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Report: Chinese pressure means no F-16s for Taiwan


American officials may have decided once and for all not to sell a batch of new F-16Cs and Ds to Taiwan, although they could go forward with an upgrade program for the Vipers that it already has, Wendell Minnick reports in Defense News. The prospect of the F-16 sale has come up and been kicked down the road several times, as there never seems to be an opportune moment at which the U.S. is willing to absorb the blowback from Beijing that would accompany this sale.

Writing from Taipei, here's how Minnick broke it down:

A U.S. Department of Defense delegation arrived here last week to deliver the news and offer instead a retrofit package for older F-16A/Bs that includes an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The visit coincided with the biennial Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition (TADTE), held here Aug. 11-14.

"The U.S. Pentagon is here explaining what is in the upgrade package," a U.S. defense industry source said at TADTE. "They are going to split the baby: no C/Ds, but the A/B upgrade is going forward." Sources said an official announcement of the decision is expected by month's end.

But an official at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. Embassy, said "no decisions have been made," while DoD officials declined to comment on their delegation's mission. The proposed upgrade package would make the 146 Taiwanese F-16A/Bs among the most capable variants of the aircraft, perhaps second only to the APG-80 AESA-equipped F-16E/Fs flown by the United Arab Emirates.

Originally requested by Taipei in 2009, the package would cost $4.2 billion, sources at TADTE said. The new gear would include an AESA radar, likely either Northrop Grumman's Scalable Agile Beam Radar or the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar, to replace the planes' current APG-66(V)3 radar.

Either one would be an improvement on the Northrop APG-68(V)9 mechanical radar once contemplated for Taiwan's upgrade package. The switch is meant to soften the blow of denying new planes to Taipei, a Lockheed Martin source said.

American military support for Taiwan makes mainland Chinese leaders flip out. We've seen before how the commander of the Peoples' Liberation Army kept up an official fantasy about how Taiwan is just another Chinese province and so it "confuses" him as to why it would need to buy arms from the United States or elsewhere. But China is America's biggest creditor, and given Washington's inability to do ... anything ... about the woeful state of its finances, someone somewhere decided it was wise not to give Beijing anything else to be upset about. So this F-16 sale is going away.

This hasn't just disappointed Taiwan. There's a little mom and pop company called Lockheed Martin involved here, too, and as Minnick writes, no new-build F-16s for Taiwan could bring Lockheed closer to shuttering its Viper production line for good:

[Lockheed spokeswoman Laura] Siebert said the failure to release F-16C/Ds will weaken Lockheed Martin's plans to extend the production line for the fighter.

"While Congress has been notified of Oman and Iraq's desire for F-16s, the Taiwan order for 66 aircraft is very important to the long-term viability of the F-16 production to include the U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin and the thousands of suppliers throughout the U.S.," she said.

More than a few TADTE attendees said the Obama administration might reverse the decision as the 2012 presidential election approaches and political pressure for new jobs builds.

A June report by the Perryman Group, a Texas-based economic and financial analysis firm, estimated that Taiwan's F-16C/D program would create more than 16,000 jobs and almost $768 million in U.S. federal tax revenue. Much of that tax revenue and new jobs would go to election battleground states: California, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and Utah.

But China holds about 8 percent of U.S. debt, the largest block in foreign hands. As one TADTE attendee said, "Beijing's Kung Fu is better than Washington's."

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