Taipei, July 19 (CNA) The U.S.-Taiwan Business Council said Wednesday that Taiwan is unlikely to obtain advanced F-35 jet fighters in the next decade and that a contingency plan is needed to meet Taiwan's defense needs during the upgrade of its current fighter fleet.
Taipei and Washington should work out a plan in the next few months to ensure that "while Taiwan's F-16 A/Bs are being withdrawn from the front line in 2016 and beyond, new fighters are available to fill the gap," the U.S.-based council said in a statement.
The statement was issued against the background of Taiwan's recent signing of a letter of acceptance sent by the United States on a US$3.8 billion program to retrofit Taiwan's 145 F-16 A/B fighters.
The council welcomed the deal, saying it "will provide Taiwan's existing fleet of F-16 A/Bs with important enhancements by means of a contract" that spans from 2012 to 2021.
Under the program, the advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar will be installed on Taiwan's fighters. Along with structural upgrades, the program will also improve the aircraft's avionics and expand their electronic warfare suites, the council noted.
It suggested that an offer of a small number of new F-16s could help maintain Taiwan's air defense in the interim.
The F-35B, the short take-off and vertical landing fighter, would serve the purpose, but it "will certainly not be made available to Taiwan in the next decade," the council said.
In addition, the F-35B is "significantly more expensive" than the F-16 C/D and would thus create greater budgetary pressures on Taiwan's defense expenditures, it said.
In response to the council's remarks, Taiwan's defense ministry said it will continue to assess its needs in its efforts to procure advanced combat aircraft.
"The ministry has made preparations for the F-16 A/B upgrade program," ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Luo Shou-he said, adding that the fighters will be ungraded in phases to ensure that Taiwan's air defense will not be affected.
Taiwan has been lobbying Washington for a long time to sell it the advanced fighters, but the U.S. 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.
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 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's defense ministry later issued a statement thanking the U.S. Congress for its support and said that it will reassess its need for more advanced fighters because some of the functions of the upgraded F-16 A/Bs will be better than those of the F-16 C/Ds.
The statement triggered speculation that Taiwan's interest in the F-16 C/D fighters had cooled.
A defense official also told CNA recently that the F-35 fighter is best suited to Taiwan's air defense needs.
(By Elaine Hou)