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INTERVIEW - Taiwan overdue for F-16 jets, ex U.S. official say

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is “way past due” to meet Taiwan’s request for updated F-16 fighter jets to help plug a growing gap with China, said a former U.S. official overseeing Air Force programs designed to help the self-governing island keep up its defences.

“Acquiring new F-16s, in my view, is about maintaining the very same deterrent capability that we helped Taiwan achieve in the late 1990s,” Bruce Lemkin told Reuters in an interview.

Lemkin, who resigned on June 19 after nearly seven years as the Air Force’s deputy under secretary for international affairs, led Air Force efforts to build partnerships worldwide. These included programs in Taiwan in line with a law that has governed U.S. arms sales to the island since 1979, when U.S. diplomatic ties shifted from Taipei to Beijing.

China regards Taiwan as a rogue province, subject to unification with the mainland if necessary by force.

Beijing halted military exchanges with the United States after President Barack Obama’s administration announced plans in January for a potential $6.4 billion arms package, all but clearing the books on sales committed to since 2001 by former President George W. Bush.

Lemkin said in an email exchange that Taiwan’s ability to defend its skies had “degraded appreciably” as 145 U.S.-supplied F-16A/Bs and other fighters have aged.

Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said the Obama administration was working with Taiwan to evaluate its defense needs.

“In accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States makes available to Taiwan defense articles and services necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” he said in an email.

Taiwan has sought to buy as many as 66 Lockheed Martin Corp-built F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters from the United States since 2006 to supplement the A/B models sold in 1992.

The Taiwan Relations Act, adopted in 1979, stipulates that the U.S. president and Congress shall determine arms sales “based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan.”

Lemkin was a chief of the Asia-Pacific Division on the U.S. military’s Joint Staff in the late 1990s. He hedged his comments on Taiwan’s defenses in testimony to a congressionally appointed panel on May 20.

He said then it was important to look at Taiwan’s integrated capabilities, not just its fighters. At the time, he emphasized a Raytheon Co surveillance radar that he said would be fully linked with Lockheed- and Raytheon-built Patriot missile defenses.

But he told Reuters that, now that he was free to discuss it, he considered an F-16 deal “way past due,” alluding to the normal 36-month delivery delay after an order is booked.

The timing is important because the production line may be nearing its end. Lockheed’s F-16 backlog will continue the line through May 2013 absent any new orders in the next six months, company spokeswoman Laurie Quincy told Reuters last month.

The F-16 is to superseded by Lockheed’s radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a higher-performing warplane that is in early production stages.

F-16C/D models are “capable, versatile and would sustain Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities for many years,” Lemkin said.

Dan Blumenthal, the Pentagon’s country director for China and Taiwan in 2004 and a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said there was only one reason that an F-16 sale had been held up: Obama, not unlike Bush before him, does “not want to anger China.”

Editing by Chris Wilson