The search for a Taiwan Air Force Dassault Mirage 2000 jet fighter is still going on after it went missing above the sea off Hsinchu city in northeastern Taiwan on Tuesday evening.
Taiwan’s Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan was upset by a Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporter who asked if the missing pilot on the jet actually defected to China.
“Why do we have to conduct night trainings and patrols? Because we must let the mainland know that we are capable of defending the nation at night, and for the peace of mind of Taiwan people… But some still suggest that our missing pilot can be a traitor,” said Feng during a Legislative Yuan inquiry on Thursday.
Feng, obviously incensed, threatened that his ministry would no longer allow any RFA reporter to attend future press conferences.
Meanwhile, a deputy chief commander of the island’s air force also dismissed any possibility of treason.
“The jet fighter concerned was not flying alone, rather, it was in a formation and thus the pilot simply could not fly the jet to the mainland,” Taiwan’s Central News Agency quoted him as saying.
“Nor there was any Chinese or other foreign warplanes or vessels in the vicinity of the last known location of the fighter.”
An investigation panel was set up shortly after the Taiwan army scrambled jets and ships to rescue the missing pilot on Tuesday evening.
Feng also ruled out the need to seek help from Japan or the United States, but some have even suggested that Taipei should contact the People’s Liberation Army to conduct a joint search operation.
Feng also said that no signal had been received so far from the pilot – but even if he was able to eject from the plane, his parachute did not have the capacity to relay his location as there was no GPS device in the escape suit.
The Taiwan Air Force currently maintains a fleet of 60 French-made, multi-role single-engine fighters. The planes were procured in 1997 to form the backbone of the island’s air defence at a time when cross-strait relations were strained.
Prior to Tuesday’s incident, there have been five accidents involving Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters since they entered service, with four pilots killed.
In May 2013, a two-seat multi-role version of the fighter crashed into the sea but the two pilots managed to eject. All such fighters were grounded for emergency checks in the wake of that accident.
The fighters are also expensive to fly – NT$800,000 (US$26,500) per hour compared to NT$160,000 for F-16s, according to the Taipei-based China Times.
Taiwan military commentators have said that having been in service for 20 years, these fighters are in a dire need of a D-check, or “heavy maintenance visit”. But that has been delayed for several years after the French supplier, Dassault Aviation, quoted whopping prices in 2012, allegedly because it was under the pressure from Beijing to do that.