Han Kuang 36 Exercise Highlight Innovations in Countering PLA Threat

Han Kuang 36 Exercise Highlight Innovations in Countering PLA Threat

Han Kuang 36 Exercise Highlight Innovations in Countering PLA Threat

In the face of the increasingly assertive Chinese threat, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) launched the 36th annual joint military exercise called “Han Kuang 36” (HK36, 漢光) from July 13-17, 2020. This year’s iteration highlighted several noteworthy distinctions from previous exercises. Taken together, these innovations appear to directly support President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)’s stated goal from her second inaugural speech of developing asymmetric warfare capabilities to counter the People’s Republic of China’s increasingly menacing military and paramilitary forces.

The most notable new capabilities displayed at HK36 include (a) the newly formed Combined Arms Battalion (聯合兵種營); (b) the joint “anti-decapitation forces” (反斬首部隊) composed of the Military Police Special Services Company (憲兵特勤隊), the Coast Guard Administration Special Task Force (海巡署特勤隊), and the National Police Agency Special Operations Group (警政署維安特勤隊); (c) a battery-sized, mobilized, reserve artillery unit operating howitzers in live-fire training alongside active-duty troops; and (d) the first submarine-launched torpedo live-fire exercise in 13 years. These capabilities reflect incremental, meaningful improvements in Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities and a more subtle change in mindset to countering China’s military threat. A more detailed discussion of each capability is warranted. [1]

The Combined Arms Battalion is a significant achievement. It mirrors to an extent the US Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). Essentially, it is a combined arms force large enough to fight independently. The battalion is composed of infantry and armored companies, as well as naval gunfire and a close air support liaison section—similar to the Marines’ Air, Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO)—as well as an Army aviation liaison section. The battalion also utilizes organic unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and surveillance, Stinger missiles for organic air defense, and sniper teams. It is a highly mobile combat unit, utilizing the indigenous eight-wheeled armored vehicle (雲豹甲車) developed by the Ministry of National Defense (MND) Armaments Bureau (國防部軍備局). With its unified command and control (C2) element and its ground forces combined with the maritime and air liaison team assigned to fire support operations, this battalion is a potentially powerful force.

During HK36, MND was able to display the battalion’s capabilities, but presumably made sure to operationally test and evaluate its command, control, communications (C3), and firepower prior to this demonstration. One example of the type of issue this evaluation should have addressed is that, under Taiwan’s defense concept, this type of independent battalion requires its regional service support command to provide flexible and swift logistics support during combat and combat maneuvering. For example, if a combined arms battalion home-based near Taipei is ordered south to Taichung, the regional service support command in the Taichung theater is now responsible for supporting that battalion. Testing and evaluation leading up to HK 36 likely provided important lessons on this combat service support function, but the exercise was likely too short to demonstrate that capability. Another issue is whether these battalions will be “standing” organizations, with a team that works, trains, and (ideally) lives together on a routine basis. So unit manning and realistic training must be paramount concerns if the combined arms battalion concept is to be a success.

HK36 is the first time that it combined special operations forces from the Army with elements of the Coast Guard and the National Police Agency for a joint “anti-decapitation operations.” A “decapitation strike” refers to the act of “cutting off the head” of an enemy army and its political system by targeting a country’s top leadership in the opening hours of a war, thereby paralyzing the national response to the attack. In Taiwan, which is situated very close to China, such an attack could be carried out by Chinese special operations forces, sleeper intelligence agents, and/or airborne troops. The mission of the new joint force highlighted in HK36 was to counter such a decapitation strike by China against Taiwan’s senior leadership in the Bo’ai Special District (博愛特區), an area in Taipei containing the presidential palace and presidential residence.

This joint capability should warrant closer attention for several reasons. First and most important, it should signal to General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership that there will be no easy victories if they are foolish enough to try to capture Taiwan through a quick decapitation strike. Second, and related, the joint capability aligns with President Tsai’s mandate of developing asymmetric warfare capabilities to counter the PRC’s more powerful military capabilities. In recent years, the US military has engaged with Taiwan in the development of this asymmetrical military capability. To this end, senior US officials have recommended that Taiwan establish a Joint Special Operations Command, and integrate branch special forces into a unified command system.

