Taiwan fighter jet crashes, fuelling worries about ageing fleet

Indigenous Defence Fighter aircraft fly in formation during an inauguration ceremony of a maintenance centre for fighter jets in Taiwan on Aug 28, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - A Taiwanese fighter jet crashed and its pilot was killed while training over the Western Pacific, highlighting concerns about the island's ageing military fleet at a time of increased pressure from China's air force.

Rescuers are searching for a Taiwanese F-5 jet after it plunged into the sea just a few hundred metres off the east coast of Taitung county during a training exercise Thursday morning (Oct 29), according to a Defence Ministry spokesman.

The pilot, who had ejected and was rescued, later died despite hours of emergency treatment.

The incident fuels mounting worries about the reliability of the older aircraft in Taiwan's ageing military fleet at a time of near-daily Chinese incursions into the island's air defence identification zone.

Taiwan has scrambled almost 3,000 jets this year in response to approaches by more than 1,700 Chinese aircraft, Defence Minister Yen De-fa told lawmakers earlier this month.

Chinese jets have entered Taiwan's ADIZ 19 days in a row this month, according to Defence Ministry data.

The crash is the latest in a series of such incidents to befall Taiwan's military.

In January, the island lost its most senior uniformed officer, along with 12 others, when the helicopter they were travelling in went down in the bad weather in the mountains just south of Taipei.

Two pilots also died when their helicopter crashed following military exercises in July.

Taiwan plans to retire its F-5 jets in 2026, when the US completes delivery on 66 F-16V jets ordered earlier this year, the Taipei-based Central News Agency reported later Thursday, citing an unidentified military source.

Taiwan's Northrop Grumman-built F-5s have been in service since the mid-1970s and are now predominantly used for training.

The US stopped manufacturing F-5s in 1989, leaving Taiwan struggling to find parts to keep the jets operational.

The US considered restarting production of parts last year to support Taiwan's fleet, according to a report in defence publication Janes.

While the US has rejected Taiwanese offers to buy F-35s, Washington is seeking to remedy the problem by upgrading Taiwan's fleet of newer - but not exactly cutting edge - F-16s built by Lockheed Martin Corp.

The Trump administration signed a deal to sell Taiwan 66 F-16s in August, the first US sale of advanced jets to Taipei since then President George H.W. Bush approved a deal for 150 F-16s in 1992.

Former President Barack Obama agreed to a US$5.3 billion (S$7.23 billion) deal in 2011 to upgrade Taiwan's existing fleet of about 140 F-16s.

China strongly protests against any US arms sales to Taiwan. Beijing said it would impose unspecified sanctions on Boeing Co's defence unit, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies Corp earlier this week after the US State Department approved another arms sale to the island, this one worth US$1.8 billion.

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