The United States will re-visit the sale of Lockheed Martin F-16 C/D fighter aircraft to Taiwan, less than one year after shunning Taipei's request for new fighters.
Washington's apparent change of position became public on the web site of Texas senator John Cornyn, an implacable supporter of an F-16 C/D sale to Taipei. Cornyn, whose constituency includes Fort Worth, where Lockheed Martin has a major manufacturing presence, published a letter from Robert Nabors, assistant to the president and director of the office of legislative affairs.
"We are mindful of and share your concerns about Taiwan's growing shortfall in fighter aircraft as the [Northrop] F-5s are retired from service and notwithstanding the upgrade of the F-16A/Bs," writes Nabor.
"We recognize that China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, while our democratic partner Taiwan has only 490. We are committed to assisting Taiwan in addressing the disparity in numbers of aircraft through our work with Taiwan's defence ministry on its development of a comprehensive defence strategy vis-à-vis China."
He adds that the issue will be a "high priority" for the next assistant secretary of defence.
"The assistant secretary, in consultation with the inter-agency and congress, will play a lead role as the administration decides on a near-term course of action on how to address Taiwan's fighter gap, including the sale to Taiwan of an undetermined number of new U.S.-made fighter aircraft."
The news will infuriate Beijing, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province.
Taipei has consistently requested 66 F-16 C/Ds, but has been continuously rebuffed. Instead, in 2011 Washington offered to upgrade 152 F-16A/Bs. If implemented as per the original Defense Security Cooperation Agency announcement, the package would make Taiwan's F-16s among the most capable in the world.
It envisaged 176 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, 176 Terma ALQ-213 electronic warfare management systems, 128 joint helmet-mounted cueing systems and several other avionics and systems upgrades.
If Washington decides to offer Taiwan more fighters, it could possibly offer the F-16V variant that Lockheed announced at the Singapore Airshow in February. Roughly equivalent to the F-16 Block 60, the F-16V is available both as an upgrade and as a new-build aircraft.