A Taiwanese pilot aboard an F-16 waves a Taiwan flag. Photo: YouTube

In yet another development with the upcoming sale of 66 F-16 Fighting Falcon jets by the US, Taiwan’s defense ministry has confirmed it has had talks with the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin about relocating a vital training facility for the island’s airmen.

Taiwan’s pilots are trained to tackle the island’s biggest threat – an invasion by China.

The ministry revealed that Taiwan’s F-16 pilots would no longer be taught at the Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona, but a “coastline location” that better mimics Taiwan’s land-sea geography. Flights and dogfights above the Taiwan Strait had also been under consideration by both sides.

This is because the Luke Air Force Base has been selected by the US Air Force as a key camp for the F-35. Until now, Taiwan has been sending its cadet pilots to the base on an annual basis, a key part of the ongoing defense cooperation between the self-ruled island and the US.

The pilots first need to graduate from a compressive training program at home before heading to the US for a crash course and to compare notes with their US counterparts.

F-16 fighters above the Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Photo: Handout

Taiwanese papers also note that Taiwan had suggested the US allow pilots to participate in air combat maneuver simulations against aircraft carrier-based warplanes – like the People’s Liberation Army’s J-15 taking off from the Chinese carrier Liaoning – with updates to current training curriculum for a holistic emphasis on marine operations to reflect Taiwan’s geographical proximity to China and increasing threats from the PLA’s carriers.

The PLA is gearing up for sea trials of its homemade carrier, known only as the Type 001A, as well as production of the J-15. Within a few years the force will boost two carrier strike groups capable of locking up the Taiwan Strait and concurrently cordoning off the island’s Pacific coast.

The PLA and the Taiwanese military are also locked in a race to cultivate more pilots.

The J-15 fighters on the deck of the Liaoning carrier. Photo: Xinhua
J-15 fighters on the deck of the Liaoning carrier. Photo: Xinhua

Another source told Taiwan’s Central News Agency that the new F-16 training base could be located in California or Texas to give the US Navy “a role” in grooming Taiwan’s future pilots. Ideally, Taiwanese pilots should train against the US Navy’s carrier-based aircraft, including but not limited to the F-18.

But the defense ministry noted that alternative inland locations that can house and service heavy aircraft and simulate electronic warfare would also be discussed, if the Pentagon cannot fund a coastline base.

Analysts doubt that the new F-16 squadron for Taiwan, in the series’ latest V configuration, can help the island thwart any blitzes launched by China’s more advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter the J-20.

Some lawmakers on the island have been asking if the new warplanes are overpriced, but the ministry insisted that the multimillion-dollar scheme to replenish the island’s aging F-16 fleet would also include expenses in pilot training in the US, software patches from Lockheed Martin as well as spare parts.

The US Congress, now in its summer recess, is expected to give the green light to the F-16 sale before the end of the year, after many senators and representatives promised Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in person when the latter was visiting New York and Denver last month that they would see through the entire approval process.

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