April 20, 2016:
Why has Taiwan still got 72 year old 240mm howitzers aimed at China? Taiwan and China have backed away from the scary war propaganda over the last few years but both countries still fill some TV time with stories about what weapons would be used if there were a Chinese attempt to take Taiwan by force. One of the more interesting Taiwanese videos shows the four American made 240mm howitzers stationed on the Kinmen islands off the China coast. These four heavy guns are based in bunkers built into mountains and are rolled out to fire. The U.S. built 315 of these 29 ton towed guns (as the 240mm M1) between 1944 and 1945. These weapons were towed by tractors and used to destroy enemy fortifications. Put into reserve after World War II ended in 1945 some were brought back for the Korean War (1950-53) and some were given to Taiwan for use against Chinese artillery that fired on Taiwanese controlled islands regularly until 1958. By then the U.S. had stopped using its M1s and retired them for good because there was no more ammo and the U.S. could not justify the expense of rebuilding the facilities needed to manufactue more. But Taiwan could, and did, and has kept four M1s (which it calls “Black Dragon”) operational ever since. The M1 requires a crew of 14, has a maximum range of 23 kilometers and fires up to thirty 163 kg (360 pound) high-explosive shells an hour. The Black Dragons have always been stationed on the Kinmens, a chain of small islands (some only two kilometers from the coast). These islands were last heavily fought over (with artillery) in 1958. Since then there has been growing interest in demilitarizing the islands.
In 1992, the Taiwanese military passed control of the islands to civil authorities. While still fortified and garrisoned, these coastal islands are now mostly parkland, attracting tourists from Taiwan and the mainland. Yet the continued existence of the Black Dragons (and the huge Chinese military force on the coast oppositie Taiwan) reminds everyone that a Chinese attempt to forcibly make Taiwan part of China would have to involve dealing with the many small Taiwan controlled islands between the mainland and Taiwan. Any Chinese plan to invade Taiwan would like to ignore the Kinmen and Matsu islands but because of the four Black Dragons, which can hit the coastal city of Xiamen (population five million) and many military targets on the coast, there would at least be a lot of ballistic missiles and air strikes used to try and bury or destroy these 240mm threats.
In reality most current plans regarding these small islands are about encouraging tourism, not invasion. But China still insists that Taiwan is a wayward province and that the motherland is willing to wait until the Taiwanese see the error of their ways and come home. The Taiwanese are waiting for China to become a democracy and either forget about absorbing Taiwan or make a better offer. In the meantime, most Taiwanese are quite content to remain independent. While the Black Dragons remain in service many other defensive measures have been dismantled.
For example in mid-2013 Taiwan completed a seven year effort to clear all the mines on Kinmen. It took all those years to find and remove 126,000 mines from beaches on several of these small islands. Kinmen was the first island on which beaches have been declared safe for people to use again. In June 2013 the beaches on Kinmen were opened to the public for the first time in over 60 years. The mine clearing effort was later completed on nearby Matsu Island as well. All this mine clearing is part of over a decade of efforts by China and Taiwan to improve relations between the two countries. Taiwan originally thought the mine clearing would take a decade but they developed more effective ways to get it done. Nevertheless, it was an expensive job, with each mine costing several hundred dollars to find and remove. The mine clearing was one of many efforts to make the former island fortresses more hospitable to Chinese and Taiwanese visitors. For example, in 2009 China and Taiwan agreed to hold a long range swim each year, between the mainland and one of the small Taiwan controlled islands, just off the mainland coast. This event features fifty swimmers, each from Taiwan and China, going 8.5 kilometers from the mainland (a beach on Amoy Bay), to Little Kinmen (called Quemoy in the West) island. Each year the race changes direction. The other Taiwan controlled islands (the Matsu chain) are smaller and 19 kilometers from the mainland.