MELBOURNE, Australia — Taiwan’s defense minister said the country’s program to upgrade its F-16 fleet is expected to finish on schedule in 2022, despite ongoing delays.

In addition, the East Asian island’s government is also seeking new long-range reconnaissance pods for its F-16 fleet, which is set to be bolstered with more aircraft following the U.S. State Department’s approval of Taiwan’s request for 70 more new F-16 jets in August.

Speaking to Taiwan’s parliament, Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa admitted that the Phoenix Rising upgrade program had been “seriously” delayed, citing a shortage of manpower at Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation, or AIDC, as the main cause. However, he added, the shortage has been alleviated by hiring 200 additional employees at AIDC’s purpose-built F-16 upgrade facility at Taichung.

Meanwhile, the chief of staff of Taiwan’s Air Force, Lt. Gen. Liu Renyuan, said the delays mean the number of upgraded F-16s expected this year has been reduced from 24 to 20, although he still expects the upgrade program to be completed as planned by 2022.

The $5.3 billion Phoenix Rising program will see Taiwan’s F-16A/B Block 20 aircraft upgraded to the F-16V standard. The upgrade sees the installation of the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 scalable agile beam radar, an active electronically scanned radar, to replace the older mechanically scanned set; new mission computers; improvements to the aircraft’s electronic warfare suite and avionics; and the integration of new precision-guided weapons.

Singapore and South Korea are also upgrading their F-16s to roughly similar standards with new radars and mission computers. Singapore is upgrading its fleet of 60 F-16C/D Block 52 aircraft, while South Korea is upgrading 134 F-16s.

Looking across the Taiwan Strait

Lu Yu-ling, a legislator who sits on Taiwan’s Foreign and National Defense Committee, told parliament that the government will request the UTC Aerospace Systems MS-110 long-range oblique photography, or LOROP, pods from the United States.

The MS-110 is a derivative of the DB-110 LOROP pod, and it adds multispectral capability to the DB-110’s electro-optical/infrared capabilities.

According to UTC Aerospace Systems, the DB-110 is a 110-inch focal length reconnaissance system capable of producing high-resolution imagery from nadir to a standoff range of more than 80 nautical miles, day or night. The company also says the DB-110 can collect more than 10,000 square miles of high-resolution imagery per hour and “serves as the cornerstone of many air forces’ tactical and strategic [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities.”

The new pods are slated to replace four Phoenix Eye LOROP pods used by the Taiwanese Air Force’s F-16s and eight Northrop RF-5E Tigereye reconnaissance aircraft. Critics of the Phoenix Eye pods have pointed to the technology’s inefficiency in night and all-weather environments, something that the MS-110 system is expected to resolve.

Lu also cited the range of the MS-110 in parliament, noting that the Taiwan Strait, between Taiwan from China, is 68 nautical miles at its narrowest point and that an MS-110-equipped F-16 will be able to observe parts of China’s coastline without leaving Taiwanese airspace.

China sees Taiwan as a rogue province following the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when nationalist forces fled the mainland and established themselves on the island following their defeat to communist forces. China has not ruled out the use of force to reincorporate Taiwan into its territory.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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