The primary purpose of the military’s annual Han Kuang exercises is to test the nation’s defenses against an amphibious invasion by China, which is predicated on the assumption that Taiwan proper would be the primary theater of operations. The tri-service air defense, maritime interception and land defense exercises are the largest military exercises held by Taiwan’s armed forces.
While the exercises conform with Taiwan’s strategic defense goals in respect of conventional combat operations, the Ministry of National Defense needs to reassess whether the Han Kuang exercises adequately prepare the military to respond to new threats in an era of “gray zone” operations, particularly when directed against the outlying islands.
On Feb. 5, a Chinese Harbin Y-12 light civilian transport aircraft flew close to the controlled airspace of Dongyin Island (東引), a small militarized island in the Matsu (馬祖) archipelago. Because the ministry did not provide a clear account of the events in the first instance, many observers had misgivings over the incident.
Ten days after the incident, the ministry acknowledged that the intruder was a Chinese civilian aircraft, and said it could not rule out that the aircraft might have been used by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force to test the island’s emergency response measures.
In October 2020, a PLA uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) intruded into Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone (ADIZ) for the first time. The military responded by tracking the UAV with radar and deploying air defense missile systems.
The Coast Guard Administration in April last year revealed that a PLA drone had flown several circuits around the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島). The agency did not rule out that the UAV could have been used to conduct reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.
These incidents demonstrate that China is using “gray zone” operations as a tactic to deliberately provoke Taiwan and expand its military’s footprint.
Tokyo University of Foreign Studies professor Yoshiyuki Ogasawara, a specialist on Taiwan, wrote in Newsweek in February last year that the probability of a Chinese attack on Taiwan remains low, mainly because it would meet military resistance from Taiwan and the US, and face a global surge of anti-China sentiment.
However, Ogasawara also said that taking the Pratas Islands would be one of the PLA’s first objectives during an invasion. Furthermore, due to their small size, remote location and as a garrison for about 500 soldiers, it would take some time for the military to provide emergency reinforcements, he said.
The PLA in the past few years has practiced amphibious landings and simulated the capturing of outlying islands in the South China Sea. These exercises have severely tested the existing defense arrangements on Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), the Pratas Islands and other Taiwanese-controlled outlying islands.
The PLA’s strategy is transparent. It would first normalizes these types of drills in waters near Taiwan’s outlying islands before conducting “gray zone” operations to provoke a conflict that saps the morale of Taiwanese forces. Then the PLA would declare an air and maritime exclusion zone, and cut off supply lines of Taiwanese forces stationed on one or more of the islands. The PLA would then conduct an amphibious operation to capture one or more islands and use the victory to force Taipei to enter into political negotiations.
Whether PLA or Chinese civilian aircraft, any incursion into Taiwanese-controlled airspace is not just an infringement of Taiwanese sovereignty, but also a threat to the security of residents living on the islands. To meet the challenge of the PLA’s new form of hybrid warfare, which combines “gray zone” tactics with cognitive warfare, the ministry must implement a few measures.
First, it must revise the military’s standard operating procedures for peacetime emergency response. Second, it must reassess and revise its annual Han Kuang exercises, as well as its “Gu’an” all-island combat strategy for the defense of Taiwan proper, along with Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu islands. Third, the review must include a new strategy to deal with military scenarios generated by PLA “gray zone” tactics and the defense of smaller offshore islands, such as the Pratas and Itu Aba.
Yao Chung-yuan is a professor and former deputy director of the Ministry of National Defense’s strategic planning department.
Translated by Edward Jones
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