Democratic, Republican lawmakers back $8 billion F-16 sale to Taiwan

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter taking part in the U.S.-led Saber Strike exercise flies over Estonia June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

By Bryan Pietsch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congress should move quickly with an $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan as China “seeks to extend its authoritarian reach” over the region, leading U.S. Democratic and Republican lawmakers said on Friday.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, a Republican, said in a statement that he welcomed the sale of Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-16 jets to boost Taiwan’s “ability to defend its sovereign airspace, which he said is “under increasing pressure” from China.

The deal “sends a strong message” about U.S. commitment to security and democracy in the region, House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot and Michael McCaul, the panel’s ranking Republican, said in a joint statement.

They said the move will deter China as Beijing threatens “our strategic partner Taiwan and its democratic system of government.”

The United States is the main arms supplier to Taiwan, which China deems a wayward province. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the self-governed island under its control.

Senator Marco Rubio urged Congress to move forward with the deal, which he said in a statement is “an important step in support of Taiwan’s self-defense efforts” as China “seeks to extend its authoritarian reach” in the region.

Senator Ted Cruz said in a statement that it is critical “now more than ever” for Taiwan to boost its defense capabilities.

After the United States approved sales of tanks and Raytheon Co’s <RTN.N> anti-aircraft Stinger missiles to Taiwan in July, China said it was “ready to go to war” if people “try to split Taiwan from the country.”

Beijing said it would impose sanctions on U.S. companies involved in any deals. The United States and China are embroiled in a wider trade war.

On Thursday, Taiwan unveiled its largest defense spending increase in more than a decade, to T$411.3 billion ($13.11 billion.)

The United States has no formal ties with self-ruled and democratic Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide it with the means to defend itself. China has repeatedly denounced U.S. arms sales to the island.

(Reporting by Bryan Pietsch; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Russia, South Korea trade conflicting claims over alleged airspace intrusion

A Russian A-50 military aircraft flies near the disputed islands called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, in this handout picture taken by Japan Air Self-Defence Force and released by the Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan July 23, 2019. Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/HANDOUT via REUTERS

By Maria Kiselyova and Hyonhee Shin

MOSCOW/SEOUL (Reuters) – Russia’s embassy in Seoul on Wednesday said that Moscow had not apologized for an alleged airspace violation the previous day after South Korea said that a Russian attache had expressed “deep regret” and blamed malfunctioning equipment.

A Russian military aircraft entered airspace near a group of islets claimed by both South Korea and Japan on Tuesday, during a long-range joint air patrol with Chinese jets, according to South Korea and Japan, which both scrambled fighter jets in response.

South Korean warplanes fired flares and hundreds of warning shots near the Russian aircraft, and the incident triggered a round of diplomatic protests by countries in the region.

An unidentified Russian military attache in Seoul told South Korean officials on Tuesday that the plane appeared to have “entered an unplanned area due to a device malfunction”, said Yoon Do-han, South Korea’s presidential press secretary.

“Russia has conveyed its deep regret over the incident and said its defense ministry would immediately launch an investigation and take all necessary steps,” Yoon said.

“The officer said such a situation would have never occurred if it followed the initially planned route.”

Hours later, Russia’s embassy in Seoul said there had been no apology.

“The Russian side did not make an official apology,” the embassy in Seoul said, adding it had noted many inaccuracies in the comments by South Korea, Interfax reported.

The incident comes at a delicate time for a region that has for years been overshadowed by hostility between the United States and North Korea and has recently seen a flare-up in tension between South Korea and Japan.

Russia’s public statements on the issue have not mentioned any technical problems, nor has Russia announced any investigation or acknowledged a violation of South Korean airspace.

Yoon said in a later briefing that after the attache admitted a possible mistake and expressed regret, which was taken as Moscow’s official position, Russia “altered” its account by sending a document stating that it did not violate any airspace.

Russia also accused South Korean fighter jets of threatening the safety of Russian aircraft by interfering with their flight and failing to communicate, Yoon said.

Seoul’s defense ministry said Russia was “distorting the truth” and it had evidence to support its claim.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to a request to clarify the conflicting accounts.

