Taiwan has armed its most advanced fighter jets with new air-to-air missiles, as People’s Liberation Army warplanes make regular sorties near the self-ruled island.
The Taiwanese air force said the AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles were bought from the United States and had recently been allocated to its F-16 Viper squadrons, which are scrambled to respond to PLA fly-bys.
The new missiles were delivered to Taiwan and installed in accordance with the scheduled plan, an air force spokesman said on Monday.
He added that all aircraft on standby to shadow PLA warplanes had to be fitted with weapons in line with combat readiness regulations.
A separate source with the air force said all 64 of Taiwan’s F-16Vs at the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing in Chiayi, in the southwest, had been fitted with AIM-9X Block II missiles to improve their tracking and precision-strike capabilities.
“In addition to the AIM-9X [missiles], an AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile has also been mounted on one side of the fighter jets,” the source said.
F-16Vs at the 5th Tactical Fighter Wing in Hualien, in the island’s east, were also being fitted with those missiles, the person added.
AIM-9X missiles were used by the United States to shoot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon in US airspace in February.
Taiwan bought 140 of the AIM-9X Block II missiles from the US when it worked with defence contractor Lockheed Martin to upgrade its 141 F-16A/B versions of the fighter jets in 2016.
All the conversions are expected to be completed by the end of this year, and so far the F-16 squadrons in Hualien have taken delivery of more than 40 of the upgraded jets. In 2019, the US also approved the sale of 66 more F-16Vs to Taiwan for expected delivery in 2026.
In January, the island’s defence ministry also signed a NT$2.4 billion (US$78.4 million) contract to buy 100 more AIM-9X missiles from the US with full delivery expected by 2030.
“If equipped with the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System [JHMCS], the strike capability of the AIM-9X missile – which has an infrared heat-seeking guidance system and a high-explosive warhead – will be further boosted,” the source said.
According to the Taiwanese air force, the JHMCS gives pilots “first look, first shot” weapons engagement capabilities. Available in a night configuration, the system enables the pilot to accurately cue on-board weapons and sensors against enemy aircraft and ground targets.
But the source said the island had so far bought only 40 such systems for its F-16V squadrons, with each system costing around NT$12 million.
Taiwan’s F-16 fighter jets were previously fitted with older AIM and AIM-120 missiles, according to the source.
In March, the US announced the sale to Taiwan of 200 of the new AIM-120 missiles that use active transmit-receive radar guidance and are capable of all-weather day-and-night operations.
Taiwan has been under constant military pressure from Beijing, which views the island as part of its territory to be taken under control – by force if necessary. Most countries, including the US, do not see Taiwan as an independent state but are opposed to a change of the status quo by force.
In August, the PLA staged unprecedented live-fire drills around the island after then-US House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in a trip seen by Beijing as a violation of its sovereignty.
Since then, the PLA has intensified its military operations around Taiwan, with its warplanes entering the island’s air defence identification zone on a near-daily basis, crossing the informal median line that separates the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, and even encircling the island.
Each time, Taiwan’s air force has to scramble its fighter jets in response.