Following the initiation of a domestic program in 2016 to upgrade ageing F-16A/B fighters to the F-16V standard, with the integration of new avionics and engines, the Taiwanese Aerospace Industry Development Centre has delivered 62 modernised airframes. These deliveries have brought the fleet of modernised F-16s to 64, with two more having been upgraded in the U.S. by Lockheed Martin which partnered with Taiwan’s defence sector for the program. Upgrades have also included new landing gear facilitating heavier fuel and weapons loads for the aircraft. On November 18th a ceremony at Chiayi Air Base in southwest Taiwan attended by President Tsai Ing Wen saw the resident 4th Tactical Fighter Wing declared fully operational. This made Taiwan’s Air Force, officially the Republic of China Air Force, the first in the world to field operational F-16Vs. Tsai tweeted after the event “#Taiwan’s first squadron of upgraded F-16V fighter jets has entered service. These aircraft symbolize our close cooperation with the US & are equipped with advanced technology that will substantially strengthen our national defence.” The president made a speech at the event with strong ideological overtones. The ceremony was reportedly delayed due to the outbreak of COVID-19, with the F-16V reported in March to had gained an initial operating capability.
Taiwan is one of very few parties which still operates ageing F-16A/B Block 20 airframes, but is set to receive new F-16C/D Block 70 fighters after placing an order for 66 airframes in 2019 costing over $8.1 billion. 141 F-16Vs are expected to be delivered by 2023, providing a fleet of 207 F-16s with ‘4+ generation’ capabilities alongside the new Block 70 models. This could eventually make Taiwan the largest foreign operator of the F-16, with most operators moving to phase the ageing aircraft out of service. Upgraded F-16s will next be delivered to the 5th fighter wing at Hualien Air Base on the northeast coast, which is one of the closest to the Chinese mainland. The most notable improvement to the fighters is the integration of the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar, which is both much more difficult to jam and considerably more powerful than the older 1970s radar used by the F-16A/B. Even with these improvements, however, the F-16 airframe remains a 1970s design and the oldest fighter still in production worldwide other than the F-15.
The ability of Taiwanese F-16s to meaningfully impact the balance of power in the event of clashes with the Chinese mainland remains highly questionable, particularly due to their lack of stealth and the proximity of their airbases to the mainland. Taiwanese efforts to acquire F-35B fighters, which can deploy from makeshift airfields and have advanced stealth features, were notably rejected by the U.S. – with strong pro-mainland sentiments in Taiwan meaning technological secrets would potentially be compromised through espionage. Deliveries of new hardware to Taiwan has been highly controversial since the 1970s, since the Taipei government is officially a non-state actor with no recognition either from the United Nations or from any UN member state. The territory it governs considered by all states, including the U.S., as part of China. Taiwan is under a separate government to the Chinese mainland as a result of the technically ongoing Chinese Civil War, with the losing Republic of China government having fled to Taipei in 1949.