Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets operated by Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force, or ROCAF, have test-fired AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, or AMRAAMs, for the first time on the island, according to reports. The missiles were apparently launched from a pair of recently upgraded F-16V jets, which had reached initial combat capability last March.
In the past, the United States has prevented the ROCAF from conducting live-firing campaigns with the AMRAAM, thought to be due to concerns about China’s possible reaction. However, a report in Taiwan’s Liberty Times today states that 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. Four two-seat F-16Vs were reportedly involved in the live-fire mission, launching from Chiayi Air Base early on the morning of May 10. Each jet was said to be armed with two AMRAAMs and two short-range AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.
“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.” Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense did not provide any comment on the event.
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 U.S. 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. The American stance changed in June 2002, once China began to test R-77 (AA-12 Adder) medium-range air-to-air missiles received from Russia. 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.
The small stocks of AMRAAMs available to the ROCAF — approximately two for each of the 141 F-16s in service — are, of course, nowhere near enough to employ in any kind of large-scale confrontation with the PLA. In times of crisis, those numbers would be boosted by further orders, while Taiwan has also developed an indigenous medium-range air-to-air missile, the Tien Chien 2 that arms the F-CK-1 Indigenous Defense Fighter. French-supplied Mirage 2000-5 fighters, meanwhile, are armed with MBDA MICA medium-range weapons.
Previous live-fire trials of the AMRAAM have been conducted by the ROCAF but all have been over U.S. territory. The first such mission was in Guam in October 2000, while another followed at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, in early 2001.
“The United States has always considered the AIM-120 a sensitive system,” Roy Choo, a defense journalist and lead author of a forthcoming book on the ROCAF, told The War Zone. “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. Apart from the initial missile firings in the earlier years, the ROCAF F-16 crews train on the utilization of the missile in simulators. The missile live-fires on Monday would 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 United States authorizing this weapons test lies in the message to Taiwan: providing assurance of U.S. intent to assist Taiwan in its defense against possible military action from China, continued military cooperation, as well as its confidence in Taiwan using advanced weapons independently. Allowing the ROCAF to conduct this test itself, rather than on a weapons range in the United States, is also an indirect acknowledgment of Taiwan’s independent status, Chen argued.
Officially, the United States has a “one China” policy that does not recognize Taiwan as independent, but it reserves the right to engage with officials there separately. Furthermore, the U.S. government has increasingly shown its support for Taiwan in more visible ways, including sending warships and aircraft through the Taiwan Strait and approving significant arms sales to the Taiwanese military.
The timing of the AMRAAM test is also important for Taiwan’s F-16V upgrade program, too. The Viper was already the most capable fighter asset in the ROCAF inventory and the only one that can carry AIM-120 missiles, a weapon that is vital if the service hopes to keep pace with Beijing’s rapidly developing airpower capabilities.
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. This area has seen intense activity by PLA aircraft in recent months. On January 24, 15 PLA aircraft entered the area in a major incident that The War Zone
reported on in-depth at the time. In late March, meanwhile, no fewer than 20 PLA aircraft entered the ADIZ, among them bombers and airborne early warning platforms, as well as fighters and surveillance aircraft.
Aside from the importance of the ROCAF being able to test its most potent air-to-air missiles, and its newly upgraded fighter jets, locally, the AMRAAM test launches also suggest that U.S. military support for Taiwan is continuing under the new Biden administration.
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