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Taiwan, Asia’s Secret Air Power

(Image Source: Reuters/Pichi Chuang)

By Ian Easton |

No other democratic country in the world faces a more dangerous threat picture. Here’s what Taiwan is doing to ensure its air defense and why it matters for the United States and the region.  

When current and former world leaders, including Bill Clinton, visit Taiwan, they often stay at the Grand Hotel Taipei, an opulent Chinese architectural landmark perched on top of Yuan Mountain. With spectacular views of the downtown riverfront and a palm-lined swimming pool surrounded by lush green jungle, guests at the Grand Hotel could be forgiven for thinking they had arrived at one of the most peaceful spots in East Asia. In fact, just under their feet lies a vast underground command center from which Taiwan’s top leadership would direct their nation’s armed forces in the event of a war with China. This facility, like many around the high-tech island, shows that when it comes to the defense of Taiwan, there is much more than meets the eye.

Known officially as the Tri-Service Hengshan Command Center, the sprawling tunnel facility stretches through the mountain in a line that starts near the Grand Hotel and goes down to the giant Ferris wheel in Dazhi. Built to defend against China’s growing fleet of ballistic missiles, this hardened nerve center is designed to allow Taiwan’s government (and thousands of military personnel) to live and work for months, riding out air raids above while organizing the defense of Taiwan from below.

Linked to a large network of subterranean command posts and military bases around Taiwan and its outer islands–as well as the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii–the Hengshan Command Center is the ultimate redoubt for Taiwan’s president. It is so important, in fact, that China’s strategic rocket force, the Second Artillery, has actually simulated missile attacks on the bridges that connect it to the Presidential Office.

On the other side of the city, buried inside a wet rocky outcropping near the campus of National Taiwan University, lies another tunnel complex, the Air Operations Center. Known affectionately as “Toad Mountain” by Taiwanese air force officers, this facility oversees one of the most robust air and missile defense networks on the planet. Fed vast quantities of information by airborne early-warning aircraft, long-range radars, listening posts, unmanned aerial vehicles, and satellites, Toad Mountain stands constant watch over all of Taiwan’s airspace, ready to scramble fighters or assign surface-to-air missiles to intercept intruders. And, like every other Taiwanese military facility, it has multiple back-ups. Just in case.

One of those back-ups is located on Taiwan’s east coast inside Chiashan or “Optimal Mountain”, not far from the mouth of a gorge cut through pure white marble. Unlike the gorge, however, no tourists are allowed inside this billion dollar bunker complex. According to first-person accounts, the base is an entire military city built inside a hollowed-out mountain. Not only does it have space inside for parking, arming, and repairing over two hundred fighter aircraft, it also has its own hospital and multiple gas stations serving jet fuel. With ten blast doors that exit out to multiple runways via a long taxiway that can itself be used as an emergency runway, it may be toughest airbase ever built.

Ninety miles down the coastline, Taiwan’s air force, ROCAF, is further bolstered by the Shihzishan or “Stone Mountain” complex at Chihhang Air Base. Though somewhat smaller than Chiashan, its labyrinthine tunnels can still shelter some eighty aircraft. Both of these facilities benefit from their strategic locations on the far side of the highest mountain range in East Asia. Missiles fired from the Chinese mainland can’t reach them–they would smash into the side of the mountains before they got there.

For this reason, Taiwan regularly practices dispersing its fighter jets from vulnerable west coast bases to airfields on the east coast. Units are also moved between bases to make it difficult to predict where they might be at any given time, and dummy aircraft are parked on tarmacs and inside shelters to confuse enemy intelligence.

To further mitigate the threat of a knock-out Chinese missile strike on its airfields, Taiwan’s air force maintains five emergency highway strips where it can land, refuel, rearm, and launch fighters in the event that nearby runways are cratered. In addition, each Taiwanese airbase has large engineering units attached to it with ample stocks of equipment for rapidly repairing runways. Clocking in at four hours, Israel’s Self Defense Force used to have the world speed record in the runway repair game. No longer. Earlier this year a team of Taiwanese sappers beat that record by an hour.

Facing an existential threat from China and its much larger military, these are just a few of many examples of how Taiwan’s military is using quality to offset its quantitative shortcomings. Whether or not Taiwan can pull it off could hardly be more important for the United States and the future of the Asia-Pacific region.

Indeed, if the contest of the century is to be waged between the U.S. and China for primacy in the Pacific, Taiwan will be the center of the action. Look at any map and it should quickly become apparent why.  Taiwan sits at the crossroads between the East and South China Seas, within torpedo range of the world’s most heavily trafficked sea lines.  Not only critical for bottling the Chinese navy up inside the first island chain–and thereby protecting Japan and the Philippines from the threat of naval blockade–Taiwan also plays a leading role in the air.

With China fielding ballistic missiles for targeting U.S. aircraft carrier groups in the Western Pacific and Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, Taiwan’s defenses matter more now than ever. Chinese missiles would have to go through Taiwan’s airspace on the way to their targets. With the right combination of high-powered ballistic missile defense radars and interceptors, Taiwan can serve as a shield to protect deployed American forces during a contingency.

This potential was inadvertently revealed in late 2012 when North Korea launched a long-range rocket into the Philippine Sea. At the time, Taiwan’s new ultra high frequency (UHF) radar system was able to track the missile and provide the U.S. and Japanese warships with 120 seconds of extra warning time–an eternity in the short life of a hypersonic missile flight.

For this reason and many others, China’s communist party leadership in Beijing continues to see Taiwan as its most worrisome external political and diplomatic problem.  Viewed by Beijing as the Chinese world’s first liberal democracy, Taiwan’s remarkable political success story casts China’s oppressive system in an unfavorable comparative light.

To combat what it thinks is a grave political threat, Beijing’s strategy has been to employ a combination of coercive and cooperative measures to isolate (and eventually subjugate) Taiwan. The most prominent aspect of China’s strategy is its missile build-up, which aims to intimidate the voters in Taiwan and policymakers in the United States.   

Yet without the ability to dominate the air domain, any Chinese attempt to blockade or invade Taiwan would be disastrous.  This may explain why China’s amphibious fleet has not grown by a single ship since 2007.  It makes little sense for any navy to spend limited resources on ships that could be sunk at the outset of war.

However, the air and missile threat to Taiwan, and by extension the United States, is very real and growing fast. China’s Second Artillery Force has developed and tested a ballistic missile warhead for targeting airfield runways with penetrating cluster munitions. At the same time, China has been able to convince two successive U.S. administrations (and three French Presidents) to freeze the sale of new fighters jets to Taiwan, leading to a widening fighter gap in the Taiwan Strait.

Without new F-16 or Mirage-2000 fighters, Taiwan knows that it may soon find itself overwhelmed in the air even though its pilots are far better trained than their mainland adversaries. In an air war quality may be the most important factor, but quantity matters a lot too. Fortunately, Taiwan’s government appears to be making serious progress on developing its own indigenous means of undercutting China’s growing missile and air forces. While Taiwan will be hard pressed to ensure that it always has cross-Strait air superiority, it can easily deny the same to China. By developing and fielding a number of world-class capabilities to survive missile strikes and keep enemy aircraft from freely operating in its airspace, Taiwan may have broken the code on deterring Chinese aggression.

Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. This article was originally published in the Diplomat on September 25, 2014.