“The document says that they might take a responsive measure if similar flights by the South Korean Air Force recur,” Yoon said.

An official at the defense ministry earlier told reporters it believed the intrusion could not have resulted from a system error.

He did not elaborate, but another official told Reuters that the two countries plan to hold working-level talks on Thursday in Seoul to clarify what happened.

While troops and naval ships from Russia and China have taken part in joint war games before, they have not conducted such air patrols in the Asia-Pacific region together, according to Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

China’s defense ministry said on Wednesday that China and Russia did not enter the airspace of any other country during their joint patrols on Tuesday.

South Korea and Japan scrambled fighter jets because both claim sovereignty over the disputed islets called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan.

The two U.S. allies are mired in a deepening political and trade dispute, which fanned concerns that it might undercut three-way security cooperation to fend off North Korea’s nuclear threats.

The incident also coincided with the visit of U.S. national security adviser John Bolton to South Korea.

Bolton and his counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, discussed the suspected airspace breach during a meeting on Wednesday and vowed close consultations in case of more such incidents, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said in a statement.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith in Seoul, and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Trump plans tanks and flyovers at Fourth of July celebration in Washington

U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. first lady Melania Trump wave from the Truman Balcony during a fireworks display celebrating Independence Day at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Andy Sullivan and Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday that he plans to display battle tanks on Washington’s National Mall as part of a pumped-up Fourth of July celebration that will also feature flyovers by fighter jets and other displays of military prowess.

The military hardware is just one new element in a U.S. Independence Day pageant that will depart significantly from the nonpartisan, broadly patriotic programs that typically draw hundreds of thousands of people to the monuments in downtown Washington.

An M1 Abrams tank sits atop a flat car in a rail yard after U.S. President Donald Trump said tanks and other military hardware would be part of of a Fourth of July display in Washington, U.S., July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Fogarty

An M1 Abrams tank sits atop a flat car in a rail yard after U.S. President Donald Trump said tanks and other military hardware would be part of of a Fourth of July display in Washington, U.S., July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Fogarty

While past presidents have traditionally kept a low profile on July 4, Trump plans to deliver a speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Also on the agenda are an extended fireworks display and flyovers by Air Force One, the custom Boeing 747 used by U.S. presidents, and the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels jet squadron.

“I’m going to say a few words, and we’re going to have planes going overhead,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “And we’re going to have tanks stationed outside.”

Democrats in Congress have accused Trump of hijacking the event to boost his re-election prospects in 2020. They have also questioned how much the event will cost the cash-strapped National Park Service.

Trump has pushed for a military parade in Washington since he marveled at the Bastille Day military parade in Paris in 2017. His administration postponed a parade that had been planned for Veterans Day in November 2018 after costs ballooned to $90 million, three times the initial estimate.

Trump said modern M1 Abrams tanks and World War Two-era Sherman tanks would both be on display. District of Columbia officials have said the heavy military equipment could damage city streets.

“You’ve got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency not to like to carry heavy tanks, so we have to put them in certain areas,” Trump said.

The antiwar group Code Pink said it had secured permits to fly a “Baby Trump” blimp, depicting the president in diapers, during his speech. “Babies need enormous amounts of attention and are unable to gauge the consequences of their behavior – just like Donald Trump,” co-founder Medea Benjamin said in a news release.

The Interior Department, which oversees the event, has not said how much the event will cost. Two fireworks firms will put on a 35-minute display for free, which the agency said was equal to a donation of $700,000.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Diane Craft and Peter Cooney)

India cites ‘active mobile phones’ to back air strike casualty claim

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan army soldier walks near to the crater where Indian military aircrafts released payload in Jaba village, Balakot, Pakistan February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Asif Shahzad

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An Indian government surveillance agency had detected 300 active mobile phones at a suspected militant camp in Pakistan that India says its fighter jets bombed last week, the interior minister said on Tuesday, seeking to quell rising doubts about the success of the operation.

