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F-35 fighters best suit Taiwan's air defense needs: official

2012/05/29 15:23:29

Taipei, May 29 (CNA) F-35 stealth fighters are the new-generation combat aircraft that best serve Taiwan's air defense needs, a military official said Tuesday, the latest hint that the government may not be as keen to acquire advanced F-16 C/D fighters as once thought.

The F-35s, with their short takeoff capability, would bolster the country's defense capabilities, as airports are likely to be destroyed by enemy forces in the event of war, the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The official's remarks came after the U.S. House of Representatives voted earlier this month in favor of the U.S. government selling 66 F-16 C/Ds to Taiwan to help the island close its military gap with China.

Taiwan has long lobbied Washington to sell it the advanced fighters, but the Obama administration decided last year to offer Taiwan a retrofit package for its aging F-16 A/B fleet rather than new F-16 C/Ds.

Since then, the U.S. Congress has pushed the government to also sell Taiwan the more advanced fighters, and following the House vote, the Ministry of National Defense issued a statement thanking it for its support.

But it also noted that Taiwan was reassessing its need for more advanced jet fighters because some of the functions of the upgraded F-16 A/Bs were better than those of the F-16 C/Ds, and it said that Taiwan, like Japan and Australia, would pursue the purchase of new-generation combat aircraft.

Because Japan and Australia have announced plans to buy F-35s, the statement triggered speculation that Taiwan's interest in the F-16 C/D fighters had cooled.

Asked about the issue, the official said the ministry will make an overall assessment of foreign purchases of military aircraft and make sure the defense budget is well spent.

"There are many options on the table," the official said. "These include cutting the number of F-16 C/Ds we have requested."

In an interview with CNA, ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Luo Shou-he reiterated Taiwan's gratitude for U.S. support and urged Washington to continue selling Taiwan defensive weapons based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

The TRA, enacted in 1979 when Washington and Taipei severed ties, obliges the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself.

In September 2011, the U.S. approved the sale of a retrofit package for F-16 A/B fighters and related training at an estimated cost of US$5.85 billion.

(By Elaine Hou)