From June 29 to July 3, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for the first time conducted multiple test firings of ballistic missiles in the South China Sea. Calling them “military drills,” the PLA issued a warning to shipping that from that point on, it sealed off the Dreyer Shoal (中南暗沙) and surrounding waters of the South China Sea. This was followed by a “notice to airmen” (NOTAM) by the Sanya flight information region (FIR) regarding a temporary danger area south of China’s Hainan Island and north of Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島).
Reuters and Japan Broadcasting Corp reported that the PLA fired six ballistic missiles, which presents two questions to which Taiwan’s military needs to find responses:
First, how do these “drills” correlate with exercises in the Philippine Sea and waters close to Hainan Island involving China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier group?
Second, what level of threat do the missile tests present to nations of the first island chain, including Taiwan?
Over the past few years, the PLA Navy has dispatched several task forces, formed around Type 071 Yuzhao-class amphibious transport ships, conducting escort duties in the Gulf of Aden, in the Indian Ocean and, in January, even passing through the Bashi Channel — Taiwan’s southern theater of operations — to conduct blue-water exercises in the Pacific Ocean.
In a previous article, I analyzed joint blue-water air and sea drills by the PLA’s Strategic Support Force and Rocket Forces outside Taiwan’s southeast air defense identification zone (“Defense doctrine must be updated,” Feb. 14, page 8). I concluded that the role of the Type 071 was to simulate an aircraft carrier and the purpose of the drills was to verify the effectiveness of its “kill chain” plan for the first island chain, saying this showed that the PLA had begun troop training.
The trajectory of the ballistic missile test firings in the South China Sea, taken together with the restrictions contained within the NOTAM, show that, after separation, the first stage of the ballistic missile fell into the sea. However, the actual target zone of the test firings was a body of water not far from Dreyer Shoal.
The restricted temporary danger area announced by the Sanya FIR, in connection with the ballistic missile test firings in the South China Sea, is probably where the first section of the missiles were to fall after separation.
Images of vapor trails taken by a member of the public near an outpost of the PLA’s Rocket Force’s 62nd base in Qingzhen, Guizhou Province, taken together with media reports, show that they are missile trails.
Using the location of the vapor trail sighting to determine range, it is at the maximum range of the PLA’s Dongfeng 21 “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile. There is therefore a high possibility that it might instead have been the first sea-based launch of the PLA’s Dongfeng 26 intermediate-range anti-ship ballistic missile, which is capable of striking Guam.
Last month, the Liaoning group conducted exercises spanning a wide body of water, passing through the Miyako Strait and sailing close to Guam, before steaming through the Celebes Sea, Sulu Sea, Balabac Strait and returning to Qingdao via the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
The route passed through a number of the PLA’s anti-access/area-denial strategic choke points, using the carrier group to simulate a US carrier strike group as part of a joint-forces “kill chain” exercise. After moving through the area, without giving any advance warning, the carrier group carried out a “live” combat readiness drill against the PLA’s Rocket Force.
Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at US think tank the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said that the PLA is probably close to fitting the Dongfeng 16 intermediate-range ballistic missile to a hypersonic glide vehicle (“China’s hypersonic attack missiles require deterrent responses,” July 8, page 8).
If this becomes a reality, it would pose a serious challenge to the entire defensive doctrine employed by Taiwan’s military.
Through a combination of equipment purchases, exercises and war games, the PLA is continually testing its anti-access/area-denial and surgical-strike combat models. By contrast, Taiwan’s defense budget and personnel have always been focused on maintaining a balance between the different branches of the military, while completely ignoring the PLA’s quantitative development and the threat this might pose to Taiwan’s military. Arms purchases also continue to be focused on purchasing and upgrading tanks for beach and coastal battles, and a final land-based battle.
With the national defense budget under pressure and haggling over every dollar and cent, there is no room to talk about the adoption of an innovative/asymmetric model of warfare, while views of modernizing the military still revolve around 75-year-old thinking based on the World War II Normandy landings.
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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