5 March 2020. TAIWAN
First Lieutenant Kuan-Lin of Republic of China Air Force (RCAF) adjusted his back slightly and stretched his legs in cockpit of his Mirage-2000. He was scheduled to finish his mission in fifteen minutes and then land back at Hengchun airbase after flying for 90 minutes. Sun was getting low on the horizon and Li could see sunbeams being reflected off from the ocean and ground below. Visibility was extremely good and he craned his neck to get an eye on his wingman FLt Chia-Hao flying 2000 m above him. He was happy to get some flying hours in his Mirage 2000 before a final decision was taken to retire it. There were some problems with the fleet which were attributed to French reluctance to provide upgrades and proper repair services at a reasonable price. There were murmurs that the French were deliberately denying Taiwan their services because of Chinese pressure.
Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan has been a bitter enemy of People’s Republic of China (PRC) or China ever since the end of Chinese civil war in 1949. It was fought between Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong and Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang), led by Chiang Kai-shek. After their defeat Chiang transferred his regime to Taipei calling it Wartime Capital. Nearly 2 million refugees from China poured into Taiwan which had only 6 million population before the migration.
ROC was considered a legitimate government of China till 1971 when the UN had voted to shift it’s recognition to PRC. India along with it’s mortal enemy Pakistan had voted in favour of China. This came after 1962 war, 1967 border conflict and an imminent war just months later in which China was providing full support to Pakistan against India. 50 years later India was in an informal military alliance with Japan, USA and Australia which had voted against PRC. India had formed formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan only a few weeks before along with USA and most of NATO allies. Chinese image and list of allies had gone much shorter due to Corona Virus pandemic and the bullying behaviour. So the list of countries interested in having diplomatic relations with Taiwan was only getting longer with each passing day.
China was not happy and they had shown their displeasure in multiple strong statements, warnings and actual actions. A wave of cyber attacks originating from North Korea and Chinese mainland had hit the technically advanced island nation causing some economic damage and panic. Taiwan had taken security measures to bring most of vital national infrastructure under a special act in 2018. But progress was slow and Chinese had managed to find some unpatched vulnerabilities in some of older networks. As a result, parts of southern Taiwan had suffered due to bad electricity supply and user data of a few companies was leaked causing panic selling in the stockmarket. Most of the hardening measures worked well overall and the country’s basic communications and power infrastructure stayed functioning even during the worst period of attacks.
These cyber attacks were accompanied by aggressive military posturing and multiple incursions in to Taiwanese waters by PLAN as well as PLAAF. A number of military and civilian ships carrying Chinese flags had performed aggressive maneuvers in multiple sectors and had even intruded in Taiwan’s waters. PLAAF fighters were doing similar harassment in air with multiple air intrusions and targeted jamming of Taiwanese communication channels, military and civilian alike. Just minutes before he climbed in to his plane, Lin had watched news about Chinese jets flying only tens of meters above a few Taiwanese civilian ships south of Penghu Islands. Intelligence reports suggested that China planned to take control of these islands and use them as staging ground for further attacks on Taiwan.
The defences on the islands had been fortified recently with 1 armoured brigade, 1 infantry brigade along with an amphibious reconnaissance battalion. Two missile batteries each of latest Sky Bow 3 SAMs and Hsiung Feng II anti-ship cruise missiles for anti-air and anti-ship roles had been placed on full alert. To make matters worse, PLAN had announced military exercises in Taiwan Banks area involving their Liaoning aircraft carrier along with most of the carrier wing ships on what was declared as anti-piracy and coastal defence exercises. The fact that most of aircraft sorties from Liaoning poked Taiwanese territory proved otherwise.
RCAF had been flying near continuous patrols to keep a watch on increasingly belligerent PLAN and PLAAF activities for last eight days. Some of PLAN activities had become almost routine over the last week. A flight of two J-15s would take off from the carrier, fly at an altitude between 500-800 meters and whenever they spotted a civilian ship heading towards Taiwanese ports, they’d do 1-2 low flying passes making a point to show off YJ-83 anti-ship cruise missiles (AshM) hanging from their fuselages. US Navy had deployed it’s own carrier task force in Philippine Sea and was observing the Chinese exercise with it’s own assets.
An export version of the YJ-83 had already seen combat few years back. In 2006, Hezbollah fired 2 YJ-82 at an Israeli corvette scoring one hit. The ship had turned off it’s radar and defence systems temporarily due to presence of friendlies in the area and suffered serious damage. In 2016, a guided missile destroyer of US Navy came under attack from same missiles fired by a Houthi group. But none of the missiles scored a hit.
