Taiwan must build the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) into a key position for the defense of the southwestern air defense identification zone (ADIZ), a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research said.
In an article published on the think tank’s Web site on Friday, Huang Chung-ting (黃宗鼎), an assistant research fellow at the Ministry of National Defense, wrote that when 52 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft entered the southwestern ADIZ on Monday last week, they passed near the Pratas.
It was the largest incursion into the zone since the ministry started publicizing such information in September last year.
Photo courtesy of StarLux Airlines
The first Taiwanese position near the route the aircraft took is the Pratas, which makes its defense integral to maintaining security across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea, he said.
The fall of the Pratas to Chinese forces would create a breach in Taiwan’s defensive perimeter and allow China to create a chokehold on the flow of commerce in the South China Sea, he added.
The Pratas face a multitude of military risks, which could be divided into potential or major threats, he said.
China could launch an amphibious assault utilizing a Type 726 landing craft air cushion, a hovercraft capable of carrying tanks, from bases in the Pearl River Basin 200km away, Huang said.
Another potential danger is the PLA Navy’s Type 054A guided-missile frigates, which have a weapons range of 120km and are known to operate in the area, he said.
Most significantly, Chinese military forces could impose an air-sea blockade or launch a combined strike against the atoll, he added.
The lines of communication from Pratas to Taiwan could be severed by PLA aircraft and vessels operating to its north and east, an area that overlaps with the southwestern ADIZ, he said.
Since last month, China has increasingly used mixed formations of J-16 and SU-30 fighters, H6 bombers, and KJ-500 airborne early warning and control systems in intrusions near the atoll, he said.
The formations constitute powerful strike groups capable of attacking the Pratas or Taiwanese flotillas attempting to relieve or resupply the outpost, he said.
This means that the area is ideal for establishing a forward warning, reconnaissance and surveillance outpost for the defense of the southwestern ADIZ, he said.
The atoll’s defenses were set up in 2012 to fight off helicopters or drones, but more powerful weapons would surely be deployed against the Pratas in an attack, he said.
Moreover, Taiwanese efforts to retake the atoll, should it fall to China, would play to the PLA’s advantages, as encircling a strong point to strike at a relief force is part of Chinese military doctrine, he added.
Marine units seeking to retake the Pratas would be exposed to anti-ship missile fire, while army special forces rely on C-130 cargo planes that are vulnerable to missiles, he said.
Even if a counterattack succeeded in retaking the outpost, it would soon be attacked by retaliatory long-range fire or bombing, he said.
The government would need to balance national security needs and priorities such as stopping the incursions of Chinese dredging and fishing boats, and conducting environmental research in the area, he added.
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