Taiwan chief of staff Shen Yi-ming remembered as ‘outstanding’ commander who helped build up air power

Kinling Lo

The death of the Taiwanese chief of the general staff in a helicopter crash this week has robbed the island of a key figure in its plans to defend itself in the face of an increasingly aggressive mainland China.

Shen Yi-ming, 62, was one of eight people, including two major generals, who died when the UH-60M Black Hawk crashed in mountainous country south of Tapei on Thursday. Five other people on board survived.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking a second term in next week’s elections, described the former air force commander as an “outstanding and capable general” who was well loved by his peers.

Meanwhile her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, who appointed Shen to lead Taiwan’s air force, said the general was known as one of the military’s key talents.

Shen played a major role in Taiwan’s procurement of fighter jets in the face of threats from Beijing, which has not ruled out the use of force to reunify the island with the Chinese mainland.

While Beijing has repeatedly said it “firmly opposes” any arms sales to Taiwan, Shen helped the island reach a major deal with the US to supply it with new fighter jets.

In July last year, soon after taking over as chief of the general staff, the US approved the sale of 66 new F-16V fighters – the most advanced version of the plane that forms the backbone of Taiwan’s air force.

Deadly Taiwan helicopter crash ‘won’t affect military operations’

On Friday Tsai urged the Taiwanese armed forces to remain alert to any threats to national security. The president has increased the defence budget since coming to power in 2016 amid a series of PLA “encirclement” exercises and drills in what Beijing has described as a “warning to Taiwan independence separatist forces”.

Former Taiwan defence minister Andrew Yang Nien-dzu said Shen’s contribution to the upgrading of Taiwan’s air force was remarkable.

“He is a very experienced air force officer, and he has strong ability in deployment and planning. Policies have been carried out smoothly under his leadership, especially in the last few years. He put in a lot of effort to facilitate the procurement of the F-16V fighters from the US and was always in close communication with our foreign allies,” Yang said.

A rescue team searches the helicopter’s wreckage. Photo: Reuters

Shen had studied at the US Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, graduating in 2002.

Yang said that many of Shen’s classmates had gone on to take important roles in the US military and that he had stayed in close contact with them.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described Shen as “an exceptional leader to his people and a champion for Taiwan's defence and regional security”.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen says military must safeguard national security

Milley continued: “We are grateful for the service he rendered so selflessly and cherish our friendship and strong defence relations with Taiwan.”

Shen rose through the air force ranks after graduating from the Republic of China Air Force Academy in 1979 and attended the Air Command and Staff College in 1992.

In 1997 he was one of the first batch of officers sent to France to train on Mirage 2000 fighters and later served as an instructor for other pilots.

He also took part in a mission known as the Great Desert Programme that saw the Taiwanese air force providing secret assistance to North Yemeni forces.

The operation saw around 1,000 personnel deployed to the Arab republic ran between 1979 and 1990, but only came to light when documents were declassified last year.

Taiwan’s top military leader among eight dead in crash

Tsai said Shen had been posthumously promoted to a first-level general, the highest rank.

He will also be awarded the Order of Blue Sky and White Sun with Grand Cordon, Taiwan’s second-highest military honour, which is granted to those who have made an outstanding contribution to national defence.

The helicopter’s black box has been located, and if it is undamaged investigators should be able to analyse its data within a day.

The deputy chief of staff, Admiral Liu Chih-pin, has taken over Shen’s role in an acting capacity.

Yang said he was confident that Liu would be able to ensure that the armed forces continue operating smoothly and that Shen’s sudden death would not hit Taiwan’s defensive planning.

But Hong Kong-based military analyst Song Zhongping took the opposite view, saying: “[Shen] had a very powerful role in commanding and deploying Taiwan’s army, and he was responsible for the overall defence strategy.

“His death will have a huge impact on Taiwan’s army and also on political and intelligence collection work. I think the accident has brought down the morale of troops, and also raises questions of the capability of this kind of helicopter.”

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