A Taiwanese plane maker will on Friday open a maintenance centre for F-16 fighter jets in collaboration with US defence contractor Lockheed Martin, the first such facility in the Indo-Pacific, as tensions across the Taiwan Strait remain high.
President Tsai Ing-wen is expected to inaugurate the centre in Taichung, central Taiwan, local newspaper Liberty Times reported on Saturday. Representatives of Lockheed Martin – which is subject to sanctions from Beijing over its arms deal with the self-ruled island – would also be at the opening, it said.
The centre is part of a “strategic alliance” agreement signed in December between Taiwan’s state-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) and Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-16s.
Under the plan, they are working on a retrofit of Taiwan’s 142 F-16A/B Block 20 fighter jets to upgrade them into Vipers, an advanced version of the F-16.
AIDC chairman Hu Kai-hung said at a briefing on the new centre last week that it would support the island’s F-16 fleet and further develop Taiwan’s aerospace industry, according to a statement on the plane maker’s website.
The company also wanted to attract business from other F-16 owners in the region, Hu said.
Countries like South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia are among Lockheed Martin’s F-16 buyers – each own between 33 and 180 of the jets – while India is also a potential new client.
Taiwan has 142 F-16s in service at present. Earlier this month, it finalised a deal for 66 new F-16Vs from the US – the biggest arms sale to the island in years – which will take the total number to 208 and make it the largest operator of F-16s in the region.
The maintenance centre has been set up as military tensions with mainland China continue to escalate. Last month, Beijing – which sees Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to take it back by force if necessary – said it would impose sanctions on Lockheed Martin after the US State Department approved a deal to sell US$620 million worth of arms to the island to extend the operational life of its US-supplied Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles.
Based in Maryland, the aerospace giant has most of its maintenance centres in the US, but lower operating costs in Taiwan could be a factor for opening a facility there, according to local media.
Song Zhongping, a military commentator based in Hong Kong, said the maintenance centre could be seen as “another type of arms deal” with Taiwan.
“In this case, Taiwan has had to spend more to set up production lines for the maintenance work,” he said. “[But] given the close proximity between the mainland and Taiwan, the F-16s might not really play a role in any armed conflict between the two sides, and a maintenance centre wouldn’t be able to meet [the island’s] needs in the event of a war.”
Beijing has firmly opposed the deal with Taiwan for new F-16V fighters, or Vipers, the latest, upgraded model of the single-engine aircraft.
Earlier this month, the People’s Liberation Army held a series of military drills in the Taiwan Strait and to the north and south of the island, in a “serious warning” after US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar made a high-profile visit to Taiwan.
Taiwan’s defence ministry responded last week by posting a video on its Facebook and Twitter accounts showing the air force’s F-16s in action, and missiles being fired from land and sea.
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