Taiwan is seeking Infrared Search and Track (IRST) systems worth $500 million for its F-16 Viper fleet, a request which the U.S. State Department has now approved.
IRSTs will give Taiwanese Vipers the ability to spot and track aerial threats such as stealthy Chinese J-20 fighters. Its sensors don’t get impacted by a target's features designed to reduce its radar cross-section and are immune to electronic warfare attacks intended to jam radars and other radio frequency emissions.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.
This proposed sale is consistent with U.S. law and policy as expressed in Public Law 96-8.
The principal contractors will be Lockheed Martin Corporation, St. Louis, MO, a DSCA press release said, without mentioning what kind of IRST system would be transferred to Taiwan if the sale reaches fruition.
Lockheed Martin displayed podded IRST system fitted on an F-16 at Taipei Aerospace & Defense Technology Exhibition (TADTE) in 2019. The same pod was spotted equipped on F-21 that the company offered for the Indian Air Force. This pod is visually distinct from the Legion Pod that uses IRST21 system. The Legion Pod can be configured to perform various additional functions, including communications relay duties.
China asks U.S. to cancel the IRST sale to Taiwan
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular press conference on Thursday that China asks the U.S. to “immediately cancel the arms sales plan and stop the dangerous trend of arming the island of Taiwan.”
Chinese mainland experts said that the IRST system does have a theoretical potential to detect stealth aircraft, because unlike radar that uses the reflection of radio waves to find targets, IRST uses heat signals radiating from its target to detect them. Stealth aircraft are designed to be low-observable to radar, but its infrared radiation can only be reduced, not eliminated.
They added that the IRST cannot make “a 4.5-generation fighter like the F-16V capable of rivalling a fifth-generation fighter like the (Chinese) J-20 in actual combat.”
An expert told state media that the “IRST can only lock on to targets from a closer range than radar, while the J-20 can detect the F-16 from a much longer-range using radar.”
Even if they manage to sortie, the PLA's combination of KJ-500 early warning aircraft, J-20 stealth fighter jet and PL-15 beyond-visual-range missile will give the F-16Vs no chance of using the IRST, the expert said.