The latest Taiwan F-16s will be equipped with a top-line fire control radar made by Northrop Grumman Corp. Photo: courtesy USAF.

May 10, 2021, Chiayi Air Base, Taiwan … weather fine.

It was definitely not business as usual, at the airbase in charge of defending the small Democratic island.

Four two-seat Lockheed Martin F-16Vs Fighting Falcon jet fighters from the ROCAF took off from the base — each armed with two AMRAAMs and two short-range AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

Their secret mission, to destroy targets in Taiwan’s southwestern airspace.

And the green light — a blessing so to speak — was given from Washington.

“Planes 1 and 3 each launched an AIM-120 AMRAAM hung on the right wingtip,” Liberty Times reported, “and they all hit the target drone accurately.”

The missiles were launched from a pair of recently upgraded F-16V jets, which had reached initial combat capability last March.

In fact, it was the first time F-16s operated by Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force have test-fired AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, or AMRAAMs, on the island, The War Zone reported.

In the past, the US has prevented the ROCAF from conducting live-firing campaigns, thought to be due to concerns about China’s possible reaction.

Now, nobody gives a damn.

According to the Liberty Times, Washington granted permission for this test after “continuous incursions into [Taiwan’s] southwestern airspace by Chinese military aircraft and the tense international situation in the South China Sea.”

The AMRAAM test took place southeast of Taiwan, on the opposite side of the island to the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that sees most activity by Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, perhaps smartly, did not provide any official comment.

While the ROCAF conducts weekly combat readiness exercises including live-fire training with air-to-air, anti-ship, and air-to-ground weapons, an example of the AMRAAM has never been fired by one of the service’s aircraft in Taiwan itself.

Taiwan’s possession of the AMRAAM in the first place is a somewhat controversial point.

In September 2000 the US government agreed to sell Taiwan 200 AIM-120Cs to arm its fleet of F-16A/Bs, although only 120 were ordered.

Originally, it was stipulated that the missiles be stored at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam until they were required for combat use — a policy which made no sense.

But once China began to test R-77 (AA-12 Adder) medium-range air-to-air missiles received from Russia, the American stance changed.

The first batch of AIM-120C-5 missiles arrived in Taiwan by November 2003. Since then, the purchase of another 218 AIM-120C-7s was approved in 2007.

Previous ROCAF live-fire trials of the AMRAAM have been conducted over US territory, such as Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.

“The United States has always considered the AIM-120 a sensitive system,” says Roy Choo, a defense journalist.

“While the missile has been deployed by the ROCAF for nearly 17 years, live-fire tests in Taiwan have been prohibited to avoid any leaks of measurement and signature Intelligence (MASINT) to the PLA.”

Normally, ROCAF F-16 crews train on the utilization of the missile in simulators, said Choo.

The missile live-fires would also have been approved by the US and come at a time of heightened tensions over the Taiwan Strait.

Chen Guoming, the senior editor of Global Defense Magazine, told Liberty Times that the significance of the US authorizing this weapons test lies in the message.

Not only does it provide assurance of US intent to assist Taiwan in its defense against possible military action from China, it is also an indirect acknowledgment of Taiwan’s independent status.

As tensions in the Taiwan Strait continue, it is critical for the ROCAF that its high-end fighters and their missile armament are available to patrol the country’s ADIZ.

The year 2020 saw most PLA intrusions (380 intrusions) into Taiwan’s ADIZ since 1996.