Frontline CCK AIRBASE Taiwan: Happy chasing shadows in this war game

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The Independent Online
IT MUST be the most polite frontline anywhere in the world, even though the stakes are extremely high and the military hardware is capable of delivering serious damage.

Situated close to the dead centre of Taiwan, at Taichung, the CCK Airbase, the largest military airbase in East Asia, is where any attack from the Chinese mainland would be first detected.

"We don't want to attack anybody," insists Major Frank Hsu, a soft-spoken Top Gun in the Taiwan airforce with some 1,000-hours flying experience under his belt.

Like almost everyone on the base, Major Hsu has not experienced the whiff of gunshot fired in anger. Yet they are sitting in the middle of one of Asia's hottest military zones.

Wearing an American-style pilot's jumpsuit with the wolf emblem of his squadron leaping off the left shoulder, Major Hsu is ready for action but understandably reluctant to go to war.

He insists that although Taiwan is assembling a formidable collection of air power to face the threat of attack from the Chinese mainland, the main function is defensive, with an emphasis on patrolling the Taiwan Strait which separates the two countries.

"Patrolling," he explains, "means I have fighters here, so it tells mainland China please don't come here. It's like having a dog in your house. We say we love our dogs, but it is better if you don't come here to see them."

The house built by the Taiwanese is a spartan, sprawling airbase which has little of the flamboyance often favoured by the RAF.

The pilots are impressively well-educated, a great many are university graduates, and they hardly conform to the Top Gun gung-ho stereotypes of the Tom Cruise variety.

Some military analysts in the capital, Taipei, are fond of saying that their boys in the airforce are better trained and generally far sharper than their counterparts in China. This may be true, but Major Hsu is having none of it. "You never look down on your enemies," he insists.

In the old days, when the guys in faded leather jackets with the red, white and blue Chinese nationalist flag stencilled on the back were flying rickety old fighters, battle casualties were very high and dog-fights common.

In recent years, most of the casualties have come not from combat but from flying the ancient F104 fighters, which until last year were the backbone of the airforce.

A collection of the bulky F104s are still sitting around at the airbase, Major Hsu pats one of them without affection and says, "We call them flying coffins."

Many pilots lost their lives in this short-winged, far-from-stable plane. Their advanced age does not make them any better. Asked how old the F104s are, Major Hsu says, "older than me". He is 32.

The CCK Airbase is separated from the mainland by no more than seven to eight minutes flying time in one of China's new state-of-the-art Russian jet fighters.

But in 10 years of flying, Major Hsu has never even seen a Chinese plane, let alone got into a dog-fight. "Nowadays," he says, "we don't suggest that our pilots should have a dog-fight with our enemies."

If things get hot, the first line of response is to fire off missiles and return to base.

But things do not tend to get hot. Taiwan patrols right up to its side of the Taiwan Strait while the Chinese patrols stick to their coastline.

The dangers of engagement in this confined area are so high and the consequences so unimaginable that both sides are not looking for a fight.

There are reminders of the old days and old Cold Warriors on the walls of the airbase's tiny museum. Faded pictures show a visit by a broadly smiling Spiro Agnew, when he was Richard Nixon's vice-president and Taiwan enjoyed close military cooperation with the United States.

During the Vietnam War, giant B52 bombers belonging to the US forces would take off from CCK loaded to the gills with masses of bombs designed to "bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age" . At least that was the grand plan of such luminaries as Senator Barry Goldwater, whose picture also adorns the museum's walls.

The Americans left in the late 1960s as did their supplies of new aircraft. Until the Indigenous Defensive Fighter (IDF) started coming on stream last year, the airforce had to make do with the ancient, US-supplied F104 fighters.

Sitting in the cramped cockpit of an IDF, confronted with a mass of paraphernalia, the whole business of war with China seems like a complicated game. Of course, it is nothing of the kind.

These are killing machines and if they really got into battle the whole region could erupt. The problem is that it is hard to imagine Armageddon starting right here.