Pentagon paints grim picture of Taiwan air defense

By Peter Enav
Associated Press Writer / February 22, 2010

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TAIPEI, Taiwan—The Pentagon has painted a grim picture of Taiwan's air defense capabilities, saying that many of the island's 400 combat aircraft would not be available to help withstand an attack from rival China.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report obtained Monday by The Associated Press says "far fewer of these are operationally capable," an unusually strong indictment of Taiwanese defense readiness.

By pointing out the island's shortcomings, the report could provide justification for Washington to grant a Taiwanese request for relatively advanced F-16 jet fighters, a key element in its arms procurement wish list.

Late last month, the Obama administration notified Congress it was making $6.4 billion in weapons available to Taiwan, including missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, information distribution systems and two Osprey Class Mine Hunting Ships.

While the package deferred judgment on the F-16s -- and on a design plan for diesel submarines also coveted by Taiwan -- it still prompted a furious reaction from Beijing, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory 60 years after the sides split amid civil war.

The U.S. says the F-16 request remains under study.

China resents all U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, seeing them as interference in its internal affairs.

The DIA report, dated Jan. 21, says Taiwan's 60 U.S.-made F-5 fighters have reached the end of their operational service, and its 126 locally produced Indigenous Defense Fighter aircraft lack "the capability for sustained sorties."

Taiwan's 56 French-made Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets, the report says, "are technologically advanced, but they require frequent, expensive maintenance that adversely affects their operational readiness rate."

The report notes some of Taiwan's 146 F-16 A/Bs may receive improvements focusing on avionics and combat effectiveness, but says "the extent of the upgrades, and timing and quantity of affected aircraft is currently unknown."

Taiwan's new F-16 request is for the C/D model of the plane, which is considered a substantial improvement on the A/Bs.

Despite rapidly warming relations with Beijing, Taiwan maintains that it needs state-of-the-art weaponry from the U.S. to help it counter China's threat to attack.

Beijing has deployed an estimated 1,300 missiles aimed at Taiwanese targets, and over the past 15 years has engaged in a far-reaching military modernization program, focusing on submarines and aerial warfare capability, necessary to sustain any military action against Taiwan.

The possibility of such action is codified in a Chinese law from 2005, which threatens attack if Taiwan moves to make its de facto independence permanent, or delays unification with the mainland indefinitely.

While Washington shifted its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, it remains Taiwan's most important foreign partner, providing it with the vast majority of its imported military equipment.

It has also left open the possibility that American forces could come to the island's aid if China invaded across the 100-mile (160-kilometer) -wide Taiwan Strait.

Following the announcement of the most recent arms deal, China suspended exchanges with the American military and threatened sanctions against major U.S. defense contractors.

Any American decision to make new F-16s available to Taiwan is likely to set off new tensions in relations between the sides.