Taiwan's air force has temporarily grounded 15 of its 150 F-16 fighters due to an acute pilot shortage despite rival China's military threat, the Central Daily News reported Tuesday.
But General Chen Chao-min, the air force commander-in-chief, denied the report while admitting the short staffing.
An air force spokesman dismissed the report saying "the most difficult time has passed... Our training and combat readiness goes undisturbed."
The spokesman was referring 1997, which he said saw a peak in pilot shortage as many well-trained military pilots retired to join civilian airlines for better salary.
"Now the new blood is joining at a faster pace than the retirement," he said.
The paper said a large number of pilots had rushed to retire after five F-16s crashed for unknown reasons. Engine failure was blamed for the sixth crash, and the air force has sought compensation from the United States aircraft maker.
The paper affiliated with the leading opposition Kuomintang (KMT) said "in order to keep in good shape those fighters not occupied, some F-16s have been entirely wrapped up by tin sheet and their cabins dehumidified."
The paper did not specify the number of idling F-16s, but said the air force had ordered one fourth of three squadrons be temporarily grounded. A squadron has some 20 units, depending on their missions.
The air force has inaugurated five squadrons of F-16s after the first one joined the force in September 1997.
Washington agreed to sell Taipei 150 F-16 fighters for 5.8 billion US dollars in 1992 ignoring Beijing's protests.
Taiwan has taken delivery of all the 150 units, which are the backbone of its air force.
At the core of the military air fleet are 60 French-made Mirage 2000-5s and 130 homemade Indigenous Defensive Fighters.
China has threatened to invade Taiwan should the island declare formal independence -- TAIPEI (AFP)
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