The Han Kuang (Han glory; HK) joint-force exercises have been an established institution of the Taiwanese military since 1984. The annual military training regime is divided into two phases: command post exercise (CPX) and computer-simulated war gaming, followed by field training exercises (FTX). The FTX portion typically culminated in an impressive live-fire demonstration by elements of all three armed services, intended to reassure Taiwanese people of their democratic but diplomatically isolated island’s defense capability. Such was the format for over two decades, until the election in 2008 of President Ma Ying-jeou, whose realignment of cross-Strait policies, with priority emphasis on lowering political tensions and improving and expanding exchanges with China, dictated new directions for Taiwan’s defense strategy. The annual exercises (HK-24 to HK-26) have since begun to reflect many of the themes in Ma’s defense policy platform, which calls for increased emphasis on passive protection measures and ground defense, rather than the more (air and naval-focused) active defense strategy favored by previous administrations. President Ma has increasingly become a champion of the latest U.S.-suggested buzzwords for force modernization: innovation and asymmetry. Yet, the actual new focus for Taiwan’s military may be moving toward disaster rescue/relief operations.
Long considered one of the most dangerous potential “flashpoints” in the world that could precipitate major power conflicts, military developments in the Taiwan Strait are closely monitored by all key players in the East Asian region, particularly the United States, based on legacy relationship with the island, its vibrant democracy, status as the world’s 17th largest trading nation, and insurance to hedge against China becoming a hostile strategic competitor to core American interests in the region. The United States takes a keen interest in Taiwan’s security and, despite the lack of a formal defense pact, works closely with the Taiwan military to assess (and help improve) the latter’s capabilities. Military exercises like Han Kuang are an important venue for understanding Taiwan’s defense capabilities and shifts in strategic thinking thereof.
HK-24: Reducing LFX for Peace Overture
The first such exercise held after the Ma Administration took office, HK-24, took place in the summer through early-fall of 2008. The computer simulation/war gaming phase was conducted in late-June (June 23-27), using the Joint Theater Level Simulation (JTLS) system. Though planned before the change of government, the exercises evidently tried to incorporate at least some aspects of the defense concepts featured in Mr. Ma’s campaign platform (e.g. greater emphasis on ground defense and passive force protection). While described as involving all the service branches, the 5-day FTX phase (completed September 26, 2008) clearly emphasized territorial defense and ground combat, with less extensive air and naval components than in previous years, even though air and naval assets did take part in live-fire joint interception exercises in early-September 2008 (Xinhua News Agency, September 8, 2008).
The HK-24 field exercises were conducted near simultaneously in all 5 regions of operations throughout Taiwan and the offshore islands, as well as cross-regional maneuvers. For example, one scenario called for a mechanized infantry brigade under the operational control of the 10th Army in central Taiwan to reinforce 6th Army units trying to contain an amphibious beachhead near Taoyuan area in northern Taiwan. This tested the Army’s ability to move heavy units over significant distances (about 75 miles) while maintaining combat readiness, battlefield intelligence and planning to logistics and the mobilization of civilian resources. In a controversial experiment, a 64-men advance reconnaissance team was transported via Taiwan’s high-speed railway.
Greater emphasis was placed on dispersal and operating sophisticated platforms from remote sites, with mixed results. For example, the Taiwan Army successfully experimented with sheltering and operating an OH-58D armed scout helicopter from the densely built-up industrial areas of Taipei County. Similarly, the Taiwan Navy experimented with a sortie of its prototype Kuang Hua-6 (KH-6), a missile boat from a Chiayi County fishing harbor in southern Taiwan.
As with all HK exercises, HK-24 involved calling up significant reserves, including nine mobilization brigades and 32 support elements (totaling over 20,000 reserve personnel), as well as over 1,500 civilian vehicles, heavy construction machinery, and fishing vessels (Central News Agency [Taiwan], September 30, 2008).
The information warfare (IW) portion of HK-24 was more limited in scope than prior years, which typically involved defense against simulated information attacks by the Red Force Tiger Team, as well as joint exercises with the Executive Yuan’s National Information and Communication Security Taskforce. The electronic warfare (EW) aspects of HK-24 also were more focused compared to previous years, being heavily concentrated in the amphibious assault exercise, with emphasis on communications intelligence (COMINT), communications jamming and counter-countermeasures (NOWNews [Taiwan], March 25, 2008).
