On September 13, the Republic of China (ROC) armed forces commenced the live-fire portion of the 37th iteration of the Han Kuang exercise (漢光37號演習)—Taiwan’s largest annual military exercise, which is conducted to simulate responses to an attack against Taiwan by forces of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). (The simulated, “tabletop exercise” component of this year’s Han Kuang had already been held over eight days in the last week of April.) This year’s exercise consisted of a five-day series of drills involving all of the ROC military services, as well as participation in some areas by police and civil defense personnel. Although reportedly scaled–down in some aspects due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (and delayed from its original timetable of mid-July for the same reason), the exercise provided an opportunity to take stock of priorities in the evolution of Taiwan’s defense policy.
Component Scenarios of Han Kuang-2021
The live-fire component of Han Kuang-37 included a series of different scenario drills conducted at various points around Taiwan and its outlying islands. Highlights from this year’s exercise reportedly included:
- September 13: Dispersal drills were conducted for ROC Air Force (ROCAF) and ROC Navy (ROCN) units. ROCAF fighters, including F-16s and Mirage-2000s, were deployed from bases in western Taiwan to an air force base near the eastern city of Hualien. ROCAF maintenance personnel and equipment were also transported to locations in eastern Taiwan. Additionally, ROCN vessels sortied from port to locations at sea.
- September 13: A biological warfare exercise was held near Tainan, in which troops repelled a mock assault made with bioweapons and conducted follow-on decontamination and medical treatment drills.
- September 14: Drills were held to simulate defense against mock amphibious assaults and protection of critical infrastructure sites. In northern Taiwan, military police in Taipei were dispatched to defend telecommunications facilities in the Shilin District, while soldiers from the Sixth Army Corps deployed in armored vehicles at sites along the Tamsui River to repel an amphibious landing. In eastern Taiwan, ROC Army troops conducted nighttime maneuvers with armored vehicles and set up defensive positions in the vicinity of Hualien Air Base.
- September 15: Soldiers on the island of Kinmen conducted anti-landing drills.
- September 15: Emergency landing and take-off drills were conducted to demonstrate the use of highways as alternate landing strips for military aircraft. Multiple airframes—including an Indigenous Defensive Fighter (IDF, 經國號戰機), an F-16V fighter, a Mirage 2000 fighter, and an E-2K airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft—conducted landings and take-offs in the early morning on Provincial Highway #1 in Pingtung County (southeast Taiwan). These drills were observed by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正), and a crowd of civilian onlookers.
- September 15: The annual Wan-An (萬安) air defense drill was conducted from 1:30 to 2 PM local time, in which air raid sirens were sounded throughout the island—although this year, due to COVID precautions against large indoor gatherings, citizens were not required to shelter in place as in past years.
- September 16: Armor, artillery, and infantry units conducted anti-amphibious landing drills in coastal areas around Taiwan—including the Bali District in New Taipei, Taichung, Hualien, Taitung, Tainan, and Pingtung County.
- September 17: ROCAF Indigenous Defense Fighters operating from an air base in Taichung conducted simulated strikes against enemy invasion forces.
Touting New Defense Capabilities
In recent years, Taiwan officials have touted the annual exercise as a means to demonstrate new capabilities within the ROC armed forces. Speaking in October 2020, President Tsai stated: “[D]uring the annual Han Kuang exercises in July, we introduced our new joint battalions, which have greater capacity to conduct independent operations […] For the first time during the Han Kuang exercises, our reserves also participated in live-fire scenarios, showcasing their capacity to support and complement our regular forces.”
Following this year’s exercise, Voice of America cited Su Tzu-yun (蘇紫雲)—director of the National Defense Strategy and Resources Institute (國防戰略與資源研究所) within the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (財團法人國防安全研究院), a Ministry of Defense-affiliated think tank—in emphasizing that this year’s exercise included “asymmetric operations” (不對稱作戰). Specifically, he highlighted the use of highways as improvised aircraft landing strips, and the deployment along coastal areas of vehicle-borne HF-2 and HF-3 anti-ship missiles associated with a unit in Taichung.
The PRC Reaction to Han Kuang-37
People’s Republic of China (PRC) state media sources have traditionally directed scorn at Han Kuang: for example, deriding the 2020 exercise as “an old trick in the book of Taiwan authorities to resist national reunification [sic],” and mocking it as a “hollow show” riddled with fatal accidents, revealing a Taiwan military completely unprepared to resist a PLA assault. This year, the nationalist Global Times stated that “The DPP is once again hyping the ‘China threat’” (民進黨又開始炒作“大陸威脅”) to justify the exercise, while citing maintenance and accident problems faced by Taiwan’s air force. Commenting on Han Kuang, the PRC Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院台灣事務辦公室) asserted that “[in regards to] the situation in the Taiwan Strait, the source of tension and unrest lies in the DPP authorities linking up with foreign forces to scheme for ‘independence,’ [thereby] manufacturing cross-Strait antagonism.”
