Taiwanese Air Force flying F-16 with live Harpoon missiles

Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets are patrolling over Taiwan Straits. Source Taiwanese Air Force

Taiwanese F-16 fighters have flown air patrol missions armed with live AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Taiwan’s Liberty Times said the missions were launched amid fears of imminent Chinese military exercises that are expected to be designed to simulate capture of the Taiwan-administered Dongsha Islands, in the northern area of the South China Sea.

The Taiwanese Air Force, also known as the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), launched two F-16s from the 5th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) based at Hualien Air Force Base, both of which carried a pair of the anti-ship missiles.

The pairing of F-16 and AGM-84 Harpoon is a key element in Taiwan’s ability to defend important strategic waterways and territorial claims against a maritime opponent. The ROCAF operates a mix of older Harpoons plus the newer Block II AGM-84Ls.

Until recently, Taiwanese F-16s carrying live AGM-84s had been a very rare occurrence. Aside from live-fire drills, ROCAF Vipers have only been observed flying with live Harpoons when the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier Liaoning transited the Taiwan Strait in 2016/2017. It is thought that the forthcoming Chinese exercises could include both PLAN aircraft carriers.

In addition, Taiwan’s F-16A/B Block 20 aircraft are currently undergoing a long-awaited $5.3-billion upgrade. Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) has partnered with Lockheed Martin’s for the work at its new facility in Taichung. Taiwan was the launch customer for the F-16V upgrade, known locally as the Phoenix Rising program. A total of 140 F-16A/Bs are being modernized locally under serial upgrades between 2018 and 2022, with initial deliveries being made to the 4th TFW at Chiayi. The upgraded aircraft feature the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and a host of other improvements.

Taiwan has also purchased 66 additional Block 70 F-16s after protracted plans were finally approved by the Trump administration in August last year. The new F-16s will replace the Taiwanese Air Force’s F-5E/Fs currently stationed at Chihhang AFB in Taitung.

Taiwan has requested to buy Lockheed Martin F-35s, with no guarantee this will be sanctioned by Washington at any time soon. The stealth fighter would open up a whole new set of capabilities for the ROCAF. In the meantime, it’s the Harpoon-toting F-16s that form a key component of Taiwan’s ability to fend-off potential Chinese territorial advances. 

If a war between the two countries were to break out, these weapons would be absolutely essential in providing Taiwan with any hope of slowing an all-out advance by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. As such, the patrol of F-16s armed with live Harpoons isn’t just a show of force, it will likely increasingly become an increasing necessity deterrent as tensions between Taipei and Beijing continue to increase.

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