The most notable change to HK-24 was the scaling back of live-fire exercises (LFX). Some of these were combined with other regularly scheduled LFX at the unit or service level, while the public firepower demonstration originally scheduled for late-September, 2008 was canceled, ostensibly to allow the military units to focus on training that is more realistic and to save expenses. Yet, many in Taiwan believe the decision was made mainly out of the Ma Administration’s desire to extend a peace gesture to Beijing (China Times [Taiwan], July 16, 2008).
HK-25: No FTX Phase
In 2009, the annual joint exercise (HK-25) was only limited to CPX/computer war gaming, with no FTX phase. The latter was postponed to 2010, when the Ministry of National Defense decided to extend the training cycle from every 12 months to every 18-24 months (NOWNews, December 18, 2008). The reason for this was given as the need to afford troops more time to absorb lessons learned from prior year’s exercises, correct any deficiencies identified and implement training on new weapons/tactics. Not all senior military leaders agree with this rationale, not least because an 18-month training cycle could result in the FTX phase taking place during a time of the year when the weather is ill suited for large-scale joint forces training.
Carried out during the first week of June, HK-25 was observed by U.S. officials and military officers. For the first time, MND decided not to declare a “winner” in the computer war game, to avoid possible political fallout from a “defeat” of the defending Blue Force. Instead, the war game was designed to provide a highly stressful threat scenario, with the attacking Red Force mounting an invasion with 200,000 troops, to test if Taiwan’s forces, command and control, and logistics were capable of effectively carrying out the island’s war plan.
In addition to the traditional themes of air control, sea control and counter-invasion, the exercise placed particular emphasis on force preservation and ground combat operations, again highlighting two of the main themes championed by President Ma. The HK-25 scenarios, set in 2012, postulated such future capabilities as China’s aircraft carrier and Taiwan’s P-3C maritime patrol aircraft (China Times, June 1, 2009). Anti-carrier attack missions using new weapons (e.g. HF-3 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles) and innovative tactics (night sorties by stealthy, high-speed surface combatants) were tested during computer war gaming.
Incidentally, similar recommendations for a “hedgehog” (passive protection + ground defense) strategy were also advocated by Commander William S. Murray (USN, Retired) in his Naval War College Review (Summer, 2008), article entitled “Re-Visiting Taiwan’s Defense Strategy,” which Mr. Ma had instructed the defense establishment to study in the second half of 2008, but the recommendations were largely rejected as impractical for achieving the military objectives desired by Taiwan. The defense leadership and even top Army officers disagreed that a defense strategy based largely on ground forces and passive defenses could possibly defeat (or deter) a Chinese invasion (Liberty Times, December 2, 2008).
Even though HK-25 contained no FTX, the Taiwan military did get an opportunity in 2009 to stress test its operational responsiveness to major contingencies, as a result of the massive disaster rescue and relief operation following the deadly Typhoon Morakot that struck the island in early-August, killing more than 600 people and causing widespread destruction. Taiwan’s military undertook some 560,000 personnel tasks, employing UH-1H and CH-47 helicopters, AAV7A1 amphibious assault vehicles, V150S armored vehicles, combat engineering vehicles and rubber boats in thousands of sorties, often in remote, difficult terrain .
HK-26: Toward HADR
This year’s HK-26 took up the rather unusual format of conducting the field exercise phase first, in late-April (April 26-30), and not conducting the CPX exercise until the July/August period. The FTX portion of Han Kuang is normally conducted after completing the CPX/computer war gaming phase. This is to avoid having forces, equipment and command and control (C2) energies committed to maneuvers during the rainy typhoon season (May-October), when these assets are more likely to be needed for disaster rescue/relief operations (China Times, February 10). Rapid responses to and effectively dealing with such contingencies have become one of the highest priorities for Taiwan’s government, not only for humanitarian reasons but also out of concern for potentially serious political consequences, as evidenced by the Typhoon Morakot experience.
The HK-26 joint field exercises involved fully-equipped regular units from all three service branches, as well as mobilization of reserve units. Again, no munitions were fired during the exercises, and no public live-fire demonstration event held. Yet, LFX continues to be conducted at unit and service levels.
Force preservation continues to be a major theme, as HK-26 included the dispersal and redeployment of 45 Mirage 2000 fighters from Hsinchu air force base (AFB) to the hardened facility at Chiashan AFB in eastern Taiwan. The number of aircraft available for this exercise indicated significantly improved material readiness of the Mirage fleet, which had suffered from chronic shortage of parts (Apple Daily [Taiwan], April 27). The Navy practiced dispersal and forward deployment of its new KH-6 missile boats to a fishing port in northern Taiwan.
