Deadly Taiwan helicopter crash ‘won’t affect military operations or defence against Beijing’

Lawrence Chung

Taiwan’s military suffered a serious loss of top brass in one of its deadliest air crashes on Thursday, but observers said it would not affect operations or the island’s defence against Beijing.

Chief of General Staff Shen Yi-ming, 62, was among eight senior military personnel, including two major generals, killed in the Black Hawk helicopter crash in a mountainous region outside Taipei.

The helicopter was heading from Taipei to a military base in the northeastern city of Yilan for a New Year event for troops stationed there.

But 13 minutes after it took off at 7.54am from Songshan Airport in Taipei, contact was lost and the helicopter went down in the mountainous area of Wulai in New Taipei City, the defence ministry said.

Five other military personnel on board – a major general, two lieutenant generals, a colonel and a military news agency reporter – survived the accident. It was the second deadliest air crash in Taiwan since a military transport plane crashed in the central county of Yunlin in 1990, killing all 18 officers on board, including two major generals.

Shen, a veteran pilot, had taken over as chief of the general staff in July, and was responsible for overseeing the island’s defence to counter mainland China.

Beijing has stepped up its military intimidation of the self-ruled island in recent years. It considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be brought under mainland control, by force if necessary. It has suspended official exchanges with the island, staged war games nearby and poached seven of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle.

After the crash, Tsai – as commander-in-chief of the Taiwanese forces – instructed Defence Minister Yen Te-fa to secure the island’s defences and ensure operations continued to protect the island.

“It is necessary for Defence Minister Yen to uphold and stabilise military morale, while ensuring that military operations and national security remain sound,” she said.

President Tsai Ing-wen said the defence minister needed to “uphold and stabilise military morale”. Photo: EPA-EFE

A Taiwanese military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the loss of senior personnel in the crash was not likely to have an impact on military operations or systems.

“There will be a period of mourning for those who are close to General Shen [and the others killed] but overall, this tragedy is unlikely to affect morale to the point where it would have a negative impact on our defence against the communist forces,” the source said.

China’s aircraft carrier the Shandong sails through Taiwan Strait after entering service

Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taipei, agreed that the accident would not affect Taiwan’s military operations or strategies.

“Taiwan carried out a military reform in 2000 to institutionalise all channels of command,” he said, adding that any absences in the chain of command while roles were being filled would not create operational problems.

Before 2000, the chief of the general staff was directly under the president or the commander-in-chief. After the reform, that position is now under the defence minister, who reports to the president.

Chief of General Staff Shen Yi-ming, 62, was said to be well respected by both his peers and subordinates. Photo: AP

Huang said he had known Shen for a decade, and he was well respected by both his peers and his subordinates. “He was very calm and very stable and unlike other army guys he was always smiling,” Huang said. “So he had a particular style that also made him a popular leader across the military.”

He said it would likely take months before the cause of the crash was known, noting that the two pilots, both of whom were killed, appeared to have been highly experienced.

“Of course, reasonable people would think in the direction of mechanical failure or a maintenance problem, but without the evidence we can’t say,” Huang said.

American Institute in Taiwan director Brent Christensen said the de facto US embassy was “ready to assist our Taiwan counterparts in the aftermath of this tragedy”.

“I was privileged to work closely with General Shen in our joint efforts to strengthen the US-Taiwan security relationship,” Christensen said. “With his keen insight and good humour, he was a valued leader, colleague and friend. He will be sorely missed.”

Former deputy defence minister Andrew Yang said he did not expect the deaths of the senior military officials to affect the island’s upcoming presidential and legislative polls on January 11.

“I don’t think the crash will have a strong impact over the elections but certainly it will affect the armed forces because so many senior officers passed away as a result of this crash,” he said, according to Associated Press.

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