US Marine F-18s Land at Taiwan Air Base, Beijing Protests
F-18s in formation.
Image Credit: Flickr/ Paul Nelhams

US Marine F-18s Land at Taiwan Air Base, Beijing Protests

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Two U.S. Marine F/A-18C Hornet aircraft did a precautionary landing at an air force base in southern Taiwan on April 1 after one of the aircraft reportedly flashed a persistent engine oil pressure light warning. Unusual in itself, the incident, which has been widely covered in Taiwanese media, could be more significant than initially thought.

The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed on April 2 that the two aircraft were from the U.S. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 (VMFA-323). The squadron is under the Marine Aircraft Group 11 (MAG-11). Mark Zimmer, the spokesman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the United States’ de facto embassy in the absence of official diplomatic ties, said the two aircraft took off from an airbase in Japan on Wednesday. Major Paul L. Greenberg, a spokesman for the U.S. Marine Corps,added that the F-18s were on a routine mission in support of a training exercise. According to the U.S. Marine Corps’ 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Public Affairs Office, the pair of F-18s was en route to Singapore to participate in the COMMANDO SLING air-to-air joint exercises with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

At this writing, Pacific Command (PACOM) had yet to respond to a query from The Diplomat seeking confirmation about the timing of this year’s COMMANDO SLING. Last year’s exercise (COMMANDO SLING 14-2) was held in mid-March. Though no exercise name is given, a notice on the Singaporean Ministry of Defense website indicates that the Republic of Singapore Air Force will be conducting live firing exercises around Pulau Sudong, Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang from March 30 through April 3. It is not unusual for the specifics about a military exercise to by made public only after its completion.

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Originally based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California, VMFA-323 currently operates out of MCAS Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the only Marines Corps installation on mainland Japan. About 200 Marines and 10 F/A-18 Hornet aircraft deployed to Iwakuni on February 12 as part of a Unit Deployment Program.

Initial reports had mistakenly stated that the F-18s had taken off from Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the two aircraft landed at Tainan Air Force Base at 1:19 pm on April 1, with assistance from the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) 443rd Tactical Fighter Wing. Per protocol, the two aircraft landed to maintain “section integrity.”

Tainan Air Force Base is home to three F-CK-1 “Ching Kuo” Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) fighter groups (1st, 3rd and 9th) and is in the frontlines of Taiwan’s air defense architecture against China.

The ROACF has provided a hangar to store the American aircraft, but as Taiwan does not have F-18s in its arsenal, its technicians do not have the expertise to perform the mechanical repair. American technicians arrived in Tainan on board a Hercules C-130 transport on the evening of April 2 to repair the aircraft.

The sensitive landing — Beijing is extremely wary of potential military cooperation between Taiwan and the U.S. — occurred just as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was conducting its first training mission in the West Pacific, more specifically in the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines. According to PLAAF spokesman Shen Jinke, “warplanes of the PLA Air Force flew to the West Pacific for training via the Bashi Channel on March 30 and returned on the same day after finishing the training and achieving the given goal.” An April 2 report in the People’s Daily said the PLAAF H-6K strategic bomber was involved in the exercise. The H-6K is armed with nuclear cruise missiles and is regarded as a potential threat to U.S. bases in Guam, among others.

The F-18s were reportedly expected to cross the Bashi Channel on their way to Singapore.

Interestingly, the emergency landing in Taiwan occurred on the 14th anniversary of the April 1 EP-3 incident — also known as the “Hainan Incident” — when a U.S. Navy EP-3 Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System aircraft collided mid-air with a J-8 PLAAF interceptor, forcing the Americans to land their aircraft on Hainan Island. It also occurred two days after China launched the new M503 commercial flight route, which has raised national security concerns in Taiwan due to the risk that the PLAAF could exploit it to launch a surprise attack against the island. The new route comes very close to the median line in the Taiwan Strait. In August 2014, two Y-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft penetrated the southwestern margin of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), forcing Taiwan to scramble interceptors.

In another bit of trivia (with thanks to Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute for alerting me to this): In the Tom Clancy novel Threat Vector, F/A-18 aircraft from VMFA-323 based at Iwakuni come to Taiwan’s rescue and turn the tide of war against China.

Rick Fisher, a military analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center and an expert on the PLA, said that while the precautionary landing may have indeed resulted from a malfunction, the decision to land in Taiwan rather than on Shimoji island, 120 miles east of Taiwan — a much less contentious location in Beijing’s eyes — sent a strong political signal.

Although there is no confirmation that the F-18s were on a reconnaissance mission to gather intelligence about the ongoing PLA exercises in the Bashi Channel or were heading directly for Singapore, the precautionary landing should serve as a reminder to Beijing that in the event of armed conflict between China and Taiwan or the Philippines, U.S. military aircraft could count on allies within the region — including Taiwan — to land or base its aircraft, an option that would not be available to the PLA. Intentional or not, the symbolically laden “incident” could also serve as a morale booster for Taiwan’s Air Force.

By some accounts, the landings may have been a calculated move by the U.S. to signal its commitment to the region amid increasing assertiveness by the PLA.

In response to the landing, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said this was a “serious incident,” adding that the U.S. must abide by the “one China” principle and the Three Communiqués.

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