Why Taiwan grounded newly upgraded F-16V fighters

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On January 11 Taiwan suspended the use of its newly upgraded (to block 72) F-16V fighters because one of them had crashed during an offshore training exercise. The F-16Vs were allowed to fly again on the 20 th , after safety checks on Taiwan’s other F-16Vs. No problems were found and interviews with eyewitnesses and examination of other data, plus the inspection of other F-16Vs and consulting with the manufacturer it was determined that this problem was not widespread and details of the crash would have to await recovery of the black box and the aircraft wreckage.

Many Taiwanese pilots believe the cause of the crash was fatigue, because lately Chinese incursions in Taiwanese air space have out fighter pilots in the air a lot more than the past. In addition, the familiarization process for pilots converting to the new fighter is intense because the V version has so many new features, including many guided weapons for use against Chinese ships. This is a capability that is causing Chinese invasion planners a lot of problems. Taiwan is converting all its 141 remaining 1990s era F-16s to the block 72 standard. The first batch of 64 upgraded aircraft were declared operational in mid-November and these are mainly being used to familiarize F-16 pilots with all the new features and capabilities.

Taiwan also has 66 new F-16V fighters on order, with the first of them arriving in 2023. Taiwan was not able to obtain F-16s until 1992, when it became clear that China was planning to take Taiwan back by force, something they said they would not do when American diplomatic relations were reestablished with communist China in 1979. China quickly expanded its lobbying efforts in the United States now that they were able to do it legally. This kept the “we will not take Taiwan by forces” myth alive for over a decade. By the early 1990s American and Western attitudes had changed and Taiwan was able to upgrade its aging Cold War era weapons. This included obtaining 150 early model F-16s. Chinese lobbying and economic and political threats escalated as well and many Western nations backed away from selling new weapons to Taiwan. By 2020 these threats and intimidation ceased to have much effect as many Western nations were openly or discreetly defying Chinese bans.

China has good reason to fear the F-16 because it has the most impressive combat record of any current jet fighter. The U.S. was the earliest and largest user of the F-16 and its F-16 fleet, containing many aircraft acquired in the 1980s, was rapidly aging. The average age of existing F-16s is over 30 years, and the average aircraft has nearly 7,000 flight hours on it. Most European nations received their F-16s in the 1980s and have upgraded them since. But they are still basically elderly aircraft. Back in 2009 the first Block 40 F-16 passed 7,000 flight hours. In 2008 the first of the earliest models (a Block 25) F-16 passed 7,000 hours in the air. The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours. But advances in engineering, materials and maintenance techniques have extended that to over 8,000 hours. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, F-16s sent to these areas will fly over a thousand hours a year more than what they would fly in peacetime.

The F-16 follows the path of previous best-selling fighters. During the Cold War (1947-91) Russia built over 10,000 MiG-21s and the U.S over 5,000 F-4s. Since 1991 warplane manufacturing has plummeted about 90 percent. However, the F-16 has been popular enough to keep the production lines going strong into the 2020s. The U.S. still has about a thousand F-16s in service, with about half in reserve units. F-16s built so far were exported to 27 countries. America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used airplane market. The end of the Cold War led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 is beginning to replace all U.S. F-15s and F-16s, a process that will be complete by 2030. That means the U.S. will have plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and many allies in need of low-cost jet fighters. Many current F-16 users planned to replace the F-16 with the F-35 but that aircraft costs more than twice as much as a new F-16V so air forces are seeking to operate a mixed force of F-35s and late model F-16s.

Since the 1990s most F-16s produced were for export and these, like the Israeli F-16I, cost as much as $70 million each. Some nations, like South Korea, built over a hundred F-16s under license. The 16-ton F-16 also has an admirable combat record and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs it is an effective bomber. Since first entering service some 4,600 F-16s have flown over 12 million hours. Despite fears that a single-engine fighter would be less safe, F-16s have, in the 21st century, suffered a remarkably low accident rate (loss or major damage) of 2.4 per 100,000 flight hours.

The F-16 is one of the most modified jet fighters in service. While most are still called the F-16C, there are actually seven major mods, identified by block number (32, 40, 42, 50, 52, 60, 70 and 72), plus the Israeli F-16I, which is a major modification of the Block 52. The F-16D is a two-seat trainer version of F-16Cs. The various block mods included a large variety of new components (five engines, four sets of avionics, five generations of electronic warfare gear, five radars and many other mechanical, software, cockpit and electrical mods.)

Until the Block 70 came along, the most advanced F-16 was the F-16 Block 60. The best example of this is a special version of the Block 60 developed for the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The UAE bought 80 “Desert Falcons” (the F-16E) which is optimized for air combat. It is a 22-ton aircraft based on the Block 52 model, but with an AESA radar and lots of other electronic and mechanical enhancements. The Block 70 goes beyond the Block 60, especially in terms of electronics and airframe enhancement to extend flight life.

The most successful F-16 user is Israel which set a number of combat records with its F-16s. Israel plans to keep some of its late-model F-16s flying into the 2030s as it retires the oldest ones. At the end of 2016, Israel retired the last of its 125 F-16A fighters. The first 70 were acquired in 1980 and 1981 and included 8 two-seater F-16B trainers. One of the F-16As achieved a record by being the single F-16 with the most air-to-air kills (6.5), all achieved in 1982 using three different pilots. Israel received 50 used F-16As in 1994 (including 14 B models) and used these mainly as trainers.

These F-16As were the first of the nearly 400 F-16s Israel obtained from the United States since 1980. Israeli F-16s have shot down 47 aircraft, which is 70 percent of the 67 kills for all F-16s built. Israeli F-16As flew 474,000 sorties and spent over 335,000 hours in the air over 35 years. Israel was the most energetic user of the F-16 and also took the lead in developing upgrades and accessories. This could help sell the older F-16As, but that is a crowded market with more and more of these oldest F-16s being retired rather than upgraded. That is easier to do with the more recent F-16C models and that is what Israel did with all of its F-16Cs.

Now Taiwan is the nation most dependent on the latest F-16 because efforts to purchase F-35s have been turned down. Taiwan may eventually be able to obtain equivalent aircraft Japan and a British led coalition are working on the Japanese FX and the European Tempest, using some common components.

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