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US to upgrade Taiwan’s F-16 fleet, but won't sell new jets

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The F-16 fighters of Taiwan. An official photo

WASHINGTON (AP): The Obama administration has decided to upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16 fighter jets but not sell it the new planes it also wants, congressional staff said.

The administration gave a briefing on Capitol Hill on its decision on Friday, but has yet to issue a formal notification of the intended deal. An announcement is expected by the end of this month.

Two congressional aides confirmed the decision to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to make it public.

The decision represents a compromise aimed at improving Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, while assuaging China’s concern over the arms sales. However, Beijing is still expected to react angrily. It regards the self-governing island as part of its territory.

There will also be criticism from Republicans and some Democrats in US Congress who have strongly backed the sales of 66 F-16 C/D fighters that Taiwan wants, in addition to the upgrades of the 145 F-16 A/Bs that the US sold it in the 1990s.

There were no immediate details on the package of upgrades the US is providing for the A/Bs. But even if it includes sophisticated radar, avionics and missile systems, Taiwan’s air force will still lag far behind its Chinese counterpart, which is equipped with state-of-the-art jet fighters.

A Pentagon report issued last year painted a grim picture of Taiwan’s air defence capabilities, saying many of the island’s 400 combat aircraft would not be available to help withstand an attack from the mainland.

Wang Kao-cheng, a military expert at Taipei’s Tamkang University, said Taiwan’s air defences could get some lift from the upgrade, but the island is still at a profound disadvantage with Beijing in the number of third-generation warplanes it has at its disposal.

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