Fifty-six. That’s how many warplanes the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force sent, in two waves, into Taiwan’s southwestern air-defense identification zone on Monday.
That’s more planes, by far, than China ever has sortied for a probe of Taiwan’s defenses. The record surge comes right after a three-day air-power binge that saw 93 PLAAF planes fly through Taiwan’s ADIZ, which lies just outside the country’s national air space.
In four days, China has sent more planes toward Taiwan than it normally sends in an entire month or two. Something is happening, but it’s not clear what.
“This extraordinarily provocative Chinese air activity seems to have come out of nowhere,” said Ian Easton, an analyst with the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia
The context for this airpower surge is the same as always. “Reunifying” Taiwan with China is the central tenet of the People’s Republic of China’s foreign policy. Aerial probes of Taiwan’s ADIZ double as intimidation and preparation for war.
The timing also is interesting. Friday was National Day—the anniversary of the founding of the PRC.
But it was three days after National Day that a wave of 52 planes, followed by a second wave of four planes, flew into the southwest ADIZ.
The first wave was composed of 34 J-16 fighters, two Su-30 fighters, two Y-9 patrol planes, two KJ-500 radar early-warning planes and 12 H-6 nuclear-capable bombers. The second wave was tiny in comparison—just four J-16s.
If China and Taiwan were at war, the H-6s alone could’ve launched 72 cruise missiles at Taiwanese forces.
The huge number of H-6s involved in Monday’s exercise is particularly troubling, Easton said. “That indicates something big is going on.”
It’s conceivable that the weekend sorties could’ve gone ahead without the overt approval of top Chinese Communist Party officials. Even in a centralized state such as China, military commanders have a lot of autonomy to organize training exercises—even highly provocative ones.
But Monday’s huge mission, which deployed more combat aircraft than many countries possess in their entire air forces, is a clear sign that the CCP’s political leadership, including President Xi Jinping, is behind the airpower surge.
“The massed warplane flights in the Taiwan Strait have now continued four days in a row, which indicates that Xi Jinping himself has almost certainly signed the orders,” Easton said.
Taiwan isn’t powerless to resist Chinese intimidation. Taipei’s air force tracked the Chinese planes and launched planes of its own to shadow some of the intruders. But the entire Republic of China Air Force possesses only around 300 front-line fighters. The PLAAF possesses nearly 2,000.
Whenever it chooses, the Chinese air force can overwhelm the Taiwanese air force.
A swift, brutal fight for control of the air over Taiwan would be the first phase in a Chinese invasion. Beijing might initiate an aerial battle in a deliberate way. Then again, it might just send a bunch of planes into the Taiwanese ADIZ and hope for some pilot to scratch an itchy trigger finger.
A single missile or cannon round, swapped between the swarms of Chinese and Taiwanese planes over the Taiwan Strait, could be the spark that ignites a war. “Military maneuvers on this scale could spin out of control and result in a major crisis,” Easton said.
Taiwan’s allies were nearby when those 56 jets probed the ADIZ. A powerful naval formation centered on the U.S. Navy aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan, the Royal Navy flattop HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Japanese helicopter carrier JS Ise was south of Taiwan this weekend.
On Monday, no fewer than three American surveillance aircraft—an Air Force RC-135 and a P-8 and EP-3 belonging to the Navy—were in the same area, mere miles from the Chinese formation. An Air Force KC-135 tanker supported the surveillance planes.
The U.S. State Department condemned the recent Chinese sorties as “destabilizing.” But it’s unclear whether American and allied forces would fight back if—when?—China attacks Taiwan.
But pretending an attack is increasingly likely, and imminent, isn’t an option. “This surprise incident should serve as a wake-up call for Washington, Taipei and like-minded governments everywhere,” Easton said. “Deterrence could be failing already”
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