War fears rise as Chinese air force sends 56 more warplanes to Taiwan
Fifty six. That’s the number of fighter jets that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force sent in two waves to the southwestern Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone on Monday.
This is by far more planes than China has ever sent for a Taiwan defenses investigation. The record increase comes just after a three-day air power frenzy that saw 93 PLAAF planes pass through Taiwan’s ADIZ, which lies just outside the country’s national airspace.
In four days, China sent more planes to Taiwan than it normally sends in a month or two. Something’s going on, but we don’t know what.
“This extraordinarily provocative Chinese airline activity seems to have come out of nowhere,” said Ian Easton, an analyst at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia.
The context for this air power surge is the same as always. Taiwan’s “reunification” with China is the central tenet of the PRC’s foreign policy. Taiwan’s ADIZ air polls also serve as intimidation and preparation for war.
The timing is also interesting. Friday was the national holiday, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC.
But it was three days after the national holiday that a wave of 52 planes, followed by a second wave of four planes, flew to the southwest of the ADIZ.
The first wave consisted 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 bombers. The second wave was tiny in comparison – only four J-16s.
If China and Taiwan were at war, the H-6s alone could have launched 72 cruise missiles at Taiwanese forces.
Of particular concern is the large number of H-6s involved in Monday’s exercise, Easton said. “It indicates that something important is happening.”
It is conceivable that the weekend outings could have taken place without the clear approval of senior Chinese Communist Party officials. Even in a centralized state like China, military commanders have a great deal of autonomy to organize even very provocative training exercises.
But Monday’s massive mission, which deployed more fighter jets than many countries have across their air forces, is a clear sign that the CCP’s political leadership, including the president. Xi Jinping, is at the origin of the rise of air power.
“The massive flights of warplanes in the Taiwan Strait have now continued for four days in a row, indicating that Xi Jinping himself has almost certainly signed the orders,” Easton said.
Taiwan is not powerless to resist Chinese intimidation. The Taipei Air Force followed the Chinese planes and launched its own planes to track some of the intruders. But the entire ROC Air Force only has about 300 frontline fighters. The PLAAF has nearly 2,000.
At any time, the Chinese Air Force can overwhelm the Taiwanese Air Force.
A swift and brutal struggle for control of the air over Taiwan would be the first phase of a Chinese invasion. Beijing could launch an air battle on purpose. Then again, that could just send a bunch of planes into the Taiwanese ADIZ and hope for a pilot to scratch an itchy trigger finger.
A single missile or cannon shell, traded between swarms of Chinese and Taiwanese planes over the Taiwan Strait, could be the spark that starts a war. “Military maneuvers of this magnitude could spiral out of control and lead to a major crisis,” Easton said.
Taiwan’s allies were nearby when these 56 jets sounded the ADIZ. A powerful naval formation centered on the aircraft carriers of the US Navy USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald reagan, the flat-roofed HMS of the Royal Navy queen elizabeth and the Japanese helicopter carrier JS Ise was in southern Taiwan this weekend.
Monday, not less than three American surveillance planes – an Air Force RC-135 and a Navy P-8 and EP-3 – were in the same area, a few miles from the Chinese formation. An Air Force KC-135 tanker supported the surveillance planes.
The US State Department condemned the recent Chinese exits as “destabilizing.” But it’s unclear whether American and Allied forces would retaliate if – when? – China attacks Taiwan.
But pretending that an attack is more and more likely and imminent is not an option. “This surprise incident should serve as a wake-up call to Washington, Taipei and like-minded governments around the world,” Easton said. “Deterrence could already fail.”