Unlike its previous practice of disclosing the latest activities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a press release, the Ministry of National Defense has in the past few weeks followed the model of the Japanese Ministry of Defense. When carrying out surveillance and reconnaissance of the nation’s waters and airspace, it has posted real-time military activity updates on its Chinese-language Web site, explaining with text and graphs the responses and measures taken by the nation’s armed forces.
The disclosed information on PLA activities show that the military is capable of maintaining regional security and safeguarding a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
More importantly, its updates expose the PLA’s various attempts to collect military intelligence, as well as its efforts to contain the military’s underwater drills.
On Wednesday last week, the ministry disclosed that two of the PLA’s Shaanxi Y-8Q anti-submarine aircraft had crossed into the airspace above the waters between the South Taiwan Shoal canyon (台灣淺灘南峽谷) and the Pescadores Channel (澎湖峽谷), which stretch from the Taixinan Basin (台西南盆地, also known as the Southwest Taiwan Basin) — less than 120km west of the nation’s Anti-submarine Zone No. 6 — down to the South China Sea Basin.
The area is an important passage from the South China Sea through the South Taiwan Shoal to the Taiwan Strait.
In terms of its geohydrologic environment and geographic conditions, the region boasts complicated variations of seabed landscape and seabed sedimentation that make it extremely suitable for Taiwan’s military to deploy submarines to carry out operations and deter the PLA from assembling surface vessels from ports in Shantou, Guangzhou and Zhanjiang.
A submarine deployment would also act as an effective countermeasure against a possible blockade by the PLA enacted from a military port near Sanya on Hainan Island.
Since the beginning of this month, the Y-8Q — also known as KQ-200 — has repeatedly entered Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and even conducted night flights in the airspace.
Based on images released on May 13 by Israel-based geo-intelligence data provider ImageSat International, which showed the aircraft stationed on Chinese-controlled Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑礁), it is evident that the aircraft boasts around-the-clock reconnaissance and patrol capabilities.
As the aircraft is equipped with surface surveillance radar, an electro-optical reconnaissance system, electronic support measures and various sonar buoys, it is highly plausible that the PLA has gathered electronic and imaging data, as well as measurement and signature intelligence, in airspace east of the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
Faced with the PLA’s latest enhancement in reconnaissance and anti-submarine capabilities, Taiwan must quickly find a way to acquire an air-independent propulsion system for the navy’s indigenous defense submarine program — either through domestic manufacturing or arms procurements.
Otherwise, a domestically manufactured submarine, the batteries of which would require float charging, would struggle to evade the Y-8Q, anti-submarine vessels or next-generation anti-submarine aircraft, which could greatly reduce the combat range of domestically manufactured submarines and render Taiwan’s “asymmetric warfare capabilities” ineffective.
The training, logistics and maintenance of the nation’s 256th Submarine Squadron constitute another issue that requires immediate attention.
For the moment, only the Mercury Port at Zuoying Military Harbor in Kaohsiung is capable of accommodating submarines for long periods.
Once the eight domestically produced submarines successively enter service, the port would run short of training and shore service facilities.
With the possibility of PLA aircraft exerting continuous pressure to obstruct the training and deployment of Taiwan’s submarines in waters southwest of the nation, the construction of a submarine base along the coast between Hualien and Taitung — formerly known as the An Tung Project (安東計畫) — is not only a long-term must, but an immediate priority.
From sending warplanes and military vessels to encircle Taiwan, to crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait and the frequent breaches of the airspace in Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ, the PLA has been pressing forward with its “salami-slicing tactics.”
Safeguarding national security should not solely depend on arms procurement, but also the implementation of related supplementary measures.
Only by shaping a battlefield environment to the advantage of Taiwan against the enemy can the nation deter China from undertaking any military misadventure.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the Republic of China Naval Academy and a former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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