During last year’s legislative review of the central government budget for this fiscal year, lawmakers requested that the Ocean Affairs Council assess feasibility and necessity of building airborne patrolling and monitoring capabilities for the Coast Guard Administration (CGA).
The council in February submitted the assessment report to the legislature, and it has since been discussed in several Chinese-language media.
Having spent several decades teaching maritime law enforcement and security, and observing the situation in the waters surrounding the nation as well as the development of coast guard agencies around the world, this is an issue of great importance.
Something is always going on in the waters around Taiwan.
Off the west coast, Chinese fishing boats often cross into Taiwanese waters where they overfish and dredge sea sand. Off the north and the east coast, Japanese government vessels occasionally interfere with operations of Taiwanese fishing boats.
Off the south coast, Vietnamese boats have often operated illegally in Taiwan’s exclusive economic zone during fishing season, and some are even hired by Taiwanese to engage in illegal activities such as drug trafficking and human smuggling.
In the past few years, China has conducted frequent military maneuvers in the region. Since 2016 it has been common for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to deploy warplanes and military vessels to encircle Taiwan or send them to the South China Sea or the West Pacific, passing through Taiwan’s waters and airspace.
In the past few months, as countries across the world have been occupied with the fight against COVID-19, Beijing has seized the opportunity to strengthen its military influence in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region.
Taiwan must be cautious when dealing with these maritime threats and provocations in order to avoid accidental conflicts and undesirable incidents.
The coast guard is globally accepted as the government body responsible for ensuring maritime security.
In ordinary times, the coast guard should carry out its law enforcement duties, rescue and disaster-relief missions, and safeguard fishing rights, among other maritime security tasks.
By engaging in semi-military missions to provide surveillance and reconnaissance assistance, it can also play an even more crucial role.
Since 2004, the government has assigned all public aircraft — excluding military aircraft administered by the Ministry of Defense — to the Ministry of the Interior’s National Airborne Service Corps (NASC), in what is known as the “aircraft centralization policy.”
CGA personnel must apply to the NASC before boarding public aircraft to carry out reconnaissance-and-patrol or disaster-relief missions.
If the NASC conducts any maintenance or training programs at the time of the application, it would not be able to participate in joint sea-and-air missions. This could cause severe delays when dealing with emergency situations, such as fighting crime, or miss the “golden window” for rescue and disaster-relief missions.
In the early days when the CGA had just been established, its vessels did not have take-off and landing platforms for helicopters.
It was therefore reasonable not to assign aircraft to the unit for budgetary concerns, and the incorporation of public aircraft into another government agency was justifiable to enhancing resource efficiency.
In response to the drastic change of circumstances in the nation’s surrounding waters, the CGA today has eight patrol vessels equipped with a helicopter platform.
Upon the completion of the “Coast Guard Vessel Development Project” by 2027, the administration is to receive six newly built 1,000-tonne vessels equipped with a take-off and landing platform and another four 4,000-tonne vessels with a helicopter hangar deck, which would greatly enhance the joint capabilities in sea-air operations.
It is time that Taiwan follows global trends and pushes for the establishment of a CGA airborne unit to lay a solid foundation for a path toward an ocean nation.
To follow the global trend, it is necessary to examine the general condition of aircraft owned by and available to coast guard agencies of major world powers.
For instance, the US Coast Guard operates about 55 fixed-wing aircraft and 146 helicopters; the Japan Coast Guard has about 30 fixed-wing aircraft and 52 helicopters; the Korea Coast Guard of South Korea also boasts six fixed-wing aircraft and 15 helicopters.
Even the Philippine Coast Guard, whose capabilities are far inferior to their Taiwanese counterpart, has three fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters.
Allowing coast guard agencies to operate their own airborne capacity based on professional knowledge is a mainstream trend, and Taiwan needs to follow and catch up with the world by accelerating the establishment of an airborne CGA unit.
Taiwan’s success in the fight against COVID-19 and its universal acknowledgment should be attributed to the government’s advance preparations and the joint efforts made by the public.
Meanwhile, it is unavoidable that the threats to the security situation in Taiwan’s surrounding waters will continue to intensify.
Looking forward, the government must face squarely the urgency and the necessity of building an airborne CGA unit by adjusting the aircraft centralization policy and allowing the CGA to establish a special task force for the project.
The government must follow up by initiating a plan for the project’s realization and amend the Organization Act of Coast Guard Administration, Ocean Affairs Council (海洋委員會海巡署組織法) to include the airborne unit in a bid to move firmly to catch up with the times for the nation’s greater benefit.
Wu Tung-ming is a professor at Central Police University’s Department of Maritime Police.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming.
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