Taiwan has grounded all of its F-16 fighter jets for safety inspections as it continues to search for a plane after it went missing during a training exercise on Tuesday night.
The grounding announced on Wednesday involves about 150 planes, which have played a crucial role in Taiwan’s efforts to deter Chinese aircraft that have been encroaching into its airspace more regularly in recent months.
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The air force said a single-seat F-16 flown by a 44-year-old pilot disappeared from radar at an altitude of some 6,000 feet (1,800 metres) two minutes after taking off from Hualien air base in eastern Taiwan on Tuesday night.
The disappearance comes less than three weeks after a pilot was killed when he ejected from his F-5E fighter jet during training, prompting a similar grounding.
“The rescue mission is our top priority now. The air force has grounded all F-16s for checks and I’ve instructed an investigation into the cause of the incident,” President Tsai Ing-wen told reporters.
Tsai in October pledged to modernise Taiwan’s military in response to an increasingly assertive China, which claims the island as its own and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its objective.
Without the F-16s, Taiwan’s air force fleet consists of the locally-built Indigenous Defence Fighter, French-built Mirages from the late 1990s and F-5E fighters that date back to the 1970s.
In January, eight senior officials including the chief of the general staff were killed in a helicopter crash.
There have been seven crashes involving F-16s since Taiwan took delivery of the fighters, which it bought from the United States in 1997.
An F-16 fighter jet, piloted by Colonel Chiang, disappeared from radar screen (spotted at the northeast of Hualien Airbase) at 1807(GMT+8) tonight. #ROCArmedForces and #CGA have dispatched rescue forces to the area to search & rescue the pilot. Let’s pray for him to be safe. pic.twitter.com/S1ddPDasU7
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) November 17, 2020
Taiwan has scrambled its planes at double the rate of last year to protect against China’s increased incursions into its airspace.
The defence ministry’s Twitter account shows one or two Chinese aircraft have entered the island’s airspace nearly every day this month.
Analysts say Beijing wants to test the island’s defence responses but also to wear out its fighters, which come closer to expiry with each sortie.
China has stepped up military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan since Tsai was first elected in 2016, in part due to her refusal to acknowledge that the island is part of Beijing’s “one China” concept.
The US, which is bound by law to support Taiwan, is selling weapons and equipment worth some $18bn to Taiwan, including 66 new generation F-16s and advanced missile platforms. The sales have angered Beijing.