Members of the US Congress have called for greater urgency in the delivery of new Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70/72s to Taiwan, and expressed concern about the retrofit programme for the country’s existing fleet.

The 16 November letter was penned by representative Rob Wittman, vice chairman of the armed services committee, and signed by several colleagues. It was addressed to US Air Force secretary Frank Kendall and calls for a response by 18 December.

Taiwan Lockheed Martin F-16V

Source: Republic of China Air Force

A Taiwanese F-16. Both deliveries of new aircraft and upgrades of existing ones are behind schedule 

The group notes that completion of an upgrade programme for 141 older Taiwanese F-16s to the F-16 Block 70/72 – or F-16V – standard has been delayed for up to three years owing to a lack of key parts.

Further, the delivery of 66 new F-16 Block 70/72s has been delayed by over 15 months owing to “software complexities” that Lockheed failed to anticipate. Original plans had called for deliveries to be completed by 2025-2026, but this has slipped to 2026-2027.

“These are critical programmes to improve Taiwan’s self-defence capabilities in the near-to-mid terms,” write the congressmen.

“The F-16V retrofit program includes updates to the aircraft’s radar, targeting systems, and electronic warfare equipment. Taiwan currently has a force of 141 F-16s, the majority of which were delivered in the 1990s and urgently require modernization to remain relevant on the future battlefield.”

The letter notes the growing military threat from China. During 2023 Beijing has continued to mount incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, including one incursion involving over 100 fighters and nine ships into the Taiwan Strait, the body of water that separates the two countries.

The congressmen attribute the delays to “optimistic assumptions about how rapidly new technology and modifications might be integrated into the initial F-16 design”.

The letter acknowledges efforts to speed up upgrade work and deliveries, but expresses concern with both Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programmes.

“Despite notable improvements, we still consider these F-16 FMS cases to be high-risk,” write the congressmen.

“As such, we will continue to monitor these efforts closely, especially related to organising, staffing, funding, and prioritising the delivery and ferry flight operations supporting a timely arrival on the island of 66 new F-16 aircraft.”

Taiwan ordered the 66 new F-16Vs in 2019, but earlier this year Taiwanese media reports suggested that delivery timeframes were slipping.

In March 2021, Taiwan announced that 42 F-16A/Bs had been upgraded to the F-16V standard. At the time, it expressed an ambition to complete upgrade work by 2023.

China, meanwhile, continues to rapidly expand the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). In October, the Pentagon issued a report detailing China’s military advances.

“The PLAAF is rapidly catching up to Western air forces,” says the report, entitled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. “The PLAAF continues to modernise with the delivery of domestically built aircraft and a wide range of UASs.”

The Pentagon estimates that the PLAAF and People’s Liberation Army Navy have 1,300 fighters of the fourth-generation standard, while the PLAAF continues to field the fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter.