Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 created a huge turmoil in the international sphere. When most of the world and media recovered from the initial invasion, some, but a relatively small focus shifted towards Taiwan and China. There are opinions that the Chinese invasion of Taiwan will be the next huge war, resulting from Russia’s actions in Ukraine. However, China has been waging a war of attrition against Taiwan for many years. It is similar to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas since 2014, where many people forgot or were not paying attention prior to February 2022.
Mostly unnoticed war of attrition
If we look at the narratives connected to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most of them do not take into consideration eight years of war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea. Of course, the current situation around Taiwan is much different from the Ukrainian case. However, if China launched an invasion of Taiwan, most of the narratives presented by various people and media would be very likely the same – forgetting about Chinese actions during the years, wondering “how did this happen”.
The most visible and dangerous act of this attrition war is the activity of the Chinese air force in the air defence identification zone or ADIZ of Taiwan. One of the biggest incursions was at the end of May 2022, when 30 planes of the Chinese air force entered the Taiwanese ADIZ. The biggest issue here is the fact that Taiwanese ADIZ also extends over the Chinese mainland. Therefore, China is using this option to periodically conduct numerous incursions with the aim to wear out Taiwanese pilots and jets.
This tactic used by Beijing is not new or recent. However, only in recent years has the number of such cases risen dramatically. In 2020, Taipei spent almost $900 million only on these incursions. Since then, the number of planes involved in incursions and acts themselves again rose up. Taipei is forced to spend billions on maintenance, which is increasingly difficult and costly given the constant activity of its air force.
The toll on the Taiwanese air force
There were not any significant jet losses prior to the year 2020. In October, an F-3 jet crashed during a training mission. The pilot did not survive. Next month, another jet crashed right after the start. This time it was an F-16. In 2021, two F-5 jets collided in the air, resulting in the death of both pilots. In January 2022, F-16 crashed during a training mission. This crash resulted in a temporary suspension of training missions. The latest loss of a fighter jet occurred in March 2022. Taiwanese Mirage 2000 crashed into the sea. Fortunately, in this case, the pilot survived.
None of the mentioned crashes occurred during the scrambling against Chinese jets. However, these crashes opened questions about the maintenance of jets, leading to problematic findings about the inability to resist attrition. In 2020, Taiwan recorded 380 incursions. In 2021, it was 969, which is a drastic change. If this trend continues, the Taiwanese air force will be worn out in the coming years, before any real combat. Near the end of May 2022, the number of incursions was already almost 500.
Taipei has ordered 66 F-16 jets in 2020. Delivery shall be finished by 2026. New jets could ease the situation. On the other hand, costs of maintenance are rising, furthermore, new jets are taking a huge portion of the defence budget.
Taiwan does not have many options to change its strategy here, even though they play according to Beijing’s plans to wear out their own air force and make it unsustainable for them. In the end, the Chinese military build-up in the region and their political position towards the island do not bring any other options for them, than to continue with its own defensive build-up.
Author: Richard Straka