J-15 was a Chinese knockoff of Russian Sukhoi 27K (commonly known as Su-33) and had a somewhat troubled history. While fully fuelled, it could barely carry two tons worth of weapons from the ski-jump of Chinese aircraft carriers. It’s Chinese made WS-10 engines were notoriously unreliable and it had to use Russian AL-31F for most of the fleet. A later variant of WS-10 was supposed to replace the Russian engines, but progress was slow. There were numerous other technical programs and atleast four crashes had forced China to look for a new naval fighter.
Taiwan had raised alert level and deployed 2 La Fayette-class frigates and one Cheng Kung class destroyer Su Ao to monitor Chinese activities. One of the La Fayettes was it’s specialised submarine hunter Kang Ding class and other was Formidable class. They were supported by two squadrons of F-16s, Mirage-2000 fighters, 3 P-3C Orion and 2 E-2K Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft flying near continuous sorties. Lin and his wingman Hao cruised slowly around the slower Orion as it’s escorts. Hawkeye that was scheduled to be in air at the time had developed some problem with it’s landing gear and the replacement plane was being readied causing a gap in the deployment. A pair of F-16C was supposed to escort Hawkeye and they were not airborne yet either. The three ships were somewhere west of the islands out of his visual reach.
Lin looked at his fuel gauge and noticed 15 minutes to bingo fuel (minimum amount of fuel left to reach back homebase). His replacement jets for the escort were undergoing pre-flight checks on ground and were expected to reach the patrol area shortly relieving him for the day. He looked at the general direction of his landing strip towards the east trying to see if he could spot it on the unusually clear day. He could see the lone Orion around a 1000 m below him on his starboard side flying low and dropping sonobuoys in the water. It could carry around 90 active or passive sonobuoys and was almost finished deploying last of them few km south of Penghu islands.
Sonobuoys are usually disposable sensors which can be deployed by naval vessels or aircraft for detection of enemy ships and submarines. They are usually deployed over a certain area and they keep monitoring till recovery or till battery runs out. The data from these sonobuoys can be transmitted via a radio link to the aircraft that deployed them or to some other receiver within range. That day, Orion was supposed to stay in the area for 2 more hours monitoring the incoming data for signs of any Chinese submarine activity near Taiwanese coast. He had made a few friends from the crew of bigger aircraft in last few days. “Stay there Mace 1, I’ll save some Chiayi for you .” he thought while remembering the night’s menu..
Voice of the mission controller pulled him out of his somewhat relaxed mood, “Ground Control to Walker flight, we have noticed one, possibly two fast moving contacts at bearing Two-Two-Zero, altitude 600 m moving towards you. Move in front of Mace 1 and investigate the bogeys. Stay within 30 nautical miles of coast and do not turn on your radars. You are not weapons free.”
Lin and Hao noticed the Orion take a sharp turn and move to the safety of land based air defences. Further chatter on radio confirmed F-16s of 21st Tactical Fighter Group scrambling from Chiyai as the two Mirages-2000 moved forward to shield the retreating Orion. Ground control had marked the incoming bogeys as Pirate 1 and 2 and they could see them as two red triangles in one of the screens in the cockpit marked nearly 100 nautical miles south west of their position. Before the days of data links and sensor fusion, pilots didn’t have the luxury of such degree of situational awareness even with their radars on. The data about friendly and enemy assets was being collected from a network of sea and land based sensors and beamed to them via secure communication links. Had the Hawkeye been operational, they’d have a warning much sooner. But it was not due to whatever reason at the time and they had to make the best of it.
Based on approach vectors, Taiwanese were pretty sure that the two bogeys were J-15s from Liaoning positioned south-east of Hong Kong. Previously a flight of two or sometimes four J-15s had come within the sniffing distance of Taiwanese waters, made a show of their presence over civilian vessels by flying low and then flew back. It was a dangerous game and even a small mistake could cause immense damage.Lin was quite aware of it and was not particularly relishing the idea of being the first one from his side to dive in to hostilities. He was pretty sure that the Chinese ground based as well as air-borne radars would have been monitoring their movements and sending updates to J-15s as well even as they flew in with radars switched off. One dangerous thing about this was that some of the Chinese Air to Air missiles like PL-15 didn’t need to be guided or provided targets by the planes themselves. The targeting data could be provided by another fighter or AWACS and the missile could be guided to target without the plane ever turning on it’s radar.
Moments two new red contacts came alive on Mirage-2000 screens around 70 nm from Chinese mainland and mission control informed them of two more Chinese fighters lying roughly 200 m above sea in direction of 3 naval ships. The F-16s were still just about a minute away from takeoff. Seconds later, Pirate 1 and 2 suddenly changed their bearings and turned west and then north again bringing them on a bearing towards the ships. Mirages maneuvered to intercept them, but overshot and turned around to get a bead on J-15s again. Now they were within visual range and Lin could see sunlight’s glint on the canopy of J-15s flying 2000 m below him.
Lin noticed with concern that the Pirates were within firing range of their AShM and then heard on radio that they had turned on their tracking radars. That was the first step to acquire a target, gather data about it’s position, bearing etc, provide the data to missile and then fire it. The ships reported the same from two J-10s who were within 70 nm of them and getting closer with each passing second. Neither of the Chinese fighters could get a lock because of intense jamming by the ships as well as ground based assets. This defensive measure was only temporary and he knew that as soon as the fighters got past the burn through range, they’d have a radar lock on the ships.
Lin noticed a tinge of excitement in mission controller’s voice as he changed weapon status to Weapon Hold. This meant that the Mirages and ships were free to attack when under attack, but they still couldn’t fire the first shot. Walker flight turned on their radar and both of them locked on to the J-15s racing below them immediately. Just then they noticed another fast moving bogey racing in at near Mach 0.9 speed from bearing 180 flying 20 meters above water. Intrepid’s computer detected it as a YJ-83 missile coming in it’s direction and launched three RIM-66 missiles at it.
The two J-15s in front of Mirages suddenly tried to gain altitude and Pirate 1 tried to turn to face the Mirages. Lin had him on his targeting radar and fired off one Matra Magic AAM at it before J-15 had a chance to do anything more. The missile locked on to the sizeable heat signature of twin engined J-15 and exploded a few inches away from it’s port engine shredding it and tailfins with hundreds of small shrapnel. That engine flamed out immediately and the sudden loss of power and control plunged the aircraft in to the sea before the pilot had any chase to control it.
Even as the Magic hit the J-15, Lin could hear screaming voice of MC telling him to disengage. Intrepid had fired it’s SAMs on a ghost, the target had vanished a second after the missiles had left their launcher. Bandit flight too had turned back immediately after the missile launch. Nobody knew for real what exactly had happened and the voice channel was full of people asking for information and passing instructions Lin had a dreadful feeling that he might have started a war.
Global Network News
Tensions rise between China and Taiwan over shoot down of Chinese jet
Taiwanese defence minister Wang Shizhen has rejected Chinese demands for an apology and compensation for shooting down a Chinese naval plane last week. Taiwanese defence forces had shot down one Chinese J-15 fighter jet after a pair of them had flown close to their naval vessels and performed threatening maneuvers. Blaming China for the incident, the minister claimed that two Chinese planes performed extremely dangerous and provocative maneuvers which led to Taiwanese forces believing that they had launched missiles before they were shot down in self-defence.
He also said that Chinese navy was harassing Taiwanese civilian vessels and violating territory in the guise of an extremely aggressive military drill. Taiwanese defence forces had practised extraordinary restraint but had only defended themselves.
A spokesperson from Chinese defence ministry termed these comments as lies to cover up wanton aggression and unprofessional behaviour of Taiwanese defence forces. He claimed that Taiwan was being egged on for a conflict with China by certain foreign powers who are jealous of Chinese increased military and financial stature. He refused to answer who these countries might be but said that Chinese stance over the issue remains unchanged and that Taiwan should render an unconditional apology.
Ties between the two countries have become extremely strained and there have been multiple anti-Taiwan protests in China. CCP has threatened a trade embargo on Taiwanese companies but whether they’ll follow through on their threats remains to be seen. Any such action is likely to hurt China as much as Taiwan.
In the meanwhile, two American ships including one advanced Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer docked in a Taiwanese port for what was termed as a routine refueling and resupply mission. A powerful US naval fleet led by aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is expected to be in the area in the next few days which may raise tensions even further. Although it’s passage was declared many weeks back as routine freedom of navigation exercises which US performs often, it may be seen as a provocation in China where tempers are already running high.