A US-made F-16V fighter releases flares during a drill in Taichung, Taiwan on July 2, 2020. Photo: Taiwan Defence Ministry via AFP

The Taiwanese military has put itself on a “wartime” footing this week for its annual island-wide drill repelling a mock invasion by China.

Despite the Covid-19 epidemic, the 188,000-strong force is sticking to its decades-long tradition of staging the exercise with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as the avowed opposing force. The codename of the drill, held since 1984, is Han Kuang, meaning recovering lost territories in Mandarin.

Taiwanese papers reported that the military had mobilized almost all its airmen as well as reserve forces on Monday, day one of the war game. They simulated missions removing personnel from hostile areas after the “red group,” a squadron playing the role of a PLA spearhead for the drill, took control of major airbases along the island’s mainland-facing coast.

Footage aired by Taiwanese media showed fighters and other warplanes taking off from airbases in Taichung and Kaohsiung and flying east for shelter, before these facilities fell to the advancing red group. This is part of the air force’s tactics to preserve the most potent assets and avoid head-on dogfights with the enemy when an aerial invasion is irreversible.

Similarly, what will also be put to the test during the drill are contingency plans for a swift withdrawal of other personnel and equipment from the mainland-facing coastline to more covert, inland bases, before the PLA launches a missile blitz from China’s Fujian province. The navy will also try out diversionary tactics and marshal vessels and submarines to back-up piers and bases along the Pacific coast.

The Taiwanese military aims to avoid a head-on confrontation with invaders from China through air and naval deterrence and redeployment plans to preserve its most potent assets. Photo: CNA

These emergency redeployment plans underwrite the Taiwanese military’s strategy to hold out for as long as possible in the event of a full-blown war with China, to buy time for the island to seek international intervention.

The island’s public air raid drill was also held Tuesday afternoon, when air raid warnings went off throughout the island to signal an imminent attack.

Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency quoted Defense Ministry officials as saying that starting from Wednesday, the focus of the drill would shift to naval deterrence and interception as well as amphibious warfare to stop the PLA from establishing beachheads.

Other highlights of the drill include the first live torpedo test in more than a decade and anti-abduction and anti-decapitation training for special forces based on a scenario of the island’s president being taken hostage by the PLA. There will also be sea-air coordinated patrols and interception involving the F-16V, the latest variant of the fighter series, and the island’s homemade cruisers featuring a wave-piercing catamaran design.

More than a dozen of Taiwan’s newly-formed combined arms battalions will also debut in the war game. These battalions pool snipers and soldiers from infantry and cavalry units to operate unmanned aerial vehicles and portable missile launchers to form an agile land force capable of fighting independently in an urban setting.

It is also rumored that a small dispatch of American military observers organized by the Pentagon and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), Washington’s de facto embassy on the self-governed island, will appraise the war-readiness of the Taiwanese army and offer advice to the island’s authorities.

Posts on social media say some of these observers will be from the elite US marines stationed at the AIT’s new office compound in Taipei, whose role is widely believed to be more than just guarding offices there.

It is also said that even though the AIT does not have formal military officers sent by the Pentagon, some diplomats holding non-military titles are indeed military liaison attachés tasked with handling arms sales to the island and advising the Taiwanese military.

Taiwanese soldiers take part in last year’s Han Kuang exercise. Photo: CNA

Taiwan’s defense chief Yen Teh-fa hinted during last year’s Han Kuang drill that the annual war game would also be an opportunity to hone the interoperability skills of Taiwanese solders and their “overseas peers.”

He refused to elaborate further when asked about his remarks. The AIT, however, has always denied any presence of the US military on the island. In 2019, AIT director Brent Christensen also declined to comment on reports about the existence of a “US-Taiwan military liaison office” when Taiwan announced the purchase of 66 F-16V jets from Lockheed Martin.

In the meantime, at least one US warplane flew close to southern China’s Guangdong province on Monday.

The flyover was revealed on Tuesday by a maritime movement-tracking platform maintained by Peking University. The flight involved an E-8 joint surveillance target attack radar plane, which can be converted into an airborne battle management and command and control aircraft.

Judging from the trajectory of the spy and reconnaissance plane, it pierced China’s air defense identification zone from southern Taiwan and even buzzed fishing boats less than 125 kilometers off Guangdong’s coastline.

This is the third suspected breach of China’s airspace by US warplanes this month. Beijing is yet to formally respond to the incident.

Last week, both China and the US staged drills in the South China Sea after two US flattop strike groups – Nimitz and Ronald Reagan – returned to Asia.