Taiwan’s Han Kuang 23 Military Exercise and the Offensive Counterstrike Debate

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 15

The revelation that the command post exercise portion of the Han Kuang 23 exercise featured the use of “tactical shore-based missiles for fire suppression” to attack military targets on the mainland reignited a longstanding debate over Taiwan’s development of offensive military capabilities and prompted U.S. officials to state their opposition to the deployment of long-range offensive weapons. Taiwan’s deployment of long-range missiles capable of striking targets on the mainland would not contribute to the island’s ability to deter China and would likely only provide limited operational benefits, but it could further complicate the already daunting escalation control problems the United States would face in the event of a cross-Strait conflict. Consequently, Taipei and Washington should focus on enhancing Taiwan’s defenses to convince leaders in Beijing that the use of force against the island would be a costly and protracted undertaking.

The Han Kuang 23 Military Exercise

The live-fire phase of Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang military exercise took place in May 2007. Perhaps the most dramatic portion of the exercise involved six fighter aircrafts—two F-16s, two Mirage fighters, and two IDFs—conducting simulated emergency landings on a major highway [1]. This was the second time that the Han Kuang exercise featured the use of major roadways as alternate landing strips. The drill was intended to demonstrate the ability to continue to conduct air operations in the event that Chinese missile and air strikes shut down Taiwan’s air bases during a cross-Strait conflict. The four-day live-fire portion of the exercise also featured counter-landing drills and tested the military’s ability to respond to Chinese airborne and special operations attacks.

The field-training portion of the Han Kuang 23 exercise was preceded by a five-day computer war game phase, which was held from April 16-20, 2007. The scenario involved a Chinese surprise attack carried out in 2012 and simulated Taiwan’s plan to respond by implementing a three-phase plan involving “joint preservation of fighting capacity” (lianhe zhanli baocun), “joint interception operations” (lianhe jieji zuozhan), and “joint territorial defense operations” (lianhe guotu fangwei zuozhan) [2]. Although the live-fire exercises are normally the primary focus of media attention, this year, the command post portion of the exercise drew the most notice from observers and analysts in Taiwan and the United States. During the computer simulation phase of the exercise, the PLA launched a surprise missile, air and special operations attack that caused heavy damage to air bases, radar stations and other military facilities in Taiwan. The PLA then attempted to seize an offshore island to try to compel Taiwan to negotiate on China’s terms. Taiwan’s armed forces responded by launching a series of long-range missile strikes against military targets in coastal China [3]. This was reportedly the first time that employing long-range missiles in a counterstrike capacity was included in the annual Han Kuang exercise (Taipei Times, April 22).

Ministry of National Defense (MND) officials declined to identify publicly the specific missile or missiles employed in the simulated attacks, describing them only as “tactical shore-based missiles for fire suppression” (zhanshuxing anzhi huoli zhiya feidan) (TSMFS) (Ziyou shibao [Liberty Times], April 25). Minister of National Defense Lee Jye subsequently stated that the missiles were still under development and would have a range of up to 1,000km, but refused to reveal further details (Taipei Times, April 27). Although the MND’s official statements were highly circumspect on the issue of the specific missile systems employed in the simulation, Western media reports suggested that the term “TSMFS” was probably a reference to the Hsiung Feng 2E land attack cruise missile (LACM), which is reportedly being developed by the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) [4]. In addition, some media reports in Taiwan speculated that the use of the term “TSMFS” referred not only to the HF-2E LACM, but also to a short-range ballistic missile program (Ziyou shibao [Liberty Times], April 25). Regardless of the specific types of missiles involved, the MND’s statement represents a rare official acknowledgement of Taiwan’s apparent determination to develop the ability to carry out counterstrikes against military installations in China.

Taiwan’s Offensive Counterstrike Debate

The debate regarding the development of the capability to strike targets on the mainland predates the Chen administration, but the issue became more prominent during the 2000 presidential election campaign—when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) introduced the concept of fighting a “decisive battle offshore” (jingwai juezhan) as part of a defense policy that emphasized shifting from a purely defensive policy to a posture of “offensive defense.” This new policy involves seizing the initiative as quickly as possible in response to a Chinese attack; destroying Chinese forces at sea and in the air before they reach the beaches; and launching precision deep strikes at PLA command and control centers, logistics and support nodes, airbases and other military targets on the mainland [5]. According to the MND’s 2004 National Defense Report, counterstrikes would include information operations, electronic warfare, long-range precision weapons, air and naval forces, and special operations. The objective of the counterstrikes would be to “rapidly paralyze the enemy’s critical nodes and delay its invading operation tempo, so as to disrupt its ambition of winning a decisive victory in the first battle and swiftly ending the war” [6].

