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Taiwan's military apologizes over 'missile flyover' message mishap

01/09/2024 06:50 PM
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The national emergency alert which misleading warns of a missile flyover in English is sent via text to smartphones in Taiwan on Tuesday. CNA graphic Jan. 9, 2024
The national emergency alert which misleading warns of a missile flyover in English is sent via text to smartphones in Taiwan on Tuesday. CNA graphic Jan. 9, 2024

Taipei, Jan. 9 (CNA) Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) has apologized for sending a nationwide emergency alert on Tuesday that warned of a "missile flyover" in English when it was actually a Chinese satellite launching in airspace over Taiwan.

In a statement, the MND said it detected a carrier rocket launched by China from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province at around 3:03 p.m. Tuesday.

The rocket passed over southern Taiwan's airspace in outer space, the MND said, adding that its intelligence systems closely tracked the launch.

To warn the public of the launch, the MND said it sent a bilingual message via the Public Warning Cell Broadcast Service to smartphone users in Taiwan, warning them to watch out for their safety and report it to authorities if they found debris from unidentified objects.

However, while the message said "satellite" in Chinese, the English translation of the message was: "Missile flyover Taiwan airspace, be aware."

The MND explained that the mistake was made due to a failure to update the English wording used in the emergency text message, for which it issued an apology to the Taiwanese public.

The MND did not explain, however, why it issued the alert over the Public Warning Cell Broadcast (or Public Warning System, PWS) in the first place, given that it had never done so for a Chinese satellite launch before since the alert system was put in place in 2017, according to historical data on the PWS website.

It was at least the fourth time since November 2023 that the MND made public a Chinese rocket launch trajectory that passed through Taiwan's airspace or air defense identification zone, all in outer space, following such incidents on Nov. 9, Dec. 10 and Dec. 30.

None of the first three elicited a PWS message.

Image taken from China Central Television's Weibo account
Image taken from China Central Television's Weibo account

Tuesday's satellite launch came just four days before Taiwanese voters are scheduled to head to the polls to elect their new president in the Jan. 13 presidential and legislative elections.

Criticizing the government for sending a "misleading" alert, the chairman of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), Eric Chu (朱立倫), called on the MND or the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration to offer a thorough explanation.

"This is the first time I've heard that a satellite launch could prompt national warnings," he told the media in Taichung.

"Maybe everyone was startled, thinking it was a missile, only to realize it was a satellite," he continued, referring to the English version of the warning message.

It appeared that the MND was attempting to mislead the public by issuing such an alert, he alleged.

Premier Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), meanwhile, defended the MND's decision to send a nationwide text message alert over the rocket launch, saying that the government has responsibility to inform the public so that they could stay alert over the rocket flyover because its debris could fall onto Taiwan's soil.

Answering questions about the alert during a legislative session Tuesday, Chen said that a rocket launch could have chosen a different trajectory and he asked why the Chinese side chose to fly the satellite over southern Taiwan airspace.

"That is the question China should answer," he said, in response to accusations from a KMT lawmaker that the government had issued the alert to intimidate the Taiwanese public and interfere in the upcoming election.

As is the case for most alerts from the PWS system, the message sent was based on a pre-prepared template.

The word missile is not updated in the template used by the Public Warning Cell Broadcast Service to alert the general public. Graphic captured from Public Warning Cell Broadcast Service
The word missile is not updated in the template used by the Public Warning Cell Broadcast Service to alert the general public. Graphic captured from Public Warning Cell Broadcast Service

A search of the PWS system found no templates for satellite launches so the message was likely based on a template from the "Missile air raid alert" category.

The word for "missile" in Chinese, however, was changed to "satellites" and other details were filled in, but warnings of possible debris were kept.

The English part of the template that read "[Air raid Alert] Missile flyover Taiwan airspace, be aware" was not changed.

The PWS system is mainly used to alert the public to things like earthquakes, typhoons or air raid drills.

According to China's national Xinhua news agency, the rocket was launched at 3:03 p.m. by a Long March-2C carrier rocket to take a new astronomical satellite into space.

The satellite, known as the Einstein Probe (EP) that uses a new X-ray detection technology inspired by the lobster eye, is meant to observe transient phenomena in the universe, the Xinhua report said.

The Chinese Yaogan satellites, as they are called, are a series of government-operated optical remote sensing satellites, which are likely used also for military reconnaissance, according to defense experts.

(By Joseph Yeh, Chung Yu-chen, and Lin Ching-yin)

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Further Reading

Jan. 9: Chinese launches satellite, triggers emergency alert in Taiwan

Dec. 10: Chinese rocket passes over Taiwan: Defense ministry

Dec. 5: Two new Chinese satellites no danger to Taiwan: Defense ministry

Nov. 9: Chinese rocket flew above atmosphere over Taiwan: Defense Ministry

Oct. 5: China space rocket 'near' Taiwan ADIZ no cause for alarm: MND

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