Friday, August 06, 2010

Preserving the ROC Air Force’s rich history

As my latest article in the Taipei Times indicates, we have good reason to worry about the ability of Taiwan’s military to ward off an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which, according to the findings of the Ministry of National Defense’s latest computer simulation, would only require three days to occupy Taipei, command-and-control centers and the Presidential Office.

This development stems from three principal reasons: the PLA’s rapid modernization in the past decade; the long delays (caused by a KMT-controlled legislature) in arms acquisition by Taipei during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration; and Washington’s unwillingness, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to provide Taiwan with the advanced weapons systems it needs to maintain the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. A fourth, albeit more recent, development is the lack of military preparedness under the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, which, as I point out in my article, has cut military budgets by as much as US$1.2 billion in the past two years, toned down live exercises, and made nature, rather than China, the military’s principal opponent.

Dispiriting as the situation may be, Taiwan’s military wasn’t always in such a pitiful state and has a fascinating history that spans attempts, under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), of retaking the “mainland,” to ensuring superiority in the Taiwan Strait. The modernization of Taiwan’s military, which for decades kept Taiwan safe, would not have been possible without US assistance and the role played by individuals such as the legendary Claire Chennault (seen right).

This rich history is well captured at the Republic of China (ROC) Air Force museum that is being built in Kaohsiung under the supervision of Major General Mike Tien (田在勱). I had the good fortune of visiting the partially open museum last week, at the invitation of the ROC Air Force, which flew about three dozens journalists in a Hercules C-130 (lots of leg room, though very noisy) from Songshan Air Force Base to Kaohsiung  last Friday.

While the museum, whose main building is under development, will not be open for another two years, it already has, for public scrutiny, a cornucopia of Air Force memorabilia, from historical pictures, badges, documents, statues and many other items, many of which were donated to the museum by Maj. General Tien. While this alone makes this well worth visiting, the open-sky museum, a tour of which Mr. Tien and other Air Force officers were kind enough, in the crushing heat, to give me and Defense News’ Wendell Minnick, makes a visit even more worthwhile. Aside from retired ROC aircraft, which include F-104 Starfighters and a variety of spy and transport airplanes, the museum also has the actual MiG aircraft that were flown by defecting PLA Air Force pilots across the Taiwan Strait, as well as North Korean MiG that was seized years ago, in pieces, on board a cargo ship and pieced back together  for the museum.

Interestingly, the museum is open the Chinese tourists, though, as one officer told us, there is no knowing what Chinese think when they see their MiGs, 八一 emblem with the Red Star (8-1 stands for Aug. 1, 1927, the year the PLA was created following the Nanchang uprising) and all. Chances are they’ve never heard of such a thing as a PLA defector.

The well-respected Maj. Gen. Tien, who as I was leaving could not help but give me wise advice (“remember, always write good things about the Air Force”), is hard at work trying to obtain a variety of retired aircraft from the US Air Force, including a U-2 spy plane. Should he succeed, the fully completed museum should be a must see when it officially opens two years hence.

Sadly for us, the clouds were too low for the scheduled AT-3 trainer aircraft show, which, though it would have been the highlight of the visit down south, had to be canceled for safety reasons.

Now the question is, amid signs that the Taiwanese military is losing steam and becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of a growing threat across the strait, can Ma (and the US) ensure that the long, rich tradition highlighted in the museum is maintained, and that the sacrifices made by the dedicated men and women who people its history were not made in vain?

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