“Some people are asking how many were killed,” Rajnath Singh said at an election rally. “You are seeking answers from us! India’s respected and authentic NTRO surveillance system has said that before Indian pilots dropped the bombs, 300 mobile phones were active there. There’s no need to tell you how many were killed.”

Singh was referring to the National Technical Research Organisation that is under direct control of the prime minister’s office.

Indian opposition leaders are increasingly raising doubts about the government’s official claims that a “very large number” of members of an Islamist militant group were killed in the strike by Indian warplanes early on Feb. 26. The government has rejected the demand for proof.

Pakistan has said the Indian bombs hit a largely empty hillside near the northeastern town of Balakot without hurting anyone.

A top Indian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that at least 300 suspected militants were killed in the air strike, while the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, put the figure at more than 250.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das)

Netanyahu says Israel ‘mightier’ as first F-35 fighter jets arrive

F-35 fighter jet - United States Military

By Ori Lewis

NEVATIM AIR BASE, Israel (Reuters) – – Israel on Monday became the first country after the United States to receive the U.S.-built F-35 stealth jet which will increase its ability to attack distant targets, including Iran.

The much-hyped arrival of the first two fighter jets was overshadowed by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s tweet that Lockheed Martin’s  whole F-35 project was too expensive, and the delivery was delayed for hours by bad weather preventing their take-off from Italy.

The squadron is expected to be the first operational outside the United States. The planes are the first of 50, costing around $100 million each.

“Our long arm has now become longer and mightier,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Nevatim air base in the southern Negev desert.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, also attending the ceremony which was delayed until after dark, said the planes were critical to maintaining Israel’s military edge in the region.

A U.S. squadron of the planes, which have suffered delays and cost overruns, became operational in August. The F-35 program is the Pentagon’s largest weapons project.

“The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Trump said on Twitter, sending Lockheed Martin’s shares down 4 percent.

Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 programme leader, said the company understood concerns about affordability and had invested millions of dollars to try to reduce its price.

Israel, which finalised a 10-year, $38 billion arms deal from the United States this year, plans to maintain two F-35 squadrons.

Critics of the plane say it can carry a smaller weapons payload and has a shorter range than Israel’s current squadrons of U.S.-built F-15s and F-16s.

But some experts say the F-35’s stealth capabilities make up for this because it can be more accurate and fly a more direct route to its target. Israel’s air force mostly flies missions close to home, in the Gaza Strip and against arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.

It is also believed to have carried out bombings in Sudan against arms shipments to Palestinian militants, and to have drawn up contingency plans against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Israel initially ordered 33 of the fighters but signed off on another 17 last month.

Nimrod Shefer, a retired Israeli air force major-general, said the new aircraft were a welcome addition.

“(There are) very low- to very high-altitude missiles … and targets that are becoming more and more difficult to detect and to destroy,” he said.

(Writing by Ori Lewis and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Robin Pomeroy)

Iran says Russian use of air base for Syria strikes over ‘for now’

Still image shows shows airstrikes carried out by Russian air force in Syria

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

DUBAI (Reuters) – Russia has stopped using an Iranian air base for strikes in Syria, Iran’s foreign ministry announced on Monday, bringing an abrupt halt to an unprecedented deployment that was criticized both by the White House and some Iranian lawmakers.

Last week long-range Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 fighter bombers used Nojeh air base, near the city of Hamadan, in north-west Iran to launch air strikes against armed groups in Syria.

It was the first time a foreign power used an Iranian base since World War Two. Russia and Iran are both providing crucial military support to President Bashar al-Assad against rebels and jihadi fighters in Syria’s five-year-old conflict.

Some Iranian lawmakers called the move a breach of Iran’s constitution which forbids “the establishment of any kind of foreign military base in Iran, even for peaceful purposes”.

Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan dismissed that criticism but also chided Moscow for publicizing the move, describing it as showing off and a “betrayal of trust.”

“We have not given any military base to the Russians and they are not here to stay,” Dehghan was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency late on Sunday.

He said there was “no written agreement” between the two countries and the “operational cooperation” was temporary and limited to refueling.

