The leadership of Taiwan has recently stepped up efforts to obtain a new American fighter aircraft to urgently recapitalise its aging air force.

Media reports indicate that president Tsai Ing-wen has publically confirmed that a request for new fighter aircraft has been made to Washington.

This follows a television interview in which the deputy defence minister said that a request had been sent to the USA, asking it to provide Taipei information on the number and type of fighters it could obtain.

A 7 March press release from the US-Taiwan Business Council, an agency that fosters trade and business relations between the USA and Taiwan, suggests that Taiwan may have a preference for the Lockheed Martin F-16V.

“The US-Taiwan Business Council has long supported the sale of additional F-16s to Taiwan,” it says.

“The Council believes that such a sale will address both quantitative and qualitative challenges, and that it will significantly boost Taiwan’s air defenses. The F-16 Viper’s performance and capabilities readily satisfy the Taiwan Air Force’s operational requirements. In addition, current maintenance, life-cycle support, and pilot training infrastructure would allow for cost-efficient and rapid integration into Taiwan’s existing armed forces.”

Irrespective of the council’s views, a major fighter sale to Taiwan would enrage Beijing, which views the island as a breakaway province. Chinese president Xi Jinping has not ruled out the possibility of using force to take the island, and has presided over a significant military buildup.

The timing of Taipei’s renewed efforts to obtain new fighters, however, comes at a fraught time for Sino-American relations, with a trade dispute underway between the two superpowers.

While a large infusion of F-16Vs would be a major boost for Taipei, a 2018 report in the National Interest suggests that this represents more modest ambitions, and that Taiwanese leadership would have preferred the short-takeoff vertical-landing (STOVL) F-35B. The report also quoted unnamed Taiwanese sources as saying that a Taipei wants a significant industrial component in any fighter deal.

Taipei had a long-standing request for 66 F-16 C/Ds in the 2000s, but the Obama administration ultimately let this fall through.

Cirium’s Fleets Analyzer shows that the Republic of China Air Force operates 282 combat aircraft, with an average age of 22.2 years. The most powerful element of this force are 113 F-16A/Bs being upgraded to the F-16V standard with a new active electronically scanned array radar, avionics, and centre pedestal.

In addition, Taipei possesses 20 Northrop F-5Es, 103 locally built AIDC F-CK-1Cs, and 46 Mirage 2000s.