Prior to this year’s Han Kuang military exercises, the armed forces loudly trumpeted the participation of the air force’s F-16V warplanes — upgraded under the Phoenix Rising Project — and the navy’s newly commissioned Perry-class guided missile frigates in live-fire drills.
Sure enough, the information drew electronic surveillance aircraft and ships from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that reconnoitered the electromagnetic spectrum in waters off Taiwan’s east coast during the drills.
The US, Australia and other nations also sent maritime surveillance aircraft to patrol China’s self-established air defense identification zone over the East China Sea and the waters off eastern Taiwan. The rare dispatches serve as a reminder to Taiwan that it needs to take the threat of underwater infiltration by the PLA seriously.
It was not the first time that the PLA deployed electronic surveillance aircraft and vessels in waters near Taiwan during the Han Kuang military exercises, but this year was different.
Posts on the Twitter account “Aircraft Spots,” known for its long-time tracking of US warplane activities, show that P-8A Poseidon and P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft — stationed by the US and Australia at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan — frequently entered China’s air defense identification zone over the East China Sea while carrying out four missions.
On May 26, US Navy P-3C aircraft even flew unusually close to the waters off Taiwan’s east coast, indirectly confirming the existence of underwater targets.
The PLA’s Type 054A Jiangkai II-class missile frigate Binzhou passed through the Miyako Strait on May 26 and returned along the same route on May 30, while its Shaanxi Y-9JB (GX-8) electronic warfare and surveillance aircraft flew south over the strait on May 29. The vessel and aircraft could have been aimed at the Han Kuang offshore joint-force combat drill held off the east coast on the same day.
The situation bears a strong resemblance to the 34th Han Kuang exercises last year. The only difference is that the missile frigate passing alone through the strait was the Binzhou not the Yiyang, which are of the same class and type.
Last year, the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) published my analysis of the possibility that attack submarines could have been hiding under the Yiyang.
I said that China’s East Sea Fleet had been using the Yiyang to cover submarines crossing the first island chain. Soon after the article’s publication, the PLA temporarily stopped the operation.
Half a year later, the PLA modified it — the Type 052C Luyang II-class guided missile destroyer Zhengzhou and the Type 054A Jiangkai II-class missile frigate Xuzhou each sailed through the Miyako Strait alone in December last year.
It is likely that the PLA deployed submarines off Taiwan’s east coast during the Han Kuang exercises, in addition to the Shaanxi Y-9JB (GX-8) electronic warplane and the Type 054A Jiangkai II-class missile frigate.
During the 10th Han Kuang exercises 25 years ago, the nation’s armed forces had an underwater encounter with an unknown object that was identified as a Chinese submarine in waters southeast of Penghu County in the Taiwan Strait, 13 nautical miles (24km) from Tainan’s Anping District (安平).
The military deployed a Yang-class destroyer, S2T anti-submarine warfare aircraft and a Sikorsky S-70C anti-submarine warfare helicopter among other air and sea forces, trapping it for 75 hours.
Taiwan’s P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft have been upgraded, and the Perry-class guided missile frigates are equipped with the SQR-19 sonar system, so why were they unable to detect an underwater target that was tracked by the US’ and Australia’s surveillance aircraft all the way from the Miyako Strait to the waters off Taiwan’s east coast?
According to media reports, the Republic of China (ROC) Navy has installed electrical detection and interference equipment on Chin Chiang-class patrol vessels, and electric barriers have previously been used to interfere with data interception by foreign aircraft and vessels during the precision missile shooting drills at the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology’s Jioupeng Military Base in Pingtung County.
Even though the Chin Chiang-class boats are equipped with a high-frequency sonar system that has detected targets — Chien Lung-class submarines — during anti-submarine drills, underwater military forces of another country might still make a sudden breakthrough and collect electronic data off Taiwan’s east coast, where the seawater temperatures and pressure are likely to create a shadow zone.
Since early this year, the navy has been promoting an incentive program through fishing associations to give cash rewards to fishers who spot military and government vessels from other countries. Some fishers have received rewards.
Before Taiwan’s indigenous defense submarines are built and put into service, the nation’s armed forces should continue to focus on the deployment of frigates with towed array sonar systems and Target Motion Analysis training to build up military capacity and prepare for war.
These are the correct countermeasures to protect against the PLA’s underwater infiltration.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the ROC Naval Academy and former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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