Wendell Minnick reports from Taipei that Taiwan is considering writing a formal letter in pursuit of the 66 F-16s.

Taiwan is writing a formal letter of request for price and availability data for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52s, local defense sources said.

In June, Taiwan’s legislature passed a defense budget allocating $450 million in frozen funds for the program.

Sources say Taiwan faces an uphill battle to garner the deal.

There is concern in Taipei that some top officials in Washington feel burned by previous arms offers gone awry — and that Chinese assistance on regional problems like North Korea, along with massive Sino-U.S. economic trade, could cause hesitation in Washington to release F-16s.

In 2001, the Bush administration offered Taiwan eight diesel submarines, 12 P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and six batteries of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 air defense systems. The arms package has been held up in legislative political bickering since the budget was introduced in 2004, with only the budget for the Orions approved to date.

The experience has prompted accusations from Washington that Taipei does not take its defense seriously.

Minnick’s piece contains an excellent review of the various factors affecting the deal, save that, like all pieces from the US side, it completely fails to alert the reader to the US’ own role in sparking and prolonging the arms package imbroglio.

The article continues:

A U.S. defense official argues that there are too many variables pushing Taiwan and the United States toward new F-16s.

“Even now, the aging F-5s are not a viable weapon system,” he said. “Without beyond-visual-range capability, they are just targets. These are the main reasons why Taiwan will be a hollow force by 2011 if Taiwan does not acquire additional new fighters now.

“A hollow Air Force could be destabilizing, since the Air Force is Taiwan’s first line of defense. A weakened Air Force could invite Chinese adventurism. That is not in the interest of the United States or the region.”

Rather, a beefed-up Taiwanese military will stabilize the region, a fact that should compel Taiwan’s neighbors to lobby Washington for the deal, the official said.

So the benefit of approving the F-16 is that it will allow Taiwan to maintain its deterrence posture, which will contribute to stability across the Strait,” the defense official said.“I believe regional actors who benefit from a peaceful Taiwan Strait should all jump in and tell the decision makers in Washington that continued delay is not good for anyone. Continued delay is not in the long-term interest of the U.S., Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. The only beneficiary is China.”

Speak it, baby. In addition to purchasing F-16s, several American Taiwan supporters have argued that Taiwan should go ahead and construct its own conventional submarines. Minnick reported last week that after a five year delay the government here has selected Apache attack helicopters, which it needs to fight off invasions.

Taiwan’s army will acquire 30 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters for $2.6 billion instead of buying more Cobras, service project planning director Col. Dai Kuang-chao said July 10 at a Ministry of National Defense press conference.

The program, already five years late, still awaits U.S. government approval, while the Taiwanese legislature is expected to approve the budget only in 2008 or 2009, and may delay longer. Nevertheless, the Army’s choice is seen as a milestone.

Taiwan has two Army Helicopter Groups (Shinsu and Lungtan) that fly 62 AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters, about 80 aging UH-1H Huey utility aircraft and nine OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scouts. Equipped with anti-armor missiles for use against troop transports, the Apaches will help meet the Army’s new mission of confronting invading Chinese forces off the coast with 40 minutes of warning.

The Taiwan Air Power blog has some memos from China’s protest to the US over the 1992 F-16 sale.