Military Jet Incident in Hawaii Points to U.S.-Taiwan Cooperation

A fighter jet's "hard landing" at Honolulu airport this week was another sign of the quiet defense partnership between the United State and Taiwan, a security relationship that has been kept in the background for decades because of political sensitivities with China.

Runway R4 at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Hawaii was temporarily closed to air traffic after an F-16 fighter aircraft made an emergency landing at 2:45 p.m. local time on Monday, the Department of Transportation (DOT) said. The pilot arrested the aircraft with the help of a tail hook after the front landing gear had failed to deploy, said DOT.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser quoted DOT spokesperson Jai Cunningham as saying the jet was "a visiting aircraft from a unit outside of Hawaii." The plane suffered minor damage and no injuries were reported.

A Twitter video taken from a taxiing aircraft shows the nose of the F-16, which does not bear any identifiable insignia, stopped against the ground with emergency crews surrounding the aircraft.

As news of the incident reached across the Pacific on Tuesday morning local time, reports in Taipei identified the F-16 as belonging to Taiwan's Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF).

Tingting Liu, a military reporter with news channel TVBS, said the ROCAF F-16 was on a scheduled return to Taiwan for an upgrade. It had been at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona for the last two decades, where it has been used to assist in the training of Taiwan's air force pilots.

Washington has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but has provided the island with defensive arms—and services—under the Taiwan Relations Act since 1979. The TRA has allowed successive American administrations to assist Taiwan in building a credible self-defense capability to discourage China from resorting to force to settle its long-held territorial claim to the island.

Taiwan Fighter Jet Emergency Landing in Hawaii
An American-made F-16 fighter aircraft belonging to Taiwan's Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) takes part in a demonstration at Chiayi Air Base in Taiwan on January 5, 2022. An unmarked ROCAF F-16 made a "hard landing" at Honolulu International Airport on Monday after its front landing gear failed to deploy, transport authorities said. Military News Agency, Taiwan

Taiwan still has most of the 150 F-16 fighter aircraft it acquired from the U.S. during the 1990s. Two years ago, it finalized a deal to purchase 66 more and began retrofitting its older air frames. The conclusion of the upgrade program in 2026 should see Taiwan operate one of Asia's largest F-16 fleets with around 200 jets.

Maintenance and pilot training takes place at Luke Air Force Base, where about a dozen ROCAF F-16s are stationed, although these lack military insignia. Rotations between Taiwan and Arizona include stops in Hawaii or Guam, as well as mid-air refueling carried out by the U.S. Air Force.

A Pentagon spokesperson told Newsweek that a U.S. pilot was operating the F-16 involved in Monday's incident and that they had declared an in-flight emergency at Honolulu airport.

"The pilot was evaluated at the scene and was taken to a military treatment facility for further evaluation," the Defense Department said.

Taiwan's air force did not return requests for comment before publication.

Before the end of formal diplomatic ties, Washington and Taipei had a mutual defense treaty and agreements for the forward basing of American troops in Taiwan. Both were withdrawn after Washington switched allegiances from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

Under the TRA, however, military cooperation has continued, albeit very quietly. American instructors have been known to attend Taiwan's annual Han Kuang war games as observers, and it became an open secret that select groups of Taiwanese troops were being taught by detachments of U.S. special forces.

China opposes any interaction between the U.S. and Taiwan, and military exchanges even more so. It hasn't renounced the use of force against Taiwan as part of its aim of "unifying" the island with the mainland—and signs point to Beijing's expectation that the American military will intervene if it goes down that route.