Pilots Defending Ground Zero

By Gertz, Bill | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 25, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Pilots Defending Ground Zero

Gertz, Bill, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Byline: Bill Gertz

TAICHUNG, Taiwan - Pilots at CCK air base here know a simple truth about any conflict with communist China: They are ground zero for the first wave of short-range ballistic missiles now being built up about 100 miles away across the Taiwan Strait.

"Nobody can be fully prepared for war," said Republic of China Maj. Dilon Hong, a fighter pilot pulling a stint on the base's 24-hour combat alert. "But we can do our best to try to defend our people and our country."

Ching Chuan Kang air base, known as CCK, is the largest air force base on this island of 23 million people. It was built by the U.S. Strategic Air Command in the 1960s and used by B-52s for bombing runs during the Vietnam War. At one time, CCK was home to scores of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn after the United States broke its defense alliance with the Republic of China in 1979.

Dressed in a flight suit, Maj. Hong, 31, waits with his wingman in a small concrete room located in the middle of a hanger housing four Indigenous Defense Fighters, or IDFs, as they are called.

A red telephone is the "hot line" from the underground control center located nearby. If the phone rings with orders to take off, the pilots must be ready to scramble their fighters in five minutes' time to meet any Chinese jets that fly too close to the demarcation line running down the middle of the 100-mile strait.

"I love my job," said the major, a Virginia Military Institute graduate. "I get to fly in the sky."

So far, the major has not been called out to intercept a Chinese F-8 or Su-27 jet. But others in his squadron have. For months last year, Taiwanese and Chinese jets flew at each other along the demarcation line on an almost daily basis.

The Chinese were angered by statements from past President Lee Teng-hui that ties between the mainland and island should be carried out on a state-to-state basis. Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province and has vowed to use force if needed to reunite it to the mainland.

Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, wants no reunification as long as the mainland is ruled by communist dictators.

Lt. Col. Eddie Chung, a pilot in charge of testing and evaluation at the base, said his unit regularly conducts "threat analysis" of the capabilities of the Chinese jets that Taiwan's pilots would encounter.

Right now, Chinese air-to-air missiles have limited homing capabilities but mainland fighters are expected to deploy more advanced "active" guided missiles in the future, Col. Chung said.

"We need some upgrades," Col. Chung said, noting that the weapons systems purchased from the United States, such as F-16s purchased in the early 1990s, are the least-capable versions of that plane.

Brig. Gen. Peng Chin-ming, commander of the fighter wing based here, knows the base is vulnerable. He wants the Defense Ministry in Taipei to buy the latest U.S. anti-missile system - the Patriot PAC-3.

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