Taiwan's hopes of buying Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds from the USA remain bleak, with Washington going ahead with a separate $6.5 billion arms package that includes attack helicopters and upgrades for existing aircraft.

The US Department of Defense on 3 October notified Congress of a plan to sell 30 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters worth $2.5 billion, upgrade packages for Taipei's four Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye airborne warning and control system aircraft, and badly needed spares for the island's Lockheed F-16A/B and Northrop F-5 fighters.

"The proposed sale will help improve the security of the recipient and assist in maintaining political stability, military balance and economic progress in the region," says the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

The package comes almost a year after a deal for 12 refurbished Lockheed P-3C maritime patrol aircraft, and aims to bolster Taiwan's defences against China, which has regarded the island as a renegade province since their split in 1949 and threatens to attack if Taipei declares independence.

Taipei requested the arms several years ago, but Washington stalled as former Taiwanese president Chen Shui Bian threatened to declare independence unilaterally. But relations have improved significantly since Ma Ying Jeou replaced Chen this year, and industry sources say the USA waited until after the Beijing Olympics to confirm the sale.

Beijing has protested, saying that the arms deal "grossly interfered in China's internal affairs, endangered Chinese national security, and disturbed the peaceful development of cross-strait relations". Observers, however, point out that the Bush administration probably did not want to leave the decision for the next administration, and also wants to show Beijing that it would not be able to dictate US policy.

The sale excludes 66 new F-16C/Ds and eight diesel submarines that Taiwan has also previously requested. "The stuff that was sold is all defensive and it is pretty hard for China to squawk too hard at that," says a long-time Taiwan observer. Washington could next approve a request for 60 Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks utility helicopters in 2009, the source adds.

Taipei is unlikely to get its new fighters and submarines in the near future. "A new administration will view that as an unnecessarily provocative move, as does Bush," says the observer.

Taiwan's air force needs the F-16C/Ds to bolster its ageing fighter fleets, which include Dassault Mirage 2000-5s and indigenous Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation F-CK-1A/Bs. AIDC has meanwhile urged the government to fund an upgrade programme for the latter type, and the development of a successor.

Source: Flight International