A maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) center for Taiwan’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets has officially opened on the island amid growing tensions between Taiwan and China.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday inaugurated the facility, which is the first of its kind in the Indo-Pacific region. It is part of a strategic alliance between Taiwan aircraft manufacturer Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation, AIDC, and U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
Taiwan will boast the largest fleet of advanced F-16 fighter jets in Asia after its procurement of 66 F-16V additional jets from Lockheed Martin, slated for delivery by 2026 – a deal that will take the island’s fleet to more than 200 aircraft.
There was no immediate comment from the company.
No groveling to China
Inaugurating the F-16 MRO center, President Tsai said its establishment will help boost the island’s air force combat capabilities and beef up its defense autonomy while marking a milestone for developing indigenous defense industries to go global.
“It takes strengthened defense capabilities, not groveling [to China], to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty and maintain regional peace and stability,” she said at the ceremony.
“With the center in place, the time needed for jet maintenance will be greatly curtailed and mission-capable rates will be boosted significantly to ensure [Taiwan’s] air superiority at the front line,” she added.
According to Tsai, AIDC will join with local vendors, to be certified by Lockheed Martin, to sustain the facility’s operation.
That is estimated to create more than 600 jobs each year and herald an output value of $271 million over the next three decades, according to Tsai.
Deepening military collaboration
Two analysts, who spoke with VOA said the facility, unveiled amid escalating cross-strait tensions, takes the U.S.-Taiwan military collaboration and mutual trust to another level even as China last month said it would sanction Lockheed Martin for involvement in arms sales to Taiwan.
It is also expected to bring in economic benefits to the local aerospace industry, which has been badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic since early this year, they added.
“On the political and diplomatic front, the facility, authorized by Lockheed Martin of the U.S., showcases the level of mutual trust between Washington and Taipei,” Su Tzu-yun, an analyst at the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told VOA.
Su said that in the next few years, the center will focus on servicing the island’s fleet of more than 200 F-16 jets, which he said is already a lucrative deal.
Saving maintenance costs
According to Su, an F-16 fighter jet averages a life cycle of 40 years and, during its years in service, an additional 30% cost will be incurred for maintenance and repair work.
With a repair site at home, two-fifths of that cost can be saved in addition to time spent, he estimated.
Looking ahead, Su said that domestic vendors, which are certified to work with the center, should aim higher to tap into the defense contractor’s global supply chain to help support its 3,400 F-16s in service worldwide.
Or, he said, the center should next grow into a regional hub for Lockheed Martin to service all F-16 fleets in the Indo-Pacific region, which currently total 470 jets in service. He said the chance for pro-Beijing countries such as Pakistan or Thailand to fly their F-16 fleets to Taiwan for repair work will be slim.
All those niches, however, will present a number of commercial opportunities for the domestic industry, Su added.
Tung Wan, professor of aerospace engineer at TamKang University, said he believes that with the help of Lockheed Martin, the island’s aerospace sector will be given an opportunity to upgrade itself.
“If [the sector] can transcend itself from being engaged in [the center’s] maintenance work to [next] becoming a supplier of components [for the jets], its overall output value, competitiveness and integration with global practices will be greatly enhanced,” the professor told VOA.
“This will be the kind of opportunity we welcome the most even if [a small percentage of the jet’s] components can be made [and supplied] by Taiwan,” he said, adding that a fighter jet has more than 100,000 types of components.
The professor said that the domestic aerospace industry, which is already qualified to support the operation of commercial airplanes, had had some experience repairing military aircraft or developing an indigenous fighter jet of its own.
The professor, who formerly chaired the city of Tainan-based Air Asia Co., noted that, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. often flew its fighter jets to Air Asia, the island’s first aircraft maintenance company, for MRO work.
Hence, it will also be in the U.S. interest to outsource its maintenance work or parts of its jet supply chain to Taiwan, where labor and cost are lower, he said.
Military officials and some politicians in Taiwan say they expect the latest development to further strengthen U.S. involvement in the island's buildup of air defense in fending off any Chinese attack. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that belongs under its control.
China has conducted numerous sea and air exercises near Taiwan in recent years and has been angered over U.S. naval exercises near the island and the Trump administration’s strong support for Taipei.
Du Wenlong, a military commentator on China Central Television, or CCTV, told the Chinese state-run broadcaster on Friday that Taiwan is buying up the United States for its protection. He urged Taiwan not to "throw good money after bad," calling Taiwan a "fool" in procuring weapons sales from the U.S.
Li Li, an associate professor from China’s PLA National Defense University, also told CCTV that "the U.S. has taken an even more dangerous step toward bolstering the military development and buildup in Taiwan." She was referring to both the creation of the F-16 MRO hub and the U.S. approval of the 66 advanced F-16V fighter jets to Taiwan.