On Taiwan’s front line with China, a constant state of alertness

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CHIAYI, Taiwan: An alarm sounds and the pilots rush to their jets, sitting at the ready under a hardened shelter in the warm winter sun of southern Taiwan.

Their scramble into the air was only a drill before an audience of journalists. But for Taiwan's Air Force and its most advanced fighters, the newly upgraded F-16V, the threat from China across the narrow Taiwan Strait is very real.

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Surrounded by farmland near the coast, the Chiayi airbase is Taiwan's first to be equipped with F-16Vs, which carry upgraded radars, avionics and will eventually field new air-to-air missiles.

Chiayi's F-16 pilots are on call around the clock to see off the Chinese jets that regularly try to probe the airspace of the democratic island China claims as its territory, to be taken by force if needed.

"If anything happens and we're needed, we can scramble," said pilot Yen Hsiang-sheng, 33, a lieutenant colonel who did his flight training at Luke Air Force base in the United States.

Yen has intercepted Chinese H-6 bombers and J-11 fighters, and said he is confident in Taiwan's defence forces.

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"I believe that our performance can match the abilities of the mainland's newest J-10 and J-11 fighters," Yen said.

China has sent about 2,000 bomber patrols a year to the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan Defence Minister Yen Teh-fa told parliament in November.

President Tsai Ing-wen, re-elected in a landslide on Saturday (Jan 11) after promising to stand up to China's threats, has made strengthening Taiwan's defences a top priority, including boosting its domestic defence industry so it can make high-tech equipment like submarines.

READ: Taiwan president urges China to review policy after election win

Taiwan's air force, though well trained, is dwarfed by that of China, which is adding stealth fighters and whose bombers have flown regular drills around the island since 2016, when Tsai first took office.

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