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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2007, 12:07 GMT 13:07 UK
Taiwan shows off military muscle
By Caroline Gluck
BBC News, Taipei

A fully armed US-made F16 fighter jet takes off in Changhua, Taiwan
The motorway was closed to traffic for four hours during the drill
They came before dawn - gathering with anticipation in groups along the narrow country roads, in the rice paddy fields and on the rooftops of farms and warehouses.

Some had brought their young children with them, a few had binoculars, many more had cameras and they were all eagerly looking towards a stretch of one of Taiwan's main freeways, connecting the north to the south of the island.

Soon, the large crowd numbering more than 1,000 would hear the ferocious roar of jets and witness six combat fighters land, refuel and re-arm, before taking off again from a 2.5km stretch of the freeway in Changhua, western Taiwan.

It is only the second time that such an exercise has been held since the Sun Yat-Sen freeway was completed in 1978 and the first involving three types of Air Force fighters.

"I got up at 3am to come here, I wanted to get a good spot," said 42-year-old Pan Xiao-Yi. She told me she had driven from the nearby city of Taichung, 40 minutes away.

"I want to see the fighter jets. They are huge - very powerful. I've seen some planes like this in films but never in real life."

Chinese Glory

Chen Shou-hong, who travelled with his wife to see the exercise, said: "I was curious. I wanted to take a look - It's the first time anything like this has taken place in Changua."

Spectators gather in Changhua county, Taiwan
A large crowd numbering more than 1,000 were watching
Local resident Chang Rong-chung was watching from a country lane with his family and neighbours. "It's a great exercise - the government spends a lot of money on this, so I wanted to see for myself," he said.

The exercise was held as part of Taiwan's Han Kuang, or Chinese Glory, military drills - the island's largest annual combined services field training drill.

It was the first in a series of live military drills which will continue all week, and include exercises showing how the island's forces could repel an amphibious and airborne attack.

Two US-made F-16 fighters, two French Mirage-2000 fighters and two Indigenous Defence Fighters (IDF) took part in the drill.

It was designed to test Taiwan's ability to use the roads as landing strips if the island's political rival, China, were to wipe out its airbases in missile attacks if war ever broke out between the two sides.

China regards the island as its territory and has threatened to use force if the island formally declares independence.

"Our potential enemy has got lots of tactical ballistic missiles, and the fixed runway and other facilities are very vulnerable to attack.

"So we have other runway strips and alternate runways - it is very, very important for us to sustain our operation capability," said military liaison officer, Lt Col Wu Yi-Chun, who is also a trained air force pilot.

Enhanced security

The section of the motorway was closed to traffic for four hours during the drill.

A Taiwanese Air Force medical helicopter takes off in Changhua, Taiwan
Military officials said the drill was "not a show"
Ground staff had already removed a concrete central barrier and cleared the runway of debris, laying asphalt on the surface.

The success of the drill is likely to boost troop morale, with the exercise taking place just days after a fatal crash.

Two pilots and two visiting Singaporean soldiers on the ground were killed and nine other people injured in the crash, which involved an ageing F-5F jet fighter during a rehearsal for the Han Kuang exercises in south-eastern Taiwan.

For the first time in a public military drill in Taiwan, the F16 fighters carried an AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile on its wing tip.

Purchased a few years ago from the United States, the missiles - which have a range of 50km - are equipped with advanced guidance systems.

"Right now, it's the missile that has the fastest range and best precision," said Major General Wu Wan-Chiao, who was commander of the whole exercise.

"Having this type of missile has enhanced the safety and security of the Taiwan Strait," he said.

'The real thing'

The three pilot commanders told reporters at a news conference that they believed the exercise would strengthen the public's confidence in the aircraft.

They dismissed a local television news report which suggested that the entire exercise was more about show business than military training.

"This is the first time we have landed on a freeway runway," said Lee Ching-Ran, command pilot for the IDF jets.

"It is not a show. It's the first time for air and ground crew to do the real thing."

But for the large crowds who had gathered so early in the Taiwanese countryside, it was a spectacular - and maybe once in a lifetime - display of the island's airborne military might.

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