China’s military exercises are an intelligence bonanza, for all parties

The dozens of warplanes that fly daily over the median line in the Taiwan Strait and the warships that prowl the waters off the coast represent a significant and ominous change in the status quo, and one that could have enormous consequences for the Taiwan’s defense in the future, experts say. and officials said.

Pushing those warplanes over the line not only erases the previous boundary, but doing so in coordination with warships and staying clear of missiles flying in close proximity is exactly the kind of real-time interaction modern militaries engage in. so much time and effort to perfect. , and has confused the Russians in the Ukraine. Aligning those systems, while watching for Taiwan’s reaction, would generate critical insight into Beijing’s capability and readiness if it launches military strikes against Taiwan or US interests in the Pacific.

Chinese military planners are no doubt absorbing the backlash to their efforts, as Taiwan activates missile defense radars and moves troops and equipment around the island, providing Beijing with key insights into how Taipei might react in times of war.

Previous Chinese drills have been “like driving a new car a lot, rather than taking it out on the road,” said Randy Schriver, who served as the Pentagon’s top Asia policy official in the Trump administration. “The coordinated island grouping is the type of exercise that will be most applicable to an actual attack.”

To this point, the United States has held back publicly, saying very little about the exercises while keeping its Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group in the region, but not near Taiwan. The amphibious ship USS Tripoli is near Okinawa and the amphibious USS America is in the East China Sea. Both carry F-35 fighters.

More significant will be glimpses of how China deploys and uses its forces. It will likely be an “intelligence bonanza” that could shed light on “the strengths and weaknesses of the PLA mobilization,” said Collin Koh, a researcher at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore.

Those glimpses “would present a better picture of how the PLA might in the future carry out an invasion of Taiwan, or more generally how it might carry out a major military campaign,” than any long-planned exercise in mainland China. Koh added.

Defense officials said the military is closely watching the exercises, but has generally remained quiet about Chinese actions. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has said repeatedly this week that the United States does not seek conflict with China.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while traveling to Cambodia on Friday, said “there is no justification for this extreme, disproportionate and escalated military response,” adding that the Chinese moves “are a significant escalation” in the region.

While the Chinese military has tested its missiles for years, its launch teams have never worked in an operational scenario where they have to deal with the complexities of military and commercial air and sea traffic, and ensure their missiles can fly over areas. populated civilians and land safely in designated waters.

Ahead of this week’s live-fire exercises, Beijing unveiled a map of six areas where it planned to hold the drills, forming a virtual ring around Taiwan. After the drills began Thursday, the military launched at least 11 ballistic missiles, which dotted the waters to the northeast, east and southeast of the island. Some landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone and one flew directly over Taiwan, an unprecedented move.

On Friday, China sent 30 fighter jets across the median line that cuts the Taiwan Strait in half, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense. The move “endangered the status quo of the strait,” the agency tweeted, noting that Taipei responded with planes and ships, as well as activating surveillance and anti-aircraft fighting. missile systems

“We condemn such action that disturbed our airspace and surrounding waters and continue to ensure our democracy and freedom free from threats,” the ministry tweeted.

The exercises may be designed as intimidation, but the highly choreographed and coordinated movements are much more complex than previous shows of strength, Schriver said.

“This is a number of shots aimed at different closure areas timed in a particular way so that it more closely resembles if they were actually going to use missiles to attack Taiwan,” he said.

For the Chinese, the exercise is also an opportunity to find out whether Taiwan’s air defenses were able to detect their missile launches and how Taiwan’s civil defenses would respond to an attack, Schriver said.

“They would probably know, did Taiwan air defenses pick us up? Did they shine a light on us with a fire control radar? he said.

The drills have provided an opportunity not only to test whether its missiles can hit their targets in an operational scenario, but also whether China’s ships and aircraft can effectively blockade the island through its military movements.

The last time China made moves around Taiwan in this way was in 1996, when Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait after being angered by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States to deliver a speech. on the democratization of the island.

But today’s modernized Chinese military bears little resemblance to the force of 1996, boasting new missiles, the world’s largest navy, two aircraft carriers, and fighter jets rivaling Taiwan’s F-16s and US-based jets. on US aircraft carriers.

“The PLA couldn’t do any of this then,” said Lonnie Henley, a George Washington University professor and former defense intelligence officer for East Asia.

“The things the PLA is doing are perfectly routine things for the PLA these days,” Henley added. “They’re just doing them all at once around Taiwan, instead of doing them spread out over a period of a couple of months in various training areas throughout the East China Sea and the South China Sea.”

But Taiwan hasn’t been sitting idly by in recent decades, either. For years, it has bought American F-16 fighters and other equipment, and in late 2020 reached a series of arms deals with Washington for highly sophisticated systems aimed at turning the island into a “porcupine” to better deter or resist an invasion. China. The deals included four armed MQ-9B drones, eleven high-mobility artillery rocket systems — the same weapon that Ukraine has made a household name for — and ship-killing Harpoon missiles.

But Taiwan and the US military are now seeing, for the first time, an indication of how soon they will have to fight.

Decades of carefully planned training exercises are very different from fast-paced military operations in unpredictable environments, and this latest crisis gives China its closest contact with the real world and its complications. The quick reaction exercises “allow the PLA to test and validate the results of its modernization and reform efforts over the past decades,” Koh said.

“This latest Taiwan Strait crisis presents an opportunity to assess their capabilities and identify weaknesses to work on,” he added. “The PLA is likely to learn a lot about itself in the process.”

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