As China aggressively pushes boundaries in the Indo-Pacific, there is a proliferation of advanced Western-origin fighters like F-16s, Rafales, and F-35s underway in the region.
In a significant development that took place recently, the last F-16 fighter, upgraded to the F-16V standard as part of the Feng Zhan or Phoenix Rising program, completed flight testing in Taiwan, paving the way for the induction of these jets in the Taiwanese Air Force.
The last updated F-16V, a two-seater with the serial number 6805, completed flying tests the previous weekend, according to an unidentified Taiwanese military official cited by the semi-official Central News Agency. The same official stated that although there was still some modification work, it would be finished by the end of December.
The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) is now expected to complete the modernization of the F-16 before the end of the current year, at which point the final 141 aircraft will have undergone upgrades. This development comes amid a surge in aerial intrusions involving PLA Air Force fighter jets.
The ROCAF had initially anticipated receiving 144 F-16Vs by upgrading its current F-16A/B fighters. However, due to the depletion of its current F-16 fleet, the number was lowered to 141.
As previously reported by EurAsian Times, Taiwan formally inducted its first batch of upgraded F-16Vs at Chiayi Air Base in November 2021.
The last upgraded F-16V BLK20 No.6805 of 🇹🇼 Taiwan AF is conducting flight test. Upgrading of all 141 F-16s will be completed by end of 2023. The upgrading project started on 2017, and costs $4.1B.💪👍 source:👇 https://t.co/rfYtLBvQgNhttps://t.co/oIuQVu8Ib8 pic.twitter.com/UyPokBXBip
— Taiwan Military (@TaiwanMilitary) December 1, 2023
Among all the F-16 operators worldwide who have opted for an upgrade, Taiwan has been the first to field an F-16 Viper. Besides upgrading its fighter jets, it has purchased 66 new Block 70 F-16C/D fighters with improved avionics, missiles, and radar systems to combat PLAAF fighters, particularly the J-16s and J-20 stealth aircraft, the most frequent visitors to the Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
The Taiwanese Air Force will have more than 200 fourth-generation fighter jets, making it the largest F-16 fleet in the Asia-Pacific. Although it is still a fourth-generation fighter up against the fifth-generation Chinese J-20, the upgraded F-16 features many advanced capabilities that will come in handy to thwart an invasion.
For instance, the Viper is outfitted with enhanced weaponry, precise GPS guidance, automated collision warning, and cutting-edge electronic warfare technologies. The F-16V’s more robust landing gear allows aircraft to carry heavier ammunition and fuel. Recent reports indicated that Taiwan has equipped the plane with sidewinder missiles.
The upgrades also include the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) along with an active electronically scanned array (AESA), giving the jet much better detection capabilities, the capacity to identify small, low-flying signature targets such as cruise missiles, and resilience to electronic countermeasures.
If the ROCAF were to match the technological advancements occurring across the Taiwan Strait, the modernized F-16 in its fighter fleet would become essential. China has about 1,500 fighters in its inventory, whereas Taiwan possesses nearly 400 aircraft, including outdated F-5 and Mirage 2000 jets, locally produced F-CK-1 aircraft, and US-supplied F-16 aircraft.
Taiwan’s aircraft numbers will never be able to match those of the People’s Liberation Army, but China has made significant progress in recent years in terms of qualitative capabilities.
Taiwan, however, is not the only one fielding advanced Western jets with an eye on creating effective deterrence in the region. There are several nations in the Indo-Pacific, including a few in China’s neighborhood, that have already fielded their cutting-edge fighter jets to combat China’s alleged expansion and aggression in the region.
Rafales & F-35s Are Also Lining The Region!
India’s acquisition of the French-made Rafales has been touted by many as a ‘game-changer’ for the country that remains marred in an active border conflict with China, which refuses to die down.
After the 2020 conflict that erupted between the two militaries, leading to the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops in the Galvan Valley, the significance of having a fleet of 4.5th-generation warplanes became monumental.
India has now received the pack of 36 Rafales it had ordered from France. It regularly conducts military drills near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in what appears to be a two-pronged approach: honing its pilots’ skills and sending a clear message to China.
Earlier, there were reports in the Chinese state publication Global Times that while the Indian Rafale was more capable than the Su-30MKI, it couldn’t compete against the Chinese J-20 stealth aircraft. However, these claims were shortly dismissed by the former Indian Air Force chief B. S. Dhanoa.
Responding to these claims made by an expert, Dhanoa questioned the stealth character of the Chinese J-20. “If the J-20, also called the Mighty Dragon, is indeed a fifth generation stealth fighter, then why does it have canards while genuine 5th generation fighters such as the US’ F 22, F 35, and Russian fifth generation Su 57 don’t,” he asked.
However, several recent analyses have noted that with many aircraft, the Chinese PLA Air Force is a force to reckon with for India, which is still struggling to assemble the required fighter squadron strength. The induction of Rafale has nonetheless ensured that India could dispatch a very advanced aircraft manufactured by France to the LAC border at short notice.
In addition to these 4th and 4.5th generation fighter jets in the Chinese neighborhood, US-origin F-35s are also in the region. US allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, have their respective operational fleets of US-imported F-35 fighter jets. Meanwhile, Singapore operates the F-35 Lightning II fighters in the broader region.
Beijing and Chinese Military Commission (CMC) representatives have noted the US-made stealth aircraft swarming the Chinese neighborhood, given the ongoing tensions between China and its neighbors. According to a military insider, China has reportedly increased the production of J-20s to counterbalance the US military’s increasing deployment of the F-35 in the region.