Sens. John Cornyn and Jim Inhofe sent the letter to Trump on Monday, days after Taiwan defense officials confirmed their long-standing interest in the F-35. Cornyn, of Texas, is the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, and Inhofe, of Oklahoma, is the Senate Armed Services Committee’s No. 2 Republican.
The F-16V — billed as the most advanced fourth-generation fighter — would be a cost-effective alternative to the fifth-generation F-35, the letter argues. The lawmakers also said it would address the “quantitative and qualitative challenges” of Taiwan’s air defense fleet.
Of 144 F-16s Taiwan bought from the U.S. in 1993, 15 are in the U.S. for training purposes and 24 more will be offline for upgrades on a rolling basis through 2023. That means Taiwan is likely able to field only 65 F-16s at any given time in defense of the island — “not enough to maintain a credible defense,” the letter reads.
“If Taiwan’s air defense fleet is allowed to degenerate in number and quality, I am concerned that it would be destabilizing and would encourage Chinese aggression to ensue,” the letter reads. “Additionally, I am concerned that Taiwan’s military weakness and the inability to mount a credible air force would place an undue burden on forward-deployed U.S. forces in North East Asia.”
Those upgrades include fitting the F-16 with the active electronically scanned Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar, a new mission computer and an electronic warfare suite.
Taiwan is reportedly interested in the F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing version, through which Taiwan would aim to maintain air power if China attacked its runways in a first strike.
“The survivability of the F-35B and modern long-range sensors could help Taiwan intercept Chinese missiles, promoting deterrence well into the next decade,” the letter reads. “The F-35B would not only provide a modern fifth-generation fighter, but would also bolster their capabilities in next-generation warfare.”
Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a warning to Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway province. However, Washington provides arms to Taipei under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, and Trump days ago signed a bill to make it easier for the U.S. and Taiwan to exchange official visits.
In June, China demanded Washington reverse its decision to sell Taiwan $1.42 billion worth of arms, saying it contradicted a “consensus” that Xi reached with Trump during talks in Florida last year.
Inhofe in February completed a congressional trip to the Asia-Pacific region, which included a visit to Taiwan.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.