Lugar Presses for Taiwan F-16 Sale to Avoid ‘Urgent’ Shortage

Taiwan’s military faces an “urgent” need for new Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 fighter jets to avoid being left without “credible” air combat capabilities, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar said in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Taiwan has legitimate defense needs and its existing capabilities are decaying,” Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Clinton on April 1. Unless the Obama administration approves Taiwan’s request for new F-16s, the island nation will have “no credible air-to-air capability” when it retires its existing fighter jets in the next decade, Lugar said.

Lugar’s appeal follows recent calls by analysts and former U.S. officials to re-examine relations with Taiwan. The U.S. supplies armaments to the island nation under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, over the objections of China, which cut off defense talks after the last two sales of military equipment were announced in October 2008 and January 2010.

The U.S. last delivered warplanes to Taiwan in 1999, even though the island’s leaders have asked at least three times since 2006, according to the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council in Arlington, Virginia. The group is made up of individuals and private companies with business interests in Taiwan.

“To date, we haven’t had any response from the Obama administration beyond the January 2010 package,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the council, in a telephone interview yesterday. That sale included missiles, helicopters and ships valued at about $6.4 billion.

Decision Timing

The U.S. would have to decide this year to approve the F-16 sale to produce the jets in time for delivery by 2015, Lugar said in his letter. In addition to F-16s, Taiwan’s military has U.S.-made F-5s, French-made Mirage aircraft from Dassault Aviation SA and its own fighter jets.

Among the calls for re-evaluating ties with Taiwan was a set of recommendations from a January meeting organized by former U.S. Ambassador to China and retired Navy Admiral Joseph Prueher in January, for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. The participants also included retired Admiral Timothy Keating, the former commander of U.S. Pacific Command.

“Our involvement with Taiwan is a frequent point of contention with the Chinese, particularly in respect to arms sales, and one that should be re-examined,” according to the group’s recommendations outlined in a report from the center. “The complex relationship is political and should be re-examined outside of a military context.”

Improving Ties

Proponents of caution on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, including California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, cite improving relations between the Taiwan and China. Taiwan counters that it needs the confidence of its U.S.-provided defenses to continue to advance negotiations with China.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has sought to improve ties across the Taiwan Straits since he took office in May 2008, including establishing direct air, shipping and postal links.

China has viewed Taiwan as a renegade province since Mao Zedong’s Communists won control of the mainland in 1949.

The State Department doesn’t comment on foreign military sales issues unless it has notified Congress of a planned transaction, said Nicole Thompson, a spokeswoman.

“We have received Senator Lugar’s letter and we will provide a response as soon as possible,” she said.

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