As tension between the US and China continues to escalate in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and the East China Sea, intense confrontations between Taiwanese and Chinese military aircraft have become the norm.
Warplanes from China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) have normalized incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and even begun regularly crossing the Taiwan Strait’s median line, significantly increasing the risk of an accident or misjudgement that could spark conflict.
The Republic of China Air Force’s (ROCAF) “interception zone” extends 12 nautical miles (22.2km) out from Taiwan’s coast to the median line. As PLAAF aircraft are increasingly flying deeper into the zone, ROCAF fighter jets are being forced to scramble and intercept the aircraft at a greater tempo.
Within the interception zone the ROCAF monitors aircraft, broadcasts warning messages and chases out intruding enemy aircraft, while surface-to-air missile units are placed on alert. The personnel involved are under tremendous pressure.
With the ROCAF regularly scrambling jets, there is pressure to keep pilots and fighter jets at a high degree of combat readiness.
The ROCAF must adjust the way it responds to Chinese incursions to avoid being driven to exhaustion and slowly defeated through a war of attrition.
Most Chinese jets that probe the airspace along the median line take off from airbases on China’s southeastern coast, although some are dispatched from bases in central China.
Some of the bases fall outside Taiwan’s radar range. As the aircraft cross into the Strait, ROCAF radar operators can have trouble identifying them, which places further pressure on the air force.
ROCAF intercept aircraft taking off from Taiwan proper often find that by the time they are within range, the PLAAF aircraft have traversed their route and are returning home.
The intention is clearly to overwhelm Taiwan’s air force and push it to breaking point.
Another provocation favored by the PLAAF is to conduct offensive and defensive drills close to the median line.
Fighter jets are initially dispatched to an area of airspace west of the median line to carry out drills and provide cover support.
Next, additional aircraft are sent into the air to congregate at predetermined assembly and standby areas, and loiter with the aim of harassing ROCAF aircraft in the vicinity.
While there, they might also take the opportunity to cross the median line.
China is systematically probing the ROCAF’s adaptability and reaction times, and there is an urgent need to find a way to nullify this tactic.
From a political perspective, if Beijing’s use of this model to declare its sovereignty becomes convention, countries could begin to misperceive the Strait and nearby areas as Chinese territory.
In other words, Chinese military “exercises” have become political instruments for furthering Beijing’s expansionism.
While testing the ROCAF emergency response model, combat posture and the adaptability of Taiwan’s air defense system in the Strait, the PLAAF has been collecting and analyzing data, leading to a qualitative shift in its encirclement exercises over the past few years.
The detailed picture it has gathered has allowed the PLAAF to put in place tactics to increase the pressure. It exploits time gaps in Taiwan’s air defense — such as when its fighter jets are forced to return to base to refuel or during lunchtime — to penetrate the median line.
The overall goal is to engage the ROCAF in a war of attrition by putting its front-line personnel under enough pressure to force military planners to divert attention and resources from other areas.
If military tensions escalate further, with PLAAF aircraft crossing the median line even more frequently, how can Taiwan respond in a way that best avoids handing China an easy propaganda coup?
As long as the ROCAF is professional and careful, it should not be difficult to formulate a solution to disrupt PLAAF tactics.
In applying its models of “unrestricted warfare,” “pressure point warfare” and “paralyzation warfare” to the Strait, the PLAAF has exposed weaknesses within the ROCAF that require urgent rectification.
For example, Taiwan’s air combat power is mainly brought to bear through its fighter jets and the aircraft are parked in open hangars at eight front-line airbases.
The airfields are sizeable and the ground troops defending them are spread too thin, so all the enemy would need to do is to have a special operations unit attack each airbase during a period of lax defenses.
Riding motorbikes, the special operations troops would only need to hurl a high-explosive grenade into each of the open hangars to obliterate the entirety of Taiwan’s front-line fighter force without a single air battle.
With its fighters wiped out, the ROCAF would be forced to cede the skies to China.
When contrasted with the extremely rigid security conditions on Israeli airbases, the difference is as clear as night and day.
The ROCAF has too many important warfighting capabilities that need strengthening or adapting.
Threatened by a formidable enemy that is constantly innovating and developing new weaponry, it cannot continue to stagnate. As Sun Tzu’s (孫子) The Art of War says: “Armies do not stand still, just as water continues to flow.”
The military must always guard against institutional inertia, outdated thinking and ingrained practices, or it will end up with a rigid and flat-footed air force that is unequipped to take on the enemy.
It must learn from the enemy, and respond by continually innovating and developing new tactics.
The ROCAF must jettison its passive stance and find a way to regain superiority in the skies above the Strait.
It is time for the ROCAF to rethink its defensive doctrine, force China’s military onto the back foot and put PLAAF pilots back in their place.
Chang Yan-ting is a retired air force lieutenant general, university professor and researcher at US think tank the Stimson Center.
Translated by Edward Jones
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