiwan has flagged continued interest in the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet, possibly as part of an upcoming new round of arms purchases from the United States.
Speaking to parliament, Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa confirmed Taiwan’s long-standing interest in the F-35, although he did not mention which variant of the F-35 or how many aircraft Taiwan was interested in acquiring.
However, previous reports have said Taiwan is interested in the F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing, or STOVL, version, which is also used by the U.S Marine Corps, Italy and the United Kingdom. Japan and Singapore are also reportedly interested in this variant.
Yen said his ministry was also reviewing the possibility of acquiring the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker midair refueling tanker. If followed through, this would be the first time Taiwan will have a dedicated midair refueling capability.
Taiwan sees the F-35B and its STOVL capabilities as a way to offset the threat of a first strike by China, allowing the island to retain the ability to generate air power in the event of its runways being disabled.
Arms sales to Taiwan have often been a fraught affair, with China ― who sees the island as a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to retake it ― applying increasingly intense pressure to diplomatically isolate Taiwan.
The U.S. does, however, maintain strong de facto diplomatic relations with Taiwan’s government, and the Taiwan Relations Act enacted by Congress in 1979 commits the U.S. to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
In recent years, the most advanced U.S. weapons have been out of Taiwan’s reach so as to avoid incurring China’s wrath.
Taiwan’s Air Force currently operates a mix of Lockheed Martin F-16A/B Fighting Falcons, locally built AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo and French Dassault Mirage 2000-5 fighters. All three types were operationalized in the mid- to late 1990s and are facing obsolescence issues. Taiwan in the midst of upgrading the former two and looking at options to upgrade the latter.
However, it wants new fighter types to counter China’s increasing military advantage over the island’s armed forces in the face of China’s rapidly modernizing military.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.