The “decisive offshore battle” concept received increased attention following Chen’s June 16, 2000 speech at the Army Academy’s 76th anniversary celebration, in which he stated that Taiwan’s military must develop precision deep strike, information warfare and early warning capabilities to enable it to fight and win a “decisive battle offshore” against the PLA [7]. The address sparked a renewed debate over the advisability of striking targets on the mainland in the event of a conflict with China, revealing that the possibility of carrying out operations against targets on the mainland remained extremely controversial. According to Chang Li-teh, a senior editor at Taiwan’s Defense Technology Monthly, “the idea was very controversial because people thought it would provoke China and alarm the nation’s allies” (Taipei Times, April 10).

Defense policy specialists associated with President Chen and the DPP are among the most vocal proponents of the “decisive battle offshore” concept and the associated mainland strike options. Some prominent think tank analysts have also come out in support of the policy. For example, the authors of one recent report concluded, “Traditional ideas of decisive battles against communist forces on the coastlines should be changed, with ‘paralysis warfare’ replacing the traditional ‘war of attrition’” [8]. For some proponents of the counter-strike strategy, the option is attractive at least in part because it would be much less expensive than the acquisition of active defense systems like PAC-3. Nonetheless, the policy also has a number of detractors. Many critics argue that the development of offensive capabilities to strike targets on the mainland is potentially destabilizing.

Another object of contention is the selection of appropriate targets for possible counterstrike operations. The comments of some officials seem to suggest that they favor adopting a counter-value targeting strategy that would threaten major economic and population centers on the mainland. For example, in September 2004, Premier Yu said, “If you [mainland China] fire 100 missiles at us, we should be able to fire at least 50 at you. If you launch an attack on Taipei and Kaohsiung, we should be able to launch a counterattack on Shanghai” (Central News Agency, September 30, 2004). Most civilian and military officials, however, appear to prefer a strategy that would involve strikes against military targets in the coastal region opposite Taiwan. For instance, the 2004 National Defense report states that the military will launch counterstrikes against military targets and explicitly rules out strikes against civil infrastructure and civilian targets [9]. Similarly, Defense Minister Lee Jye told the Legislative Yuan’s National Defense Committee in September 2004 that in the event of a conflict Taiwan would strike military targets in China, but would not launch attacks against civilian population centers (Central News Agency, September 30, 2004).

The United States finally weighed in on the debate publicly in late April 2007 when National Security Council Senior Director for East Asian Affairs Dennis Wilder responded to a journalist’s question about Taiwan’s development of offensive missile capabilities. He stated, “We think that developing defensive capabilities is the right thing to do. We think that offensive capabilities on either side of the Strait are destabilizing and therefore not in the interest of peace and security. So when you ask me whether I am for offensive missiles, I am not for offensive missiles on the Chinese side of the Strait and I am not for offensive missiles on the Taiwan side of the Strait. But appropriate defense capabilities are certainly the right of the people of Taiwan” [10]. In early May, American Institute in Taiwan Director Stephen Young reiterated Wilder’s statement and added that media accounts suggesting that U.S. observers approved of the use of long-range offensive missiles during the Han Kuang 23 exercise were inaccurate [11]. Taiwan seems to have received the message that Washington intends to draw a distinction between the development of defensive and offensive capabilities and will support the former but not the latter. Indeed, Defense Minister Lee Jye subsequently stated that Washington “asked China not to carry on further development of offensive missiles and asked the same thing from us” (Taipei Times, June 13). Given the ambiguity of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense, however, it seems likely that Taiwan will continue to develop missiles capable of striking targets in coastal China despite U.S. concerns.

Implications for Taiwan and the United States

The deployment of long-range offensive missile systems will likely provide Taiwan with at least a modest capability to launch precision deep strikes against a limited number of military targets in China, but this is unlikely to contribute much to Taiwan’s ability to deter China from using force, however, if Beijing believes all other options to prevent Taiwan’s permanent separation from the mainland have been exhausted. Deterrence is normally based on the threat of inflicting unacceptable damage in retaliation for an attack or denying the attacker the ability to achieve its military and political objectives. Deployment of missiles armed with conventional warheads will not result in deterrence through threat of punishment or denial of objectives. First, deterrence through the threat of unacceptable punishment will not work with conventional weapons, because they will not permit Taiwan to inflict such serious damage on China that it would prevent Chinese leaders from resorting to the use of force [12]. Second, the limited number of cruise missiles Taiwan would be likely to deploy will not make deterrence by denial effective since it would not be enough to prevent China from achieving its operational objectives in a cross-Strait conflict.