The U.S. state department last week called the move “unfortunate but not surprising,” and said it was looking into whether it violated UN Security Council resolution 2231, which prohibits supply, sale and transfer of combat aircraft to Iran.

ABRUPT END

On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Russia’s use of the base has ended.

“Russia has no base in Iran and is not stationed here. They did this (operation) and it is finished for now,” Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.

Iran’s defense minister had said last week that Russia will be permitted to use the Nojeh base “for as long as they need”.

Relations between the two countries, long cordial, appeared to reach a new level last September when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a military intervention in Syria in support of Assad.

After some delay, Russia supplied Iran with its S-300 missile air defense system, evidence of a growing partnership that is testing U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Dehghan said that to make up for the delay, Russia had suggested providing Iran with its advanced S-400, but that Tehran was not interested as it is working to advance its own home-made defense system.

Iran unveiled its new missile defense system, Bavar 373, on Monday, a system designed to intercept cruise missiles, drones, combat aircraft and ballistic missiles.

Iran’s defense minister also said Tehran has shown interest in buying Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets and Moscow’s reply “has not been negative so far.”

The United States has said it would use its veto power in the United Nations’ Security Council to block the possible sales of the fighter jets to Iran.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Dominic Evans)

China scrambles fighters as U.S. sails warship near Chinese claimed reef

Still image from a United States Navy video purportedly shows Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly

By Michael Martina, Greg Torode and Ben Blanchard

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – China scrambled fighter jets on Tuesday as a U.S. navy ship sailed close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea, a patrol China denounced as an illegal threat to peace which only went to show its defense installations in the area were necessary.

Guided missile destroyer the USS William P. Lawrence traveled within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef, U.S. Defense Department spokesman, Bill Urban said.

The so-called freedom of navigation operation was undertaken to “challenge excessive maritime claims” by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam which were seeking to restrict navigation rights in the South China Sea, Urban said.

“These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise,” Urban said in an emailed statement.

China and the United States have traded accusations of militarizing the South China Sea as China undertakes large-scale land reclamations and construction on disputed features while the United States has increased its patrols and exercises.

Facilities on Fiery Cross Reef include a 3,000-metre (10,000-foot) runway which the United States worries China will use it to press its extensive territorial claims at the expense of weaker rivals.

China’s Defence Ministry said two fighter jets were scrambled and three warships shadowed the U.S. ship, telling it to leave.

The U.S. patrol “again proves that China’s construction of defensive facilities on the relevant reefs in the Nansha Islands is completely reasonable and totally necessary”, it said, using China’s name for the Spratly Islands where much of its reclamation work is taking place.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the U.S. ship illegally entered Chinese waters.

“This action by the U.S. side threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the staff and facilities on the reef, and damaged regional peace and stability,” he told a daily news briefing.

SENSITIVE AREA

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

The Pentagon last month called on China to reaffirm it has no plans to deploy military aircraft in the Spratly Islands after China used a military plane to evacuate sick workers from Fiery Cross.

“Fiery Cross is sensitive because it is presumed to be the future hub of Chinese military operations in the South China Sea, given its already extensive infrastructure, including its large and deep port and 3000-metre runway,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

“The timing is interesting, too. It is a show of U.S. determination ahead of President Obama’s trip to Vietnam later this month.”

Speaking in Vietnam, Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said freedom of navigation operations were important for smaller nations.

“If the world’s most powerful navy cannot sail where international law permits, then what happens to the ships of navy of smaller countries?,” Russel told reporters before news of the operation was made public.

China has reacted with anger to previous U.S. freedom of navigation operations, including the overflight of fighter planes near the disputed Scarborough Shoal last month, and when long-range U.S. bombers flew near Chinese facilities under construction on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys last November.

U.S. naval officials believe China has plans to start reclamation and construction activities on Scarborough Shoal, which sits further north of the Spratlys within the Philippines claimed 200 nautical mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone.

A tough-talking city mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, looks set to become president of the Philippines after an election on Monday. He has proposed multilateral talks on the South China Sea.

A Chinese diplomat warned last week that criticism of China over the South China Sea would rebound like a coiled spring.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Paris and My Pham in Hanoi; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)