Announced Increases to the Military Budget
In the midst of the exercise, on September 16 the Tsai Administration announced plans to seek an NTD $240 billion (USD $8.66 billion) special defense budget augmentation for the next five years. This increase would be in addition to the NTD $471.7 billion (USD $17 billion) defense budget for 2022—a four percent increase over the 2021 budget—that was announced in August. Defense officials indicated that the special budget would be directed towards further acquisitions of indigenously-built missile systems: the mobile, truck-mounted Antelope air defense missile system (捷羚防空飛彈系統); the Tien Kong III (天弓-3) surface-to-air missile, designed for both anti-aircraft and anti-ballistic missile roles; the Wan Chien (萬劍) air-to-surface cruise missile; the Hsiung Feng IIE (雄風-2E) anti-ship missile; and an unnamed drone system. Part of the budget allocation is also reportedly intended for systems upgrades on coast guard vessels, as well as support for unnamed aspects of the MND’s indigenous shipbuilding program.
In testimony before the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee (立法院外交及國防委員會) on September 27, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng indicated that the additional allocation was necessary in the face of the “severe threat” from China, and that the missile systems “must be long-range, precise and mobile, so that the enemy can sense that we are prepared as soon as they dispatch their troops.”
Admiral Lee Hsi-Ming and the Continuing Debate on Defense Strategy
At the conclusion of this year’s Han Kuang exercise, former Chief of the ROC General Staff Admiral Lee Hsi-ming (李喜明) returned to the public stage to offer comment on the direction of Taiwan’s defense policy. Lee is closely identified with the “Overall Defense Concept” (ODC, 整體防衛構想) promoted during his tenure (2017-2019), which placed greater emphasis on warfare in the littoral region around Taiwan, as well as force preservation and asymmetric capabilities intended to compensate for the ROC military’s dramatic resource disadvantages in comparison to the PLA. In a speech in October 2020, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen stated “I am committed to accelerating the development of asymmetric capabilities under the Overall Defense Concept […] this will be our number one priority.” However, mention of the ODC has since been omitted from the 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR, 四年期國防總檢討) and other official MND documents, leading to speculation that the ODC has fallen out of official favor within the MND.
Speaking at a September 17 online forum sponsored by the Academia Sinica (中央硏究院), Admiral Lee opined that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) could not lay claim to achieving the “Chinese Dream” (中國夢) and the rejuvenation of China without achieving unification with Taiwan. Admiral Lee also predicted that China’s long-range missile forces would destroy much of Taiwan’s inventory of larger weapons platforms at the outset of any conflict. He stated that Taiwan should therefore reform its reserve forces and engage civilian resources, for an “all-of-society defense” (全民防衛) effort, in which civil defense institutions—such as firefighters and the coast guard—could participate in exercises alongside military reserve forces. By thus making Taiwan better prepared to resist a PRC attack, the ultimate intent of this effort would be to implement “resistance deterrence” (拒止式嚇阻) that might dissuade the PRC leadership from attacking in the first place.
This year’s live-fire component of Han Kuang featured responses to some of the operations one would most likely expect to see in the event of either a cross-Strait invasion or a major coercive military campaign. These included sorties and redeployment of naval and aviation platforms to avoid missile strikes; the protection of critical infrastructure; and defense against amphibious landings made by hostile invasion forces. Such scenarios help to familiarize military units with the basic logistical and organizational measures necessary to operate in the field in wartime. However, based on the limited data available (and with the understanding that further preparations may have been tested out of public view), the limited scope and timeframe of the Han Kuang exercise, as well as its scripted and piecemeal nature, likely renders it inadequate to truly prepare military personnel for the stress and chaotic environment certain to ensue in an actual conflict with the PLA.
Many of the reported aspects of the exercise—for example, the redeployment of aircraft and logistical support resources away from primary airfields to dispersal locations, and the use of improvised landing strips—are no doubt valuable for building up institutional experience that could be leveraged in wartime. However, the limited number of pilots and airframes involved in the highway landing exercises makes that particular drill of limited value to the ROCAF as a whole. In light of their limited scope, the greatest value of such drills may lie in providing a building block for future training, and in providing positive publicity to build up the military’s image among Taiwan’s population as a whole. Additionally, the inclusion, albeit limited, of civil defense scenarios in this year’s Han Kuang is a positive step that recognizes the need to better integrate military and civilian resources in order to improve Taiwan’s resiliency.
In the face of an ever-growing threat from the PRC, further actions in these areas—whether in the form of formal exercises like Han Kuang, or in quotidian training throughout the year—are imperative.
The main point: The live-fire component of Han Kuang, Taiwan’s largest annual military exercise, was conducted over a five-day period in mid-September. The exercise simulated responses to a number of scenarios that might be expected in the event of an attack from the PRC, but further and more vigorous training will be necessary to prepare Taiwan’s armed forces to resist the growing strength of the PLA.