Blame ‘Global Demand,’ Parts Shortages for Taiwan’s Tardy F-16s, US Says
Lawmakers are frustrated by the delays in arming the island against China.
A strained industrial base and the increased demand for weapons around the world are delaying Taiwan’s promised fighter jets, as congressional frustration mounts over efforts to arm the self-governing island against China.
Last Thursday, Taiwan Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng announced that his government would begin taking delivery of 66 new Lockheed Martin F-16s next year, not in 2023 as planned. Chiu said the ministry has asked the U.S. to “make up the deficiency” and that Taiwan still expects to get all the fighter jets by 2026. The jets, which would add to Taiwan's existing F-16 fleet, were ordered in an $8 billion deal in 2019.
Chiu said the delays were due to supply-chain disruptions.
On Thursday, a U.S. Air Force spokesperson confirmed that, and added that rising arms purchases by the world’s militaries were also to blame.
“It will take time for industry to acclimate to the current industrial capacity challenges, which while rooted in disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, have since been exacerbated by increased global demand as well as lingering supply chain shortages,” the spokesperson said.
After the Pentagon learned about the delay, defense officials traveled to Lockheed’s F-16 production plant in Greenville, South Carolina, to discuss the problem with company executives, the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Lockheed declined to say whether the company would be able to speed up F-16 production.
“Lockheed Martin has a longstanding partnership with Taiwan, supporting its national defense, interoperability with the United States and ensuring regional security,” the spokesperson said.
The Biden administration has asked Congress to approve more than $4.7 billion in foreign military sales to Taiwan. In 2022 alone, it notified Congress of 13 sales, the “largest single-year number of notifications for Taiwan since at least 1990,” the Air Force spokesperson said.
“Control of Taiwan’s sovereign airspace is vital to deterring conflict, and the U.S. must act with urgency to clear the FMS backlog and deliver the F-16s and other key capabilities Taiwan has paid for,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., chairman of the House Select Committee on China. The committee is working with the Pentagon and industry to alleviate the backlog of weapons that need to get to Taiwan, according to his office.
Yet, even if the U.S. is able to accelerate fighter jet deliveries to Taiwan and mitigate the delay, the strategic value of F-16s during an invasion is debated.
Taiwan would still be “completely outmatched” by the Chinese Air Force with the additional jets, and all of the country’s runways would be cratered by China in the initial hours of a conflict, said Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator, a geopolitics think tank. Taiwan would need to figure out how to keep the actual jets protected as well, he said.
“You really have an enormous headache of just how to keep China from destroying those jets, much less thinking about how they could contribute to the fight. And that is why I think it's somewhat of a distraction for Taiwan to be solely focused on the F-16s,” Alperovitch said.
However, more jets would reduce the wear-and-tear on Taiwanese airframes, which are getting rapidly worn out responding to China’s increasingly frequent military exercises around the island, according to Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla.
But regardless of the strategic value of the fighter jets, there’s “a lot of frustration” over how long it takes to get any system—not just F-16s—to Taiwan, said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute.
“There’s a feeling in Congress, and I agree with this, that we should have regularized defense sales to Taiwan and that we should focus on delivering those systems quickly. And instead what we have are irregular defense sales and very slow delivery of most of these systems,” Cooper said. Out of all the deliveries that are lagging, fighter jets are “pretty high on that list,” he said.
While the country awaits its F-16s, Taiwan is also facing a fighter pilot shortage and likely will not have enough to fly the jets when they arrive.
“Prompt delivery of these 66 F-16 fighters are a key component to Taiwan’s security, along with ensuring they have additional trained fighter pilots to operate them,” Waltz said.