On August 10, 2022, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command issued the following statement after the conclusion of large military exercises simulating elements of a Taiwan blockade: “Theater forces will keep an eye on the changes in the situation in the Taiwan Strait, continue to carry out training and preparation for combat, organize regular combat readiness patrols in the direction of the Taiwan Strait, and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Accordingly, the PLA has begun a process of methodically utilizing military responses to political events to practice operational methods at scale. This was clear with the recently concluded 2023 “Joint Sword” (聯合利劍) exercise following Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) transits through the United States to visit Belize and Guatemala.
In this article, I will look at the Joint Sword exercise, and compare it to the August 2022 PLA military exercise. In both cases, they were presented by the PRC as a direct “rapid response” to US-Taiwan high-profile visits, heavy on military symbolism. However, the scale and progression of these exercises indicate a long-term plan of action and milestones for the PLA to improve operational capability, rather than as a military demonstration alone. In this way, the PLA is working to ensure that its conduct of gray zone warfare is complementary to, rather than distracting from, efforts to improve its ability to conduct an all-out invasion.
Joint Sword 2023
The recent exercise was executed from April 8-10, with the PRC-stated goal to “simultaneously organize combat patrols encircling Taiwan and closing in on the island so as to impose/increase island-wide military intimidation.”
This was conducted in part via two primary methods. The first was a demonstration of mass aerial strike packages to show capability to “seize control of sea, air, and information under the support of the joint combat system.”
On April 8, the PLA sent 71 aircraft into the Strait, with 45 crossing the median line; on 9 April, 70 aircraft, with 35 crossing the median line; on April 10, 91 aircraft, with 54 crossing the median line. These numbers were not accidental: the previous record for aerial incursions was 71 aircraft, with 43 crossing the median line on December 26, 2022. Similarly, the number of median line crossings were also meant to decisively shift the “symbolic” area of operations for the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). As recently as fall of 2021, the sortie record for the PLAAF into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)—not across the median line—was 56. In line with previous assessments, the PLA also continued expanding the types of aircraft involved in these incursion operations, most notably the use of the KJ-200 airborne early warning and control aircraft as well as the J-15 fighter aircraft.
The use of the J-15 is notable, both as a venue for real operational practice as well as military symbolism. Over the three days, 80 J-15s were launched from the PLA Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier Shandong (山東艦) in the southeast area of Taiwan’s ADIZ. This has several implications.
It points to the second method of PLA intimidation, carrier flight operations in the traditional “safe haven” for Taiwan’s air force and navy. The presence of the carrier in that region, with the ensuing flight operations, forms the basis of PLA propaganda that these exercises constitute an encirclement of Taiwan. While the number of vessels in the exercise would not be sufficient to constitute anything close to an actual encirclement, the practice does indicate a somewhat higher level of joint or at least combined arms operations on part of the PLA, with the ability to conduct concurrent air incursions on both sides of Taiwan, naval incursions, as well as limited naval live-fire drills close to Pingtan Island (平潭島).
Image: Use of air and naval assets in Joint Sword 2023. These assets were used in a symbolic way, including the use of the PLA Navy aircraft carrier/CV-17 Shandong in a highly vulnerable area. However, it still provides the PLA with experience in conducting a diverse, large-scale movement. (Image source: Janes, utilizing data from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense and Japan’s Ministry of Defense)
However, in the “crawl, walk, run” continuum of military training, this exercise was clearly closer to a crawl, aimed more at practicing the coordinated movement of platforms rather than execution of a touted “shore-sea-air joint strike system” (“岸海空一體聯合打擊體系”). Previously announced larger scale naval/land live-fire drills close to Pingtan on the 10th failed to materialize. Meanwhile, the positioning of the Shandong in an exceptionally vulnerable operational area during carrier flight operations was a political statement rather than an actual anticipated wartime usage. If there was even the smallest possibility of US/Japanese intervention in an invasion, it would be extremely unlikely the PLA would risk placing a carrier group far away from supporting assets, vulnerable to US/Japanese submarines. Moreover, the PLA’s gain relative to the risk is poor; 80 launches over three days would not provide the scale of attack needed to rob Taiwan of its eastern mountain safe havens, nor does it compare well with US carrier launches, which can sustain 160 launches a day, surging to 270 launches at a time of need.
Similarly, the aerial incursions, while large in scale, likely would not reflect actual combat usage. The concentration of incursions in the southwest were likely an effort to militarily intimidate the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) political stronghold in southern Taiwan. In an invasion scenario, most of the initial strikes would likely be conducted by either the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) or by the PLAAF under an existing air defense umbrella, concentrating on destruction of command and control nodes in the north. Thus, most of the actual training value to these type of massed incursions goes to the command and control elements as well as the mission planners, rather than pilots seeking to simulate complex air-to-air or air-to-ground operations necessary for the stated goal of practicing “joint shock and deterrence, island closure, and control” (“聯合震懾，孤島封控”).
Comparison with the Post-Pelosi Exercise
Some media outlets have seized on Joint Sword as a “substantive and ‘war-like’ escalation on those conducted last August,” citing the increased realism and comprehensiveness of platforms. However, upon closer look, it is probably more accurate to state that the PLA tested different platforms, while reducing both the length, scale, and scope of live-fire demonstrations in Joint Sword. The post-Pelosi exercise was primarily a demonstration of PLA Rocket Force capabilities, with ballistic missiles launched into the southern, northern, and eastern waters surrounding Taiwan (and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone). There were secondary exercises featuring cyberattacks and disinformation, as well as naval/aerial incursions that sought to normalize increased PLA assets in Taiwan’s ADIZ.
Image: Comparison of announced live-fire locations between the August 2022 post-Pelosi exercise and Joint Sword 2023. (Image source: @CIGeography, Louis Martin-Vezian)
In both cases, combat realism was not high—if the realism is measured against the capabilities required for an all-out invasion. However, exercises like these indicate long-term planning to improve joint coordination and ability to integrate multiple complex movements, with the ability for CCP/PLA leadership to pick modular options based on desired effect.
For instance, the ballistic missiles fired by the PLARF in the post-Pelosi exercise badly shocked the region, essentially giving Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio the political space to modernize Japanese missile defense and standoff strike. In light of this self-defeating show of aggression, the PLA chose new, different options to practice and intimidate, such as the use of the Shandong. The immense number of new platforms the PLA has acquired over the last decade means that there is a large number of capabilities that remain relatively untested and uncoordinated. Exercises like these not only assist planners in improving integration of platforms, but also allow policymakers to better gauge regional responses for further gray zone warfare usage.
Both Joint Sword, as well as the post-Pelosi exercise, demonstrate the PLA’s interest in melding their day-to-day gray zone warfare operations with the different (and greater) operational training requirements for a cross-Strait invasion.
Previous examples of PLA responses to political events, such as the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait missile tests, were solely designed to deter. Increasingly, responses to political events are becoming a convenient excuse for the PLA to practice the higher requirements needed to compel. While these exercises are not yet realistic, there is a real threat that future iterations of these exercises will eventually become indistinguishable from preparations for an actual invasion.
The main point: The recent PLA exercise “Joint Sword” was a heavily symbolic event that does not constitute an encirclement of Taiwan. Much like the previous PLA “response” to the House Speaker visit in 2022, the exercises were planned significantly in advance. While symbolic in nature, these exercises also afford the PLA an opportunity to practice operational methods, massing, and utilization of multiple platforms as a step towards the complex, multi-faceted operations that would be needed to truly encircle, blockade, or invade Taiwan.