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Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reported last week that the People’s Republic of China has built a second short-range missile base just 135 miles from the shores of Taiwan. This underscores the obvious military threat the world’s last great communist power poses for one of the most promising new democracies of Asia.
Yet, China is swiftly creating another, more insidious, threat to Taiwan, and U.S. policymakers seem oblivious.
That threat is the rapid build-up of the PRC’s commercial air fleet. The planes of this fleet may become to 21st-century warfare what amphibious landing vehicles were to 20th-century warfare in the hands of commanders like Nimitz and MacArthur — in places like Iwo Jima and Leyte.
If so, it is the United States that taught the People’s Liberation Army what it could do if it controlled enough large jets and could seize an airfield on which to land them.
In the build-up to the 1991 war with Iraq, the U.S. Defense Department Federal Expressed 9,000 soldiers to the Persian Gulf.
No, the Pentagon did not wrap them up in red, white and blue boxes and drop them off by 8:00 p.m. for overnight delivery. But it did commandeer an entire fleet of Federal Express 747s and DC-10s — along with their pilots — and made them instant instruments of the largest military airlift in history.
Between August 1990 and July 1991, 34 commercial air carriers contributed 110 aircraft and their crews to this cause. They operated as part of what the Defense Department calls the Civil Reserve Air Fleet — a concept developed in 1952 during the Korean War, but not used until the crisis in the Persian Gulf. All told, the commercial airliners of CRAF brought two-thirds of U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf and one-fifth of the cargo. Many of the flights went to the air base at Dhahran, which was vulnerable to Iraqi Scud attacks throughout the war.
Without these commercial jets, it would have taken the U.S. much longer to amass the forces needed to defeat Saddam’s army. With these jets, the United States was able to rapidly deploy enough forces in the Persian Gulf to deter an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, and quickly change the military and psychological balance of power in the region.
If the Gulf War proved the effectiveness of laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles, it also established the importance of large commercial jets to modern war.
Since the Gulf War, the PRC has invested billions to modernize and expand its commercial air capacity. That should not be surprising. But perhaps it should be surprising that some top U.S. defense contractors have helped them do it.
The same companies that built the equipment that U.S. air carriers used to carry troops and materiel to the Persian Gulf are now building the equipment that the PRC may someday use to carry troops and materiel across the Taiwan Strait.
Boeing, listed by the Defense Department as its No. 2 contractor, boasts on its corporate website of the help it has given the PRC in bolstering its commercial air capability:
“China has requested Boeing assistance in developing its air transportation infrastructure,” says the company. “The Boeing Co. has invested several hundred million dollars in infrastructure development since 1993. From 1993 to 2000, Boeing has instructed over 11,000 Chinese aviation professionals, half of whom are pilots, maintenance and flight operations people.”
Boeing is helping the PRC develop the ability to build aircraft components and train the personnel needed to maintain and fly large jets.
“Training takes place in Seattle, Long Beach, Calif., and China,” says Boeing. “A number of those trained by Boeing in the United States return to China as trainers themselves.”
“Boeing is assisting the CAAC [Civil Aviation Administration of China] in its effort to further develop the Civil Aviation Flying College (CAFC), China’s premier pilot training academy,” says the company. “Boeing has given the college two multi-million-dollar 737 simulators, which are used to complete training for instructor pilots.”
“In the 1980s,” the company says, “Boeing helped the CAAC establish an aircraft maintenance certificate course at the Civil Aviation Institute of China (CAIC) in Tianjin.”
Boeing says on its website that it produces elements of its 737s, 747s and 757s in China as part of an “industrial cooperation” program. It also operates three joint ventures in China: an airplane “overhaul and repair” facility, a factory for producing composite materials for use in airplane interiors, and a spare parts center “with 27,000 part numbers available.”
As of now, reports Boeing, the PRC has 499 large jetliners, 348 of which were built by Boeing. And that is just the beginning.
“Boeing forecasts a total market for approximately 1,790 commercial jet airplane sales in China worth U.S $137 billion over the next 20 years,” says the company. That will make “China the largest forecasted aviation market outside the United States.”
Boeing is not alone among top U.S. defense contractors in helping the PRC improve its commercial air capability.
Lockheed Martin, the No. 1 U.S. defense contractor, and Raytheon, the No. 3, have installed state-of-the-art air traffic control systems at Chinese airports.
Litton Industries, the No. 6 U.S. defense contractor, builds the navigation system used in Airbuses purchased by PRC airlines. It maintains an office at the Airbus Training and Support Center at the Beijing airport.
United Technologies, the No. 7 U.S. defense contractor, has several irons in China’s fire. Its Pratt & Whitney subdivision manufactures engines for some Boeing jets purchased by PRC airlines. Its Hamilton Sundstrand subdivision has formed a joint venture with the Shaanxi Qinling Aeroelectric Co. to “overhaul and repair” the electrical power systems in Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Airbus aircraft.
Its Sikorsky subdivision is building China two S-76 advanced offshore “search and rescue” helicopters and has joined with the Jingdezhen Helicopter Group and the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corp. (CATIC) to produce the vertical tail fin and stabilizer for the company’s new S-92 “Helibus.”
On its website, Sikorsky says, “The civil S-92 is designed to carry 19 passengers over ranges of 400 nautical miles.” That is about three times the distance from the PRC to Taiwan.
Sikorsky, the company says, “has proposed, or is in the process of proposing, the S-92 for various international military utility helicopter programs.”
“The S-92,” the company further explains, “is based on proven U.S. Army Black Hawk and U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopters, which have logged more than 4 million hours.”
One way of looking at all this, of course, is that it is just good business — U.S. firms staking out market share in a globalizing economy. Surely, the managers of these firms must view it that way.
But there is another lens through which it can be viewed: national security.
Does it increase or decrease the risk of a major war that would entangle the United States if this particular regime in China builds up its commercial aircraft capability?
Maybe the regime that perpetrated the Tiananmen Square massacre is buying up large jets, and building state-of-the art facilities to guide them and maintain them, simply to provide greater mobility to its peasant masses.
Maybe all the air assets that U.S. defense contractors have sold the PRC over the last decade will help transform that communist regime into a peace-loving, free-market, anti-imperialist democracy.
Maybe Taiwan has sufficient military equipment and expertise to prevent the PRC from ever seizing a Taiwanese airfield.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Gen. Douglas MacArthur believed it was so unlikely that Japan would attack the Philippines — even after he had heard of the Pearl Harbor raid — that he left his planes on the ground at Clark Field. They were annihilated by Japanese Zeros.
Will an American President someday have to decide whether to order carrier-based U.S. fighters to shoot down the commercial passenger jets of a nuclear-armed power as they wing their way across the short expanse of the Taiwan Strait?
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