However, when it comes to “jointness”, there is a long history of inter-service rivalry in Taiwan, with each service maintaining a “stand-alone” posture. Such rivalries and “our service can do it all” mentalities are potentially a recipe for strategic defeat. As a result, Taiwan’s armed forces are belatedly learning to swiftly adapt to a joint mindset, integrate, and study special operations requirements and techniques to ensure interoperability and equipment standardization. HK36 will help MND and the National Security Council, among others, assess how well the Armed Forces’ ability to plan and conduct special operations exercises and training—and to develop truly joint Special Operations integration—is progressing.

The mobilization of artillery reservists to fire alongside active duty forces is reportedly another “first.” This symbolically important display of reservists standing side-by-side with active duty troops, firing in defense of Taiwan, underpins the military reform that President Tsai called for as recently as July 15.

These mobilized reserves come from all walks of life and most have been out of the military (a mostly conscription-based service) for many years. They are no longer familiar with military life, and frankly, have often lost taste of it. That is a major challenge Taiwan must overcome. Worse, for unsatisfactory (mostly political) reasons, the reservists’ training module is not threat-oriented, and is not intense enough to adequately prepare the reservists physically, psychologically, or professionally to defend Taiwan. Nevertheless, from the tightly supervised training officers’ perspectives, as long as there are no accidents, violations of law, or serious disciplinary issues, the reservist training mission is considered “successful.”

Perhaps Taiwan needs to learn from Singapore. [2] The strict standards set by the Singaporean Armed Forces are admirable and could be emulated. Every reservist maintains the same high standards as active duty members: regulation haircuts, well-maintained personally-owned equipment, and a desire to study and work hard. Such high standards are rarely practiced in the Taiwan reserves. These issues may seem small, but if Taiwan’s military does not (or is not allowed to) enforce such small disciplinary rules, its reservists will fail when confronted with the life-and-death challenges presented by a PRC attack. The failed reserve system is a problem that must be taken up at the presidential and Legislative Yuan levels, as MND cannot fix it on its own. That is why it is significant that President Tsai highlighted this integrated reserve-active duty live-fire exercise at HK36.

During the exercise, a submarine tested live-firing of a torpedo. What may seem like a small training success again represents a larger change of mindset in Taiwan. While some analysts argue that China’s military is among the most powerful in the world, Taiwan can potentially counter its attack through asymmetric warfare. Submarines play a major role in this asymmetric strategy. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the submarine manufacturing plant in Kaohsiung, Taiwan in 2019, President Tsai said: “These submarines will not only enhance the Navy’s asymmetric combat effectiveness, but also can be deployed to the southwest and northeast waters of our island, allowing us to more effectively deter the enemy around Taiwan.”

In light of the difficult historic context, the launching of a German surface and underwater target (SUT) heavyweight torpedo by the aging Sea Tiger 794 during a July 15 exercise on the southeast coast of Taiwan was momentous. The launch was the first of its kind in 13 years, and it successfully hit the target. This clearly demonstrates the Taiwan Navy’s determination to defend the country under austere conditions. Furthermore, this launch does not appear to be a “one-off.” In July, the US State Department approved the possible arms sale of 18 MK 48 Mod6 advanced technology (AT) heavyweight torpedoes (HWT) and related equipment to Taiwan at an estimated cost of USD $180 million. It is a start, but more is needed. Taiwan is also advancing the “Indigenous Defense Submarine” program to build eight attack submarines. According to MND sources, as there will be a total of 10 attack submarines equipped with Mk-48 torpedoes and other UGM-84L harpoons, China must think twice about invading Taiwan.

Overall, it is clear that Taiwan’s Armed Forces have made significant progress in recent year adapting their asymmetric defense posture to the growing military and security threats posed by the PRC.

The main point: The HK36 military exercise highlighted several noteworthy distinctions from previous years, innovations that directly support President Tsai Ing-wen’s goal of developing asymmetric warfare and emerging reservist capabilities to counter the PRC’s increasingly menacing military and paramilitary forces.

[1] It is important to restate the obvious: the Han Kuang exercises are not field training exercises. They are designed to showcase capabilities, both real and aspirational. After extensive rehearsal, the participants make it look easy. But it is not standard force development field training. Accordingly, it is useful to assess the value of the exercises in terms of general aspirations regarding desired capabilities, and not necessarily as a depiction of how well actual training and “across the board” resourcing to achieve this endstate is really progressing.

[2] This author underwent military training with Singapore Army active service members and reservists.