Taiwan has just concluded the annual Han Kuang 33 (漢光-33) joint exercise. This key exercise included a joint computer wargame followed by field exercises. Initially, no field exercise was planned for 2017 due to the drafting of a new military strategy, although this was quickly reversed. The two-phase exercise appears intended to demonstrate the newly-minted military strategy, with multiple offensive and defensive actions taken by joint forces.
The Ministry of National Defense (MND) under President Tsai Ing-wen‘s administration has adopted the military strategic concept of “resolute defense, multi-domain deterrence” (防衛固守、重層嚇阻). The MND views the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) capabilities to conduct a blockade of Taiwan and to seize the islands that Taiwan controls as its primary threats. PLA joint fire strikes, information operations, and the “Three Warfares” also pose major threats to Taiwan. The new military strategy seeks to protect command and control infrastructure, preserve forces, enhance joint countermeasure capabilities, and achieve a multi-layered defense of the Taiwan Strait including PLA strike. Multi-domain deterrence seeks to adopt innovative and asymmetric joint capabilities to deter People’s Republic of China (PRC) operations against Taiwan. These multi-domain, innovative, and asymmetric capabilities of deterrence appear to include the following: protection of critical infrastructure, electronic warfare, air defense, long-range fire strike, stealth vessels, mobile missiles, and rapid mining and mine sweeping.
The joint computer wargame was held from May 1-5 in the Joint Operations Command Center (聯合作戰指揮中心) simulating PLA blockade and landing operations. The wargame featured 2025 forces and equipment, including three PLA Navy aircraft carriers. Taiwan simulated F-35 stealth multi-role fighters with a short takeoff and landing capability to mitigate the loss of Taiwan Air Force Bases from PLA joint fire strikes. National Defense University personnel served as the opposing force. This phase of Han Kuang featured joint intelligence, air defense, anti-blockade, and anti-landing operations.
The field and live fire exercise phase was conducted at various locations from May 22-26 and involved 3,900 personnel from the services as well as the Coast Guard. Rehearsals for the field exercises began on May 9. The locations included the Penghu Defense Command, Kinmen Defense Command and throughout Taiwan. The MND stated the field training activities would feature base and force protection, joint air defense, anti-landing, electronic warfare, and post-combat force reorganization. The goal of the training was to improve combat readiness and joint training effectiveness, as well as test the results of the computer wargame.
At the start of the field training aircraft P-3C anti-submarine aircraft, Mirage 2000 and F-16 fighters conducted emergency evacuations from air bases in western Taiwan to Hualien and Cha shan air bases (佳山空軍基地) on the east coast for protection. Cha shan is a large underground base that can accommodate 200 aircraft and is connected by taxiways to the Hualien Air Base runways.
Training at Penghu archipelago included live fire, simulated PLA amphibious landings and Taiwan anti-landing operations. The 66th Marine Brigade simulated PLA forces conducting a landing operation on Penghu targeting critical infrastructure and strategic locations. Marine amphibious reconnaissance forces removed obstacles on the approaches to the beach. Thunder 2000 multiple rocket launchers and M60A3 tanks lined up side-by-side conducted indirect and direct fire strikes on the “PLA landing force.” The use of tanks as vulnerable and static pillboxes was a poor application of this maneuver and counterattack asset. Army Aviation landed troops and conducted live fire, and four indigenous defense fighters (IDF) simulated PLA Air Force (PLAAF) air strikes on Taiwan defenses. The training on Penghu was observed by President Tsai.
Training in the 5th theatre of operations (TO) in central Taiwan included a simulated PLA attack on the Ching Chuan Kang Air Base (清泉崗空軍基地) near Taichung on 26 May. The simulated PLAAF attack included air strikes and an airborne landing. Taiwan Air Force (TAF) aircraft flew missions to protect the air base as well as simulating PLA air strikes. Participating TAF included two Mirage 2000s from Hsinchu Air Base, four IDFs from Tainan Air Base, and four F-16s from Hualien Air Base. Taiwan special operations forces conducted paradrops simulating PLAAF airborne troops. Taiwan Army and Marines conducted anti-airborne and counterattack actions. A smoke screen was generated, and obstacles were placed on the runway defended by armor units. The simulated assault on the Ching Chuan Kang Air Base assumed PLA joint fire strikes on Taiwan air and naval bases, and other political and military targets degrading the country’s radar and air defense systems. The 5th TO Chiayi Reserve Brigade practiced mobilization and transit by sea to reinforce the outer islands on May 24. Reservists also conducted defensive actions.
In the 3rd TO in northern Taiwan, armor units conducted counterattacks against simulated PLA special operations forces, while securing important facilities. The Guandu Area Command conducted a live fire exercise and armor units defended the Tamsui River against a simulated PLA attack on May 24. TAF air defense units defended Taipei’s Songshan Airport against enemy air attacks.
In the 4th TO in southern Taiwan, training included an enemy raid simulated by Army troops against a radar station on May 22. Garrison troops established a defense of the radar facility until reinforcements arrived. Training in the Pingtung area included the 333rd Mechanized Infantry Brigade, 75th Signal Group, 39th Chemical Defense Group, 43rd Artillery Command, 601st Army Aviation Brigade from the 3rd TO, a tactical reconnaissance unit, a psychological warfare unit, and the TAF 443rd Tactical Fighter Wing’s IDF fighters. Special operations troops conducted paradrop training from C-130 air transports at the Pingtung airborne training area.
Various support activities took place during the exercise. This included refueling and rearming Army Aviation, rearming of TAF IDF aircraft, emergency repairs and maintenance, runway repairs, and medical treatment of casualties.
In other areas, Army amphibious reconnaissance forces stationed on Kinmen infiltrated the island and conducted a raid to rescue hostages on May 23. The Coast Guard held a defensive drill on Taiping Island (Itu Aba), the largest island in the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) from May 24-26.
The hawkish state-owned PRC press Global Times called the exercise a “joke” and claimed that the Taiwan military was no match for the PLA. The Taiwan MND communications division reported a “flood” of negative and misleading information about the exercises on online forums similar to the Russian use of internet trolls to spread disinformation and influence public opinion. The MND also reported cyberattacks. The Taiwan military provided numerous photographs, press releases, radio broadcasts, and videos of the exercise to inform the public.
In the final analysis, Han Kuang-33 contained both positive and negative elements. The exercise involved more theaters and commands than previous years with forces throughout Taiwan and several of the outer islands participating. While the exercise responded to multiple types of PLA operations and threats to Taiwan as called for in the new military strategy, the number of troops was small, and the rehearsals demonstrated the scripted nature of this premier exercise. The need for rehearsals to practice the scripted exercise scenarios with no free play displayed a lack of confidence in unit training levels and competency. The MND’s stated intent of the second phase training was to validate the wargame’s results, but the staged training events appeared to have the as its main intention favorably influencing public opinion. For instance, the MND states that a PLA blockade is a primary threat, but there was no unit training to counter this likely PLA campaign. To truly improve readiness, Taiwan should move away from these highly scripted demonstrations, and adopt reforms to implement realistic joint and combined arms training to improve combat capabilities and deterrence.
The main point: The second phase field exercises in Han Kuang always appear scripted with no free play by forces testing unit capabilities and readiness. It is not known how beneficial the first phase wargame is for testing jointness within the Taiwan armed forces and the new military strategy. President Tsai’s administration has much to do to improve military capabilities; implementing realistic training, employing opposing forces in unscripted training to test unit capabilities, and conducting more joint training vice joint live fires would begin to improve training and enhance combat capabilities.