Taiwan’s ongoing anti-Chinese invasion drill has revealed how its airmen can steer fighter jets including the F-16 to land, refuel and rearm on the island’s purpose-built highways, simulating a scenario when runways at Taiwan’s major air bases – prime targets in the event of a war – are damaged in missile strikes by the People’s Liberation Army.

The last time the Taiwanese Air Force conducted such highway strip landings in the annual Han Kuang drill was in 2014, a sign that the military now sees heightened threats from across the strait amid the PLA’s aggressive build-up and talk of a forced reunification.

On Monday morning, some 1,600 troops were mobilized in central Taiwan, and warplanes – an F-16V, a Mirage 2000-5 and an E-2K airborne early warning aircraft, among others – conducted landings on a closed section of a highway in Changhua county for refueling and ammunition loading before getting airborne again. Taiwanese papers said it was the first time an F-16V had landed on a highway strip.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, left, inspected the drill in Changhua on Monday. Photo: Handout

An air force colonel told reporters that Taiwan’s key airbases would all be targeted by the PLA should hostilities break out, thus a highway drill was necessary to hone the skills of airmen to land on and take off from highways to assist emergency response and withdrawal.

The army is authorized to requisition some sections of Taiwan’s highway network for emergency landings and take-offs as well as warplane repair and maintenance during wartime.

The island has almost 1,000 kilometers of highways with at least four lanes and hardened road surfaces. Emergency runways have been designed on parts of the island’s highways, including some sections of the National Highway No-1, a north-south artery running down the island’s west coast from Taipei to Kaohsiung.

These sections, also known as highway strips, were specially built to act as runways for military aircraft and to serve as an auxiliary military air base to allow military aircraft to continue operating even if their regular air bases, some of the most vulnerable targets in any war, were degraded or destroyed.

These strips are usually straight sections of highway measuring no less than two kilometers with a thicker than normal surface and a solid concrete base, where any central reservation made of crash barriers can be easily removed to allow warplanes to use the whole width of a highway, and specialized equipment for a typical airfield is stored somewhere nearby. These highways can be converted to operational airstrips within 24 to 48 hours.

Modernizing fighter jets

The F-16, the buttress of Taiwan’s air defense and emergency response, can take off and land on short airstrips without extra retrofitting as the space needed for landing the aircraft is reduced by means of a wire, similar to the catapult-assisted take-off and arrested recovery systems used on some aircraft carriers.

Taiwan is in the middle of a US$3.68 billion program to modernize its entire inventory of 144 F-16A/B jets to the F-16V configuration, including installing active electronically scanned array radar systems also used on the F-22 and F-35 jets.

Still, Taiwan would be massively outgunned in terms of troop size and firepower in any conflict with China, but it has developed sophisticated asymmetric tactics to hold back Chinese troops to win time for international intervention.

Elsewhere on Monday, traffic in key cities came to a halt and buildings evacuated when air-raid sirens started to wail as part of a missile blitz warning test, during which warnings were sent via text messages to mobile-phone users.