Enhanced F-16s in Taiwan’s Top Fighter Unit Damaged During Major Earthquake

The Taiwan-based Republic of China Air Force has seen eight of its F-16V fighters based at Hualien Air Base damaged during a major earthquake, putting the aircraft out of service at around 8:00 am local time. The 7.4 magnitude earthquake could reportedly be felt as far as Shanghai, and killed nine people, with earthquake resistant structures credited with having reduced casualties significantly. Buildings at Hualien Air Base were also damaged with bunkers, hangars and barracks facing cracks and in some cases wall collapses. Located on Taiwan’s east coast facing the Chinese mainland, the base is very heavily relied on to shoulder air defence and cruise missile strike duties in the event of a new conflict between the two rival Chinese governments in Beijing and Taipei, with both having been in a state of civil war since the 1940s and each claiming to be the sole legitimate government of the Chinese nation. While the People’s Liberation Army Air Force on the mainland deploys primarily indigenous fighters, including the world’s only non-American fifth generation fighters fielded at squadron level strength, the Republic of China Air Force has for decades operated primarily U.S.-supplied combat jets reflecting Taipei’s close alignment with Washington. 

The Republic of China Air Force first sought to acquire F-16s in the 1980s, and gained permission to acquire 140 airframes the following decade to form two large fighter units. These were lower end F-16A/B Block 20 variants, however, and were delivered after they had long since been superseded by newer variants in the American fleet. Arms sales to the Republic of China government have long been highly controversial, as Taipei has no recognition at the United Nations and is not recognised by the overwhelming majority of UN member states including the United States itself. Arms sales have thus been widely equated with sales to a non state actor. Nevertheless, while continuing to deny Taipei’s requests from the early 2000s to order F-35 fighters, which would place its fleet technologically broadly on par with the mainland’s, the Barak Obama administration in 2012 authorised a program to upgrade ageing F-16A/B fighters to the F-16V standard from 2016, with the first unit of 64 of these commissioned in November 2021. The first loss among these aircraft occurred two months later amid a spate of fighter crashes across Taiwan. The most significant improvement these fighters benefit from is the integration of the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar, which is both much more difficult to jam and considerably more powerful than the obsolete AN/APG-66 mechanically scanned array radar first delivered in the 1990s.