Although the development and deployment of long-range missiles would not significantly strengthen deterrence, it would provide Taiwan with some previously unavailable military options, especially if Taiwan refrains from striking population centers and economic infrastructure and instead concentrates its limited counterstrike resources against targets critical to China’s ability to sustain military operations against Taiwan, such as staging areas, fuel and ammunition storage facilities and logistics nodes. Nevertheless, even this approach would likely have only a limited impact on the PLA’s combat capabilities. Indeed, China would clearly be able to absorb far more punishment than Taiwan could inflict with purely conventional weapons.

Beyond uncertainty about the deterrent value or even the operational effectiveness of a limited number of missiles against the large number of military targets on the mainland, it is also possible that Taiwan’s possession of counterstrike capabilities would complicate U.S. efforts to control escalation in the event of a cross-Strait crisis or conflict. This could happen in at least two ways. First, China might not be immediately certain whether long-range missile attacks were conducted by Taiwan or by the United States. Second, even if China determined that Taiwan’s military launched the missile strikes, it is entirely possible that leaders in Beijing would assume that the United States either encouraged Taiwan to carry out the attacks or acquiesced in Taiwan’s decision to strike targets on the mainland. Given the limited deterrent value and potential escalation control problems associated with offensive missile systems, it would behoove both Taipei and Washington to ensure that Taiwan concentrates on implementing a strategy based on strengthening its defenses enough to convince Chinese military and civilian leaders that the conquest of the island would be neither quick nor easy.


1. Han Kuang is Taiwan’s largest annual joint military exercise. It includes both computer simulations and live-fire field training exercises. The first in the series of Han Kuang exercises was conducted in 1984.

2. The computer war games were held at the Joint Operations Command Center, Joint Operations Training Center, and various tactical command posts. See Ministry of National Defense, “The MND’s Explanation of the ‘Hankuang 23 Exercise’ Computer War Game” [Guofangbu ‘Hankuang 23 hao yanxi’ diannao bingqi tuiyan shuoming], April 24, 2007, available online at https://www.mnd.gov.tw/Publish.aspx?cnid=69&p=8646.

3. See Ministry of National Defense, “General Situation of the ROC Military’s ‘Hankuang 23 Exercise’ Computer Wargame” [Guojun ‘Hankuang 23 hao yanxi’ diannao bingqi tuiyan zhixing gaikuang], April 24, 2007, available online at https://www.mnd.gov.tw/Publish.aspx?cnid=69&p=8645.

4. See Wendell Minnick, “Taiwan Holds Computer Wargame,” Defense News, April 24, 2007, available online at https://defensenews.com/story.php?F=2708699&C=asiapac. According to Minnick, the HF-2E has been under development for at least five years, but has suffered from problems related to its propulsion and guidance systems.

5. Su Tzu-yun, “The Evolution of Taiwan’s Defense Strategy and Defense Concept of Taiwan’s New Administration,” Taiwan Defense Affairs 1:1 (October 2000), pp. 124-125.

6. Ministry of National Defense, ROC, 2004 National Defense Report, p. 84.

7. For the full text of President Chen’s speech at the Army Academy, see Presidential Office News Release, “President Chen Attends the Army Academy’s 76th Anniversary Celebration” [Zongtong zhuchi lujun guanxiao qishiliu zhounian xiaoqing dianli], June 16, 2000.

8. Chang King-Yuh, Tseng Yung-Hsieng, and Chiu Kuan-Hsuan, ed., Quadrennial National Security Estimate Report, Taipei, Taiwan: Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies (FICS), 2004, p. 55.

9. Ministry of National Defense, ROC, 2004 National Defense Report, p. 65.

10. U.S. Department of State, “Preview of the Bush-Abe Meeting,” Foreign Press Center, Washington, DC, April 26, 2007, available online at https://hongkong.usconsulate.gov/ustw_wh_2007042601.html.

11. American Institute in Taiwan, “AIT Director Stephen Young, May 3, 2007 Press Conference,” AIT American Cultural Center, Taipei, May 3, 2007, available online at https://www.ait.org.tw/en/news/officialtext/viewer.aspx?id=2007050301.

12. Moreover, it is entirely possible that even nuclear weapons would be insufficient to deter China under certain circumstances, since Beijing places such a high value on the political objective of preventing Taiwan from achieving formal independence. Any attempt to develop nuclear weapons would also run grave risks of provoking Chinese military action and negating U.S. security assurances.