On Tuesday, a total of 28 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft intruded into southwestern, southern and eastern areas of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), a record number since the Ministry of National Defense began publishing PLA aircraft movements last year.
Taking off from air bases on China’s east coast, 10 Shenyang J-16 multirole strike fighters, six Shenyang J-11 fighter jets and two Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft flew on a course adjacent to the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) before turning back.
In a separate formation, an assortment of aircraft, including heavy bombers, more J-16s, electronic warfare and anti-submarine aircraft, flew around the southern tip of Taiwan and into the Bashi Channel. The aircraft then made a dogleg and flew in a staggered formation part way up Taiwan’s east coast before turning back for home.
While the large number of aircraft dispatched by the PLA is concerning in itself, Tuesday’s incursion is worrisome in another respect. PLA aircraft have thus far limited themselves to the southwestern sector of Taiwan’s ADIZ during their near-daily incursions. Tuesday’s “training exercise” indicates that the PLA intends to probe Taiwan’s east coast on a regular basis. This is a significant escalation of the Chinese military’s gray-zone tactics and presents new problems for Taiwan’s military.
Taiwan’s east coast is home to Chiashan Air Base (佳山基地) in Hualien County and Chihhang Air Base (志航基地) in Taitung County. Completed in the early 1990s, Chiashan Air Base contains extensive, hardened underground facilities carved into a mountainside, with enough space to securely house more than 200 aircraft, in addition to a self-sustaining hospital, repair facilities and power supply. Chihhang Air Base contains similar facilities on a slightly smaller scale.
Both air bases, tucked away in the southeast of the nation, were designed to be out of range and able to withstand attacks by long-range ground-launched ballistic and guided missiles, launched from missile silos and mobile launchers on China’s east coast. Although the underground facilities are fitted with sophisticated blast-proof doors, it is unclear whether the bases would be vulnerable to modern aircraft-launched munitions from PLA aircraft positioned off Taiwan’s east coast.
Retired air marshal and adjunct professor at National Defense University Chang Yan-ting (張延廷) said Tuesday’s incursion into Taiwan’s eastern ADIZ, along with an intrusion into Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone by 16 PLA aircraft on May 31, represents a “new normal of long-range, multi-aircraft-type training missions” and called on the nation’s military to move to an elevated state of readiness.
Taiwan’s military could be forced to respond more robustly to future PLA provocations to protect vital assets, for each time PLA aircraft encroach further into Taiwan’s ADIZ or it dispatches record numbers of aircraft, this alters the calculus for Taiwanese military commanders on the ground.
Various explanations have been offered for Tuesday’s escalation: It was a response to criticism of China by G7 nations, a reaction to last week’s visit to Taiwan by three US senators, a reaction to Tokyo and Washington’s undercutting of Beijing’s attempt to force its “one China” vaccines on Taiwan, or saber rattling in response to the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group entering the region on Monday.
All of these factors might have played into the PLA’s reasoning, but it is important to avoid getting stuck in the weeds of day-to-day events and instead focus on the long-term trend: Aircraft numbers, mission distances and operational tempo are all on the up. This will require some creative thinking on Taiwan’s part, including perhaps fast-tracking the development of autonomous drones to stymie further encroachment by the PLA.
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