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Taiwan Facing Up to the Airbase Survival Challenge

(Construction of an airstrip taking place on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Source: USNI News.)

By: Project 2049 Institute |

China deploys over a thousand short range ballistic missiles as well as almost 500 fighter and bomber aircraft opposite Taiwan. In the event of a conflict, China could seek air superiority over the Strait by mobilizing a full-scale missile bombardment against Taiwan’s airfields and fighter aircraft fleet. A 2009 RAND report predicted that if the first wave of missiles specifically targeted airbases, China would have a 90% chance of doing sufficient damage Taiwan’s runways to trap its fighters on the ground for hours. While the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) faces significant challenges in cross-Strait conflict scenarios, airbase survival appears to be a rising priority of Taiwan’s defense establishment.

Leveraging the island’s unique geography, the ROCAF has constructed a massive underground bunker at Chia-shan on Taiwan’s east coast to house up to 200 of its fighters. Taiwan has also constructed a second mountain bunker at Chih-hang Airbase, near Tai-tung, to protect an additional 60 fighters.

The ROCAF has also taken significant steps towards ensuring operability despite possible runway damage. ROCAF fighters are prepared for operating from sections of the national freeway system in a contingency. Taiwan has also invested in specialized equipment to reduce the impact of runway damage. In 2002, the ROCAF procured more than 300 rapid runway repair kits and holds regular runway repair exercises.

Engineering studies, however, have suggested that Taiwan requires better runway repair equipment to address its unique threat environment. Similarly, a 2006 survey assessed that existing systems have not met Taiwan’s technical requirements.

Indications exist that an indigenous effort may be underway to improve upon existing solutions. For example, Taiwan is researching advanced cementing technologies to quickly repair damaged runways, and outlining innovative methods to clear debris and unexploded ordnance. Taiwan has also conducted technical analysis of runway repair optimization and surveyed international approaches to the runway repair problem. Furthermore, development of electronic attack systems to counter ballistic and cruise missile terminal guidance systems is also under consideration.

U.S. assessments of Taiwan’s airbase survivability assume China will mount a full scale assault as a prelude to an amphibious invasion. Other analysts believe limited coercive use of force is a most likely scenario. Nevertheless, a conflict is less likely to be a long distance race between China’s missile forces and Taiwan’s runway repair capability, but a sprint aimed at achieving political goals rather than a complete military defeat of Taiwan. Responding to China’s strategic philosophy of “rapid war, rapid resolution,” Taiwan’s strategy focuses on “winning the first battle” rather than a war of attrition. While the challenge to Taiwan posed by Chinese missile forces is substantial, the ROCAF’s ability to sustain operations in a limited coercive conflict may be greater than expected.