A massive search and rescue operation has been launched after a Taiwan Air Force pilot F-16 disappeared of a radar screen, media reports said. Credit: AFP.

Taiwan’s Air Force said a single-seat F-16 flown by a 44-year-old pilot disappeared from radar at an altitude of 6,000 ft (1,800 metres) two minutes after taking off from Hualien air base in eastern Taiwan on Tuesday night, The Guardian reported.

While a massive search for the downed pilot continues, Taiwan has grounded all its F-16 fighter jets for safety checks.

The decision removes around 150 planes from Taiwan’s skies, leaving the democratic island relying on a more limited fleet to ward off Chinese jets that have been performing flyovers at an unprecedented rate in recent months, The Guardian reported.

The disappearance of Colonel Chiang Cheng-chih comes less than three weeks after a pilot was killed when his F-5E fighter jet crashed into the sea during training, prompting a similar grounding.

“The rescue mission is our top priority now. The air force has grounded all F-16s for checks and I’ve instructed an investigation into the cause of the incident,” President Tsai Ing-wen told reporters.

Taiwan lives under the constant threat of invasion by China, which views the island as its own territory and has vowed to seize it one day, by force if necessary.

Its fleet of fighters is old and outgunned by China’s.

Without the F-16s, it consists of the locally built Indigenous Defence Fighter, French-built Mirages from the late 1990s and F5-E fighters that date back to the 1970s, The Guardian reported.

According to a 2018 article for War on the Rocks by Drew Thompson, “Taiwan’s chief of the general staff Admiral Lee Hsi-ming quietly proposed a revolutionary new approach to Taiwan’s defense, called the Overall Defense Concept.

A US-made F-16 fighter under inspection at Hualien Air Force Base in eastern Taiwan earlier this year. Credit: Taiwan Defense Ministry/AFP.

“This new concept, if effectively implemented, could turn the tables and give Taiwan a fighting chance of preventing China from being able to take it by force.”

In other words, Taiwan’s new defense concept employs an asymmetric defense strategy, where Taiwan maximizes its defense advantages, and targets an invading force when it is at its weakest.

Whereas Taiwan’s previous strategy focused on fighting across the entire Taiwan Strait and defeating the enemy through attrition, the new concept divides Taiwan’s defense operations into two phases.

The latter are both closer to Taiwan’s shores where the lines of communication are short and Taiwan’s forces can benefit from land-based air denial and more effective surveillance and reconnaissance.

However, analysts say Beijing wants to test the island’s defence responses but also to wear out its fighters, which come closer to expiry with each sortie.

Taiwan has scrambled its planes at double the rate of last year to protect against China’s increased incursions into its defensive zone.

In fact, Taiwan has spent almost US$900 million this year on scrambling its air force against Chinese incursions, the island’s defence minister said last month, describing the pressure they are facing as “great.”

Meanwhile, under US President Donald Trump, Washington has authorized some US$18 billion worth of arms sales to Taiwan, including 66 new generation F-16s and advanced missile platforms — sales that have angered Beijing.

The new F-16s, known as the F-16V or Viper, will be made at Lockheed Martin factories in Greenville, South Carolina, and Fort Worth, Texas, CNN reported.

They will be the latest, upgraded models of the single-engine aircraft which first flew with the US Air Force in the late 1970s.

Lockheed Martin says the newest version, the F-16 Block 70/72, includes many avionics, weapons and radar technologies not in existence when earlier models were created.

It is structurally stronger, the company says, so that it “can fly and fight to 2070 and beyond.”

When the deal was formally approved last year, it was greeted with strong bipartisan backing from Congress, including from the Democratic chairman and the leading Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The sale of F-16s to Taiwan sends a strong message about the US commitment to security and democracy in the Indo-Pacific,” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas said in a joint statement last August.

Meanwhile, The Taiwan News reported that numerous flight missions and 34 ships have been dedicated to the non-stop search for the missing pilot and aircraft.

Also, the military has received signals from a flight recorder 16.7 km off the coast and has hired a private company to carry out the salvage operation.

Adding to the tragedy, it was reported on Nov. 23, that the crew chief responsible for the missing F-16 has committed suicide.

The tactical group’s crew chief, identified as Sergeant Huang, was found unresponsive in his barracks at Hualien Air Base, after inflicting serious self harm, reported CNA.

(Sources: The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The National Interest, CNN, Reuters, Taiwan News, Channel News Asia)