- For the first time, Taiwan’s Han Kuang military exercises included a simulated attack on the country’s largest airport.
- The exercises are changing in response to lessons learned from the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
- In the event of an invasion of Taiwan, Chinese forces would seize airports in order to use them to further the invasion.
Taiwan’s annual military exercises kicked off this week, and this year they included a drill ripped from recent headlines: a simulated air assault on the sprawling Taoyuan International Airport, just outside the capital of Taipei.
The mock attack, involving Apache and Blackhawk helicopters, mirrored Russia’s failed assault on Ukraine’s Antonov airport in early 2022.
A Simulated Invasion
The simulated attack involved several American-made UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters, marked red to represent enemy forces, escorted by AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. Each Blackhawk was loaded with Taiwanese troops roleplaying Chinese air assault forces. The troops disembarked from the Blackhawks, formed a protective circle, and then pretended to rush the airport once the helicopters departed.
More From Popular Mechanics
CNN reports other Taiwanese troops simulated responding to the attack, while firefighters simulated fighting fires. The exercise, known as Han Kuang, also included simulated air defense of the island and operations at the Tri-Service Hengshan Military Command Center, based at Toad Mountain.
A Lesson From Half a World Away
On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russian air assault forces, riding in transport helicopters escorted by helicopter gunships, seized control of Antonov airport just 43 miles northwest of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Following a playbook used in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Russian forces planned to seize the airport and use it as a springboard to quickly seize Kyiv. Ukrainian resistance, Russian military planners believed, would collapse as the government was captured.
It didn’t work out that way. Although Russian air assault forces were able to capture the airfield, the runways were so badly damaged they were closed to fixed-wing aircraft. This prevented Russia from flying in military transports, like the Ilyushin Il-76, capable of carrying large numbers of troops and equipment. The air assault forces were able to link up with mechanized forces advancing over land from Belarus, but the inability to use the airfield, coupled with strong resistance from Ukrainian defenders, ultimately forced the Russians to withdraw.
Russia’s inability to capture Antonov airport and keep it militarily useful was a severe setback for its invasion. Within hours, Ukraine’s government would rally its people and the world, hardening resistance and leading to the stalemate on the ground today.
If China Attacks
China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province, has not ruled out taking back the island by force. China has spent the last two decades gradually building up an invasion force of marines paratroopers that would spearhead an attack on the island. The marines would land on Taiwan’s coastline and seize nearby ports that would allow follow-on ground forces to flow onto the island much more quickly than over beaches. Paratroopers and helicopter air assault forces would similarly secure key locations, including airfields.
In the event that China invades, an attack on Taoyuan International Airport is a certainty. Like Antonov Airport, it’s about 45 miles from the capital, promising the means to place large numbers of airborne troops literally on the government’s doorstep. A decapitation strike to quickly capture the government, while risky, would reap huge rewards that could shorten the war.
China also has the troops to execute the attack. Helicopters like the new Harbin Z-20 medium helicopter, a clone of the UH-60 Blackhawk, and the Xi’an Y-20 transport would cross the Taiwan Strait en masse, carrying Chinese paratroopers to their objectives. Aboard them would be paratroopers from the six airborne brigades of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Airborne Corps. Each brigade consists of about 4,000 troops each.
Keeping airfields and ports out of China’s hands would be the key to Taiwan successfully defending the country.
The inclusion of airfield seizures in Taiwan’s military exercises proves Taipei is paying close attention to the Ukraine War. Like the ragtag group of Ukrainians that turned back the Russian assault on Antonov airport, Taiwanese defenders at airports like Taoyuan could shatter an invasion timetable just minutes into the war. And if that happens, that could buy the island enough time for the cavalry—in the form of the U.S. 7th Fleet—to arrive.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he’s generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.