When a civil war between Chinese powers ended with victory for the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1949, the Republic of China's government retreated to a region of the nation that had only recently been returned from Japanese control, known as Taiwan. They quickly established a provisional capital in Taipei, and so began a half-century long staring contest from across the Pacific Ocean's Taiwan Strait. Today, tensions remain high between these two Chinese governments, prompting complex foreign relations and sporadic military posturing between each government and their respective allies.
On Tuesday, Taiwan conducted an unusual series of military exercises aimed at preparing the nation to defend itself against a Chinese attack even after its military installations had been rendered useless by wave after wave of Chinese air strikes and naval bombardments. Taiwan knows China could feasibly neuter their military response capabilities fairly quickly, and in order to stay in the fight, they'd need to get creative with how they field their intercept and attack aircraft. When you're fresh out of airstrips but still have fighters to scramble, what do you do?
You close down the freeways.
Freeway or Runway? It all depends on the circumstances.
(Photo courtesy of Taiwan's Freeway Bureau)
"Our national security has faced multiple challenges," Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen told the press on Tuesday. "Whether it is the Chinese Communist Party's [People's Liberation Army] long-distance training or its fighter jets circling Taiwan, it has posed a certain degree of threat to regional peace and stability. We should maintain a high degree of vigilance."
As a part of the drills, Taiwan launched four different types of military aircraft from portions of highway that were shut down for use as makeshift airstrips. Long stretches of blacktop normally reserved for slow-moving commuters fighting their way through workday traffic instead became packed with American sourced F-16 Fighting Falcons and Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye surveillance aircraft, along with French Mirage 2000s and Taiwan-made IDF fighters. Each aircraft took off carrying a full combat load.
The drills not only demonstrated Taiwan's ability to scramble fighters and support aircraft from the freeway, it also proved conclusively that Taiwan's troops can conduct refueling and ammunition replenishment operations right there on the highway, redeploying jets back into the fight quickly even after their air bases have been destroyed.
"There are only a few military air bases which would become the prime targets in the event of an attack. The highway drill is necessary as highway strips would be our priority choice if the runways were damaged during a war," Air Force Colonel Shu Kuo-mao explained.
Over 1,600 military personnel took part in the drills, along with Taiwan's new variant of the F-16 that has been called the "most advanced fourth-generation fighter on the planet" by its builder, Lockheed Martin. The F-16V offers advanced AESA Radar sourced through Northrop Grumman, as well as a variety of updates and upgrades to avionics and combat systems meant to make it a formidable opponent for just about anything in the sky that isn't Lockheed Martin's flagship fighter, the F-35, or its sister in stealth, the F-22.
The F-16V is touted as the world's most advanced fourth generation fighter by Lockheed Martin
(Promotional image courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
The F-16s that took part in Tuesday's drills notably flew carrying two Harpoon anti-ship missiles, two AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles, and two AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles, sourced from the United States, meaning their primary role in a fight would be to engage with encroaching aircraft and vessels, rather than air-to-surface strikes against the Chinese mainland.
With only about a hundred miles separating Taiwan's shores from China's, it stands to reason that combat operations would begin with a heavy bombardment of Taiwan's few operational airstrips. These drills, however, suggest that even such an offensive may not be enough to stop Taiwan from responding with some of the best fighters on the planet.