Taiwan demonstrated its rapid runway repair capability at Chiashan AFB. Even though runway vulnerability to Chinese ballistic missile attacks has been frequently cited as a critical vulnerability to the island’s ability to maintain viable air defense, Taiwan is today arguably one of the countries in the region best prepared to meet such a threat, through a combination of hardening, rapid repair capabilities and deployment/acquisition of missile defense systems. Having acquired more than 300 Rapid Runway Repair (RRR) kits over the past few years, together with dedicated heavy construction equipment and engineering personnel, the Taiwan military has trained regularly in restoring battle-damaged airfield runways and taxiways to operations .
HK-26 was, as usual, combined with an amphibious landing exercise, this time at Chialutang, and an airborne assault/counter-airborne operations exercise, held at Changlung Farm, both in Pingtung County in southern Taiwan. The airborne landing exercise featured deployment of an advance team by HALO (High Altitude-Low Opening) parachute insertion (Military News Agency, April 29). The exercise also featured the customary counter-attack scenarios, executed by ground forces at Taichung Harbor, Hualien and Taichung County, with a marine brigade deploying from Taipei County to reinforce units defending Taichung. A separate exercise involved helicopter-borne special operations forces reinforcing friendly forces some 70 miles away.
Some of the more interesting HK-26 components included an NBC decontamination exercise by a mechanized infantry battalion in Hualien, where a reserve alpine company (manned by mountain-dwelling locals) defended mountain passes against infantry attack. The Army also employed newly introduced forward area refueling systems to improve turn-around time and sortie generation for its AH-1W attack helicopters (United Daily News [Taiwan], April 30).
A deadly landslide near Taipei on April 25 provided an added opportunity to test the emergency response capability of Taiwan’s armed forces just as they were ready to launch the HK-26 FTX. Personnel and heavy equipment were promptly dispatched and arrived on scene within 75 minutes of receiving alerts (Military News Agency, April 25). Additional troops and equipment were committed to the rescue/excavation effort over the next 9 days, demonstrating the military’s capacity for rapid mobilization and sustained operations in HADR (humanitarian and disaster relief) contingencies.
HK-26 was the first annual joint exercise since Taiwan’s new C4ISR system became operational. The $1.4 billion Po Sheng C4ISR program, officially completed in late-2009, provides for a national command and control (C2) system integrated with (Link-16-based) tactical data links that can distribute near real-time common tactical picture, improve situational awareness, reduce target engagement cycle time, and help optimize layered defense . Link-16 terminals are integrated with C2 systems at Heng Shan Combined Operations Center (COC) as well as respective operations centers of the service branches, Patriot SAM batteries, and select air and naval platforms. All the operations centers and some of the Po Sheng-equipped platforms took part in the FTX.
HK-26 was also the first annual joint exercise planned and executed after the release of Taiwan’s first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which is intended to serve as a roadmap for longer-term (5- and 10-year) force modernization planning. None of the future capabilities discussed in the QDR appeared in any of the FTX scenarios, although elements of these may be included in the CPX/computer war gaming phase scheduled for this summer. Moreover, it is understood that disaster rescue and relief operations will feature prominently in the HK-26 CPX, which means that the war gaming results will probably be validated in field exercises to be conducted next year.
Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that President Ma only attended the HK-25 military exercise’s computer simulation since taking office, whereas all his predecessors had inspected the annual maneuvers and/or attended the live-fire demonstrations (Taipei Times, June 6, 2009). While this conspicuous absence has been officially attributed to various reasons (weather, overseas visit, natural disaster), many view it as yet another goodwill offering in hope of moderating cross-Strait military tensions. Yet, together with cutbacks in joint LFX and reduction in FTX frequency, this has not helped Mr. Ma’s already frigid relations with the military. These have been strained by his defense agenda of significant force cuts, transition to voluntary military service system, reduction in real defense spending, and adoption of a passive defense posture, in addition to (up until quite recently) President Ma’s repeated public criticism of the military’s discipline and corruption issues.
1. “President Expects Disaster Prevention Exercises Before Next Rainy Season”, Executive Yuan Website, December 10, 2009, https://88flood.www.gov.tw/news_content_detail.php?nc_id=4038.
2. Air Power Balance in the Taiwan Strait, (Roslyn, VA: U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, May 2010).
3. Edward W. Ross, Improving Taiwan’s Military Capabilities, C4ISR Integration, (Charlottesville, VA: U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, September 2009), pp. 10.