Taiwan's equipment-challenged air force demonstrated its improvisational skills Tuesday, landing six war planes on a normally busy highway to simulate a response to a Chinese attack on its air fields.
The early morning exercise came amid persistent warnings that the Taiwanese air force _ long considered the key to the island's defenses against China _ is losing its qualitative edge because of U.S. reluctance to supply it with modern warplanes and avionics.
Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that unless Washington supplied Taipei with relatively advanced F-16 jet fighters and upgraded Taiwan's existing F-16 fleet, the island could be left "with no credible air-to-air deterrent."
The comments by Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, followed last year's publication of a Pentagon report saying that Taiwan's aging fleet of combat aircraft was falling far behind the potential of the modern jet fighters China has at its disposal.
Taiwanese requests for the F-16 hardware have been pending since the administration of President George W. Bush. The Obama administration has refused to make a decision, caught between its strong desire not to anger China _ with which it maintains a complex and wide-ranging relationship _ and its equally strong commitment to provide Taiwan the means to defend itself from possible Chinese attack.
Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949. The mainland still claims the island as part of its territory and sees foreign military sales there as interference in its internal affairs. While relations between Taipei and Beijing have improved substantially since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou came to power three years ago, China's Communist leaders still threaten to invade across the 100-mile-wide (160-kilometer-wide) Taiwan Strait if democratic Taiwan moves to make its de facto independence permanent.
In Tuesday's air force exercise, streaking pairs of F-16s, French-built Mirages and Taiwanese-made Indigenous Defense Fighters swooped down to land on the Madou Highway in the near the southern city of Tainan, as a single OH-58D helicopter hovered overhead to provide security.
Under the conditions of the exercise, the highway landing was made necessary because a simulated Chinese attack had already taken out nearby Taiwanese air fields.
Within minutes, AH1W and CH-47 helicopters joined the waiting fighters, and resupplied them with Harpoon and other missiles so they could continue their missions against the attacking Chinese.
Even though the exercise went off without a hitch, a real combat situation might not be bring such impressive results, said military expert Wang Kun-yi of Taipei's Tamkang University.
"While today's exercise was smooth, our fighter jets are much older than those in the Chinese inventory," Wang said. "If you look at the Pentagon report, you see the gap is wide and getting even wider."
Despite its improving relations with China, Ma's government has continued to press for 66 American-made F-16 C/Ds _ considered far more advanced than the 145 F-16 A/Bs currently in its inventory. It also has pushed for a $4.5 billion program to upgrade the A/Bs.
But the U.S. has not responded, mindful that approval would infuriate China, while rejection could be construed as undermining its commitment to provide Taiwan the means to defend itself under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1979 when the U.S. transferred its relations from Taipei to Beijing.
Complicating arms sales to Taiwan for the Obama administration is the recent emergence of a powerful American lobby calling for their end. The lobby, which includes a number of retired senior military officers, prominent academics and former State Department officials, believes that China's growing economic and strategic clout has turned Taiwan into a political liability it can ill afford to indulge over the long term.