As part of its extensive preparations to thwart a Chinese invasion, the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND) has decided to widen the runways at seven Air Force locations across the country.
The military decided to standardize runway width to 60 meters after extensive studies and consultations with their counterparts in the United States. The decision has been taken based on the assumption that widening the runways would reduce the repair time after a potential Chinese strike.
Repairing a runway with one or two huge craters used to take four hours, but now it only takes 2.5 hours after a slew of efforts undertaken by the Taiwanese military. By expanding the runways, these repairs may be completed in less than 2.5 hours, enabling fighter jets to launch quickly to launch their counterattacks.
“If surface-to-surface missiles or other weapons hit runways during wartime, take-off and landing operations might be paralyzed — so we need to be prepared for that,” an unnamed source told Taipei Times. Currently, most of Taiwan’s military runways are 45 to 50 meters wide.
However, the Ching Chuan Kang Air Base in Taichung, which was built with American assistance and reportedly intended to house B-52 bombers and other big transport aircraft, has served as the model for the 60-meter standard.
The widening of the runways comes at a time of escalating tensions between Taiwan and China, with the latter predicted to become more aggressive after Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate William Lai won the Presidential elections against a pro-China candidate.
The DPP remains committed to Taiwan’s independence and sovereignty and is expected to continue the military modernization efforts undertaken by the Tsai government to counter China’s growing aggression.
China considers Taiwan a rogue Chinese province and has vowed to unite the self-ruled island state of 24 million people with the mainland by force if necessary. Since the Taiwanese administration is unlikely to concede to the unification, there is an omnipresent threat of a Chinese military operation that looms large over Taipei.
Since August 2022, when China launched large-scale military drills in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has simulated several missile strikes against Taiwan. For instance, in April last year, it simulated precision strikes against Taiwan as part of extensive military drills.
A report on Chinese state television at the time stated that “Under the unified command of the theatre joint operations command center, multiple types of units carried out simulated joint precision strikes on key targets on Taiwan island and the surrounding sea areas, and continue to maintain an offensive posture around the island.”
However, the Chinese strategy to strike and disable Taiwan’s airfields dates back several years. A report published in the Chinese state-owned publication Global Times in 2021 noted that in case of a conflict, the PLA would blow up Taiwan’s aircraft on runways and in hangars, making it difficult for them to take off from the airport.
China’s growing arsenal of weapons like short-range ballistic missiles, including the DF-12 and the DF-16, has only fanned the flames. These missiles have the range to quickly strike Taiwan’s airfields and its taxiways.
Some other longer-range ballistic missiles like the DF-26 can also strike US territories like Guam, which may become a legitimate target if Washington gets involved in any potential cross-strait conflict.
Taiwan Is Widening Its Runways For Counter-Ops
The ministry is getting ready by extending runways and holding yearly repair drills because, in a conflict, China would probably target Taiwan’s air facilities.
China would have an 80% probability of destroying a runway if six ballistic missiles were fired at a runway with an accuracy of less than 50 meters and a destructive radius of 25 meters. The source also postulated that China might be able to destroy a runway by firing two missiles at a target with a radius of 100 meters in quick succession.
“If surface-to-surface missiles or other weapons hit runways during wartime, take-off and landing operations might be paralyzed — so we need to be prepared for that,” the source said. “it’s not guaranteed that China would hit its target, but we must be ready to restore a runway should it be hit, and widening runways is the best way to accomplish that.”
Experts and people with technical knowledge about the runways claimed that by enlarging the shoulders and buffer zones of the main runways at air bases, the 7.5 m to 15 m widths could be rapidly reinforced. According to some reports, Taiwanese Air Force personnel have trained on runway maintenance at Ching Chuan Kang and in the United States.
“During the last drill, the army’s unexploded ordinance disposal team used 18kg of TNT to blast holes in the base’s taxiway, simulating an enemy attack,” the source said. “The blast created a 2m-deep hole with a radius of 20m that teams used for the drill, which involved removing foreign objects, laying fiberglass repair kits, backfilling the crater and compacting it.”
The minimum operating strip measuring 1.5 km in length and 15 m in breadth was opened during the exercise to facilitate the fastest possible restart of aircraft take-offs and landings.
Besides widening its runways, Taiwan has also trained its personnel to carry out dispersed operations. In several instances, the Taiwanese fighter jets have demonstrated landing on a makeshift runway on highway strips.
For example, as part of annual military drills conducted in 2021, three fighters—a F-16, a French-built Mirage, and a Ching-kuo Indigenous Defence Fighter—along with an E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircraft conducted a landing on a highway strip that was specifically built to be level and straight so that it could be quickly converted from a road into a runway. Several similar drills involving landing and take-off have been conducted several times since.
Taiwan has five backup runways that can sustain air force operations if a Chinese attack destroys air force bases. In the event of a confrontation, Taiwan’s air bases, primarily on its west coast facing China, would be highly vulnerable to heavy missile and aircraft attacks.
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