TAIPEI - In early January, a Taiwanese F-16 fighter jet crashed into the sea just off the island's south-western coast. The pilot, Air Force Captain Chen Yi, 27, was on a routine training mission in the recently upgraded jet when it vanished from radar. Both the plane and the pilot's remains were recovered in the following days.
The authorities also managed to secure the aircraft's black box but the reason for the crash is still under investigation although experts believe tensions with China may have been a contributory factor.
Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province to be reunified, by force if necessary. Since September 2019, Taiwan's defence authorities have reported an increasing number of Chinese military jets entering the island's air defence identification zone (ADIZ) - the area where aircraft have to identify themselves to Taiwan authorities. ADIZs - different from territorial airspace - provide an early warning system to help a state or territory detect possible incursions into its airspace.
In 2021, China sent 961 military planes into Taiwan's ADIZ, a sharp jump from the 380 reported in 2020.
While Taiwanese civilians have grown used to these incursions being blanketed on the news, the island's air force has had to scramble planes to ward off the Chinese jets all the time.
The sheer frequency of the incidents has caused qualified air force pilots on the island to be stretched thin, according to former air force lieutenant general Chang Yen-ting, who is now retired.
He said there was little time left to train new pilots, and this indirectly led to incidents like the one in which Capt Chen lost his life.
The crash in January was the seventh fatal military aircraft accident since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016. Ms Tsai's administration remains adamant that Taiwan should be able to defend itself against China. In January, the legislature approved additional defence spending of NT$236.95 billion (S$11.4 billion) to purchase arms.
According to military records, Capt Chen was an F-16 pilot for nearly two years at the time of his death, but he had chalked up only 62 hours of flying the fighter plane, averaging merely three hours each month. This is roughly a third of the time pilots should be flying F-16s each month (10-15 hours), said Lt-Gen Chang.
“Warfare gets top priority and training gets put aside. Capt Chen is a (relatively) inexperienced pilot. The seasoned pilots and aircraft were all dispatched to the south-western ADIZ (to deal with Chinese planes),” the retired senior officer added, explaining that no experienced pilots are available to train the new pilots.
Dr Chieh Chung, a research fellow at the Taiwanese think-tank, the National Policy Foundation, believes the staffing problems at the air force may worsen.
Taiwan's air force is planning to establish a new fighter wing by 2026 to man 66 newly acquired F-16 jets. This will mean the need to recruit 107 new pilots.
"Among the 107 pilots, some can be gathered through a recruiting programme for new flight officers, but positions that require experienced pilots can only be pulled from Chiayi and Hualien’s F-16 fighter wings, causing them even more stress,” Dr Chieh said, noting that only pilots from the two fighter wings are experienced enough to help set up a new wing.
Dr Chieh wants the government to reconsider the plan.
As at last year, Taiwan had 141 F-16 jets, 103 Indigenous Defence Fighters, 46 Mirage 2000s and 26 Northrop F-5s. The F-16s are stationed at two air bases - Chiayi in the central part of the island and Hualien in the east.
Capt Chen was based at the former when he took off on the ill-fated flight in January.