Prior to the local elections in November last year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) suspended its Taiwan encirclement patrols for six months, due to a combination of domestic and foreign factors.
With the elections out of the way, as predicted, the PLAAF in the middle of December last year dispatched a number of aircraft, including Xian H-6 bombers, Shaanxi Y-8 military transports and Sukhoi Su-30 fighters, from their bases in China. After crossing the Bashi Channel, the airplanes cruised on a southeasterly course toward the Philippine Sea.
On Jan. 22, Shaanxi Y-8 military transports and Sukhoi Su-30 fighters once again took off from China along the same course to conduct long-range blue-water exercises. Although the two drills appear identical, on closer inspection, the latest exercises — both in terms of quality and quantity — mark a significant elevation by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
In concert with the PLAAF, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) provided a maritime component to the Chinese military’s latest long-range blue-water exercises, having wrapped up an official visit to the Philippines at the end of last month.
PLAN vessels about to embark on a voyage home included two Type 054A guided-missile frigates, a Type 903A replenishment ship, as well as the 30th Chinese naval escort task force, which has been operating in the Gulf of Aden.
Additionally, the PLAN’s blue-water joint-exercise task force set sail on Jan. 16 and comprised a Type 052D guided-missile destroyer, a Type 054A frigate, a Type 071 amphibious transport dock and a Type 903A replenishment ship.
The most recent passage through the Bashi Channel by PLAAF aircraft was likely to rendezvous with the Gulf of Aden 30th Chinese naval escort task force to carry out joint sea and air exercises.
The focus would have been testing the PLAAF’s response to joint interdiction operations by the Taiwanese military, in conjunction with the PLAN’s blue-water joint-exercise task force.
In previous years when the Taiwanese military held its annual Han Kuang military exercises, the PLA also carried out a simultaneous simulation of a “red on blue” sea and air confrontation, focusing on the Taiwanese military’s defensive doctrine of moving east to preserve its forces.
The PLA exercises were directed at the Taiwanese military’s “counterintuitivity” principle contained within its Gu-an combat strategy.
The PLA drills are built upon “normalizing and systematizing” these aspects of Taiwan’s defense strategy, in addition to focusing on multiple areas of the Taiwan Strait in the event of a conflict breaking out.
The focused exercises were designed to simulate real war conditions and resistance from the Taiwanese military.
It is the practical realization of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) — who is also chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission — “strong military power for a new era thought” idea, which he unveiled at the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, as well as a response to Xi’s order last month for the PLA to mobilize and prepare for battle.
In relation to the sea and air resistance drills, PLA operational theory referring to encirclement patrols around Taiwan carried out by the PLA’s Joint Exercise Force also refers to the roles carried out by the PLA Strategic Support Force and Rocket Force.
The Strategic Support Force is a new division created during the 2015 military reforms.
A report published by the US National Defense University last year, entitled “China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era,” says that the new force, which is under the direct control of the Central Military Commission, integrates the PLA’s existing aerospace, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, in addition to cyberwarfare, intelligence-gathering and other units.
In the latest exercise, the Strategic Support Force cooperated with the Rocket Force to conduct air and sea drills outside Taiwan’s southeast air defense identification zone. This demonstrates that the PLA was seeking to verify the effectiveness of its first island chain “kill chain” and has begun troop training.
The PLA’s “kill chain” and “anti-counterintuitive” drills are a clear demonstration of China’s intentions toward Taiwan, as well as its upgraded capabilities.
The Taiwanese military cannot continue with its policy of deploying supersonic Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missiles and Tien Kung III air defense missiles as a catch-all panacea to resist a Chinese invasion.
Instead, it must squarely face up to the evolving threat posed by the PLA and honestly examine its military tactics in addition to considering reinstating compulsory military service. There is no time to lose.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the Republic of China Naval Academy and former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Edward Jones
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