Friday, December 19, 2008

Han Kuang military exercises broken in half

A Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense official said yesterday that amid thawing relations in the Taiwan Strait, the live-fire portion of the annual Han Kuang series of military exercises would from now on be held every two years. The unnamed official unconvincingly said there was no link between politics (that is, more moves by the Ma Ying-jeou [馬英九] administration to please China) and the decision to skip a year for the exercise, adding — equally unconvincingly — that the hiatus would allow the military to “fix problems in the areas of intelligence and support.”

This development is the latest addition to a long list of recent initiatives by the Ma administration that have undermined the nation’s ability to defend itself, and this one is unlikely to be welcome in Washington defense circles.

Military exercises exist for a reason. In peacetime, they provide the only means by which military forces can improve their skills, learn from their mistakes and perfect the art of joint operations between services using increasingly complex systems. Short of actual conflict, nothing — not computer simulators, and certainly not manuals — can compensate for these exercises.

All things being equal, when two armies of equal strength confront themselves on the battlefield, the side that has accrued the most hours of combat experience will be at a distinct advantage. Absent recent combat experience (which applies to both China, whose last conventional war was in the late 1970s when it invaded Vietnam, and Taiwan, which hasn’t seen combat since the 1950s), the next determinant will be training.

Analysts fearing that the modernization of China’s combat aircraft fleet is whittling away at the historical advantage the Taiwanese air force has enjoyed have nevertheless argued that in actual combat, the better-trained Taiwanese pilots would likely prevail. The same applies to other services, where Taiwan's advantage has been smaller. With the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) narrowing the quantitative and qualitative gap in the Taiwan Strait, the last thing Taiwan should do is cut by half the one thing that has given it that edge, especially when there is no indication that the PLA will respond in kind by ceasing exercises that simulate an invasion of Taiwan.

Furthermore, cutting training sends yet another signal to Washington that when push comes to shove, Taiwan expects it can rely on the US to come to its assistance — something that is less than certain under the present circumstances, with US forces bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington becoming increasingly reliant on China on a number of issues, from the economy to combating piracy at sea to dealing with a recalcitrant North Korea.

Despite closer economic ties in the strait, it is far too early for Taiwan to let its guard down.

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