Taiwan’s Intangible, Potentially Disastrous Defense Problems

By Holmes Liao

iStock illustration

Upgrading Taiwan’s defense has become a pressing priority for the United States. Washington reportedly plans to quadruple the number of troops deployed to Taiwan from roughly 30 to between 100 and 200 personnel to train its armed forces.

Congress passed the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act in December, which budgets $10 billion in financing and grants over five years for Taiwan’s weapon procurement beyond the traditional direct military sales.

Moreover, the Chairman of the House China Select Committee, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., recently vowed to “arm Taiwan to the teeth” to deter Chinese invasion. Former U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has pushed to speed up weapons delivery to Taiwan. There is an apparent urgency in Washington to help Taiwan defend itself.

Despite these commitments, Taiwan remains recalcitrant to conduct a much-needed military reform to transform into a modern fighting force. Three intangible yet ubiquitous problems must be tackled: unprofessionalism, defeatism and Chinese nationalism for outside assistance to be effective.

In the book “The Soldier and the State,” Samuel P. Huntington’s definition of military professionalism includes three characteristics — expertise, responsibility and corporateness. The responsibility is associated with the “peculiar skill” as the “management of violence but not the act of violence itself.”

If we use expertise and skills to measure Taiwan’s military professionalism, the score will be low. For example, though the Ministry of National Defense requires system analysis and operational requirements before weapon procurement, the process is a perfunctory checkmark after making the decision. Subsequently, its general staff never quite understands the substance of the practice and masters its techniques.

The ministry desperately needs to update its policies and training curriculum. The last few defense ministers under President Tsai Ing-wen have advocated the return of outdated bayonet charge training — this technique dates to 200 years ago in France and can only have a negligible effect, if at all, in the age of standoff precision munitions. Meanwhile, many of Taiwan’s newly acquired weapons are locked up in armories and warehouses, leaving soldiers with few tools for training.

Extending the length of conscription from four months to one year barely seems adequate, but the ministry incomprehensibly plans to require soldiers to practice goose steps. The goose step originated in Prussia in the 18th century and was later adopted by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Though impressive in military parades, the practice cannot improve combat effectiveness. Russia, China, North Korea and Cuba are notable countries where this practice has persisted.

Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang Exercise, due to begin in May this year, typically starts with computer wargaming, complete with state-of-the-art hardware and software. One of the purposes of warfare simulation at the tactical, operational or strategic levels is to identify gaps in war planning. Nevertheless, the ministry rarely attempts to implement and improve from lessons learned, insights gained and corrections recommended from simulation results.

The second phase of the exercise comprises troops in the air force, navy and army following pre-scripted, repetitively rehearsed scenarios to imitate red-blue opposing forces, making it useless to train commanders to adapt, improvise and make decisions under stress to vanquish the enemy in the fog of war. The field wargaming scenarios have been very unrealistic, to say the least.

The above are just a few examples to show not only the unprofessionalism of Taiwan’s military leadership, but also its culture of emphasizing formalism over substance. Consequently, most conscripted soldiers are forced to spend most of their time cutting grass, painting buildings and answering several roll calls every day.

In an environment where everyone does pointless routines, soldiers eventually become nonchalant, develop predisposed defeatism and just “swim with the tide.” Those who exercise independent thinking and deviate from the norm to excel are suppressed. A case in point is that none of Taiwan’s dozens of West Point graduates in the last few decades have been promoted to flag officer. Like Gresham's Law in economics, bad money drives out good in the armed forces.

After retirement, a former chief of general staff urged the ministry to boost combat readiness, implement deep military reform, build a civil defense force and prioritize asymmetric warfare. None of these problems are new, and he was not alone in calling for rectification.
Some retired top brass expressed privately to the author that their attempt to reform would be futile, given the overwhelming resistance. The fact that top military leadership understands the challenges but does not act while in power manifests institutional unprofessionalism and defeatism that prevents the military from building an effective fighting force.

Having been isolated diplomatically from the rest of the world since the 1970s, Taiwan has had virtually no formal exchange with other militaries. Its officer corps has not learned modern methodologies, techniques and mindsets commonly practiced and seen in the U.S. and other major militaries. Consequently, the military lacks modern warfighting tactics and skills, and many of its doctrines and training are outdated, unrealistic or both.

Though Taiwan’s general staff imitates the organization of the Directorates of the U.S. Joint Staff, from J1 to J6, the similarity ends there. The culture and practices largely retain the lineage from the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou, China, in the 1920s.

Without a scrupulous transformation from the top, Taiwan’s military will continue to prepare to fight the last war they lost to the Chinese communists more than 70 years ago.

As a start, the Pentagon could dispatch a cadre of experienced mid-grade officers to be stationed in Taiwan to conduct on-the-job training for the general staff to master the modern ways of force planning (J1), intelligence (J2), operations (J3), logistics (J4), strategy (J5), C4 and cyber warfare (J6) and joint warfighting (J7). Rigorous training will undoubtedly foster professionalism, boost morale and weed out defeatism among the soldiers.

Taiwan’s troops have not conducted joint exercises or training with other countries in decades. The Pentagon’s training for Taiwanese soldiers is a much-needed move. But the scale and intensity should be boosted to the level where both militaries can conduct large-scale, bilateral, multi-domain military exercises involving air, sea, land, electronic and cyber warfare to institute interoperability.

In time, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, the Australian Defence Force and the Canadian Armed Forces could join the multi-national exercises.

There are political obstacles to overcome, but if U.S. allies and friends ignore the obvious and continue to leave Taiwan alone to fend off China’s invasion, the expectation would be a tall order, if not outright impossible.

Meanwhile, despite democratizing for more than a quarter century, Taiwan’s equivalent of the political commissar system, also with its lineage from Whampoa, is still infusing Chinese nationalism and ideology in the military. Consequently, the percentage of officer corps identifying as Taiwanese rather than Chinese is much lower than the public. The identity crisis, compounded by the Chinese Communist Party’s united front work and influence operations, leads many retired and active officers to claim they do not know what they are fighting for.
Subsequently, a glaring issue concerning Taiwan’s national security is its intelligence capability, or the lack of it. As the communists infiltrated Chiang Kai-shek’s army to bring about the latter’s rapid downfall in China in 1949, there is no reason why the CCP will not do it again in the 21st century.

In fact, a Taiwan National Security Bureau’s estimate said China has sent and recruited more than 5,000 spies on the island, presumably both in the civilian government and the military.

Due to the indoctrination of Chinese nationalism, the military has no shortage of China sympathizers. In intelligence, ideology is one of the most crucial motives for people to become traitors. China is undoubtedly aware of that and has taken advantage of it. Not coincidentally, Xi Jinping’s call to rejuvenate China resonates with Chinese nationalists in the military, who at times loathe U.S. intervention.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s counterintelligence capabilities have diminished to ineffectual levels. A retired general of Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Bureau said in 2020 that the agency has not dispatched operatives to or recruited spies in China for at least a decade to avoid being captured. There could be many reasons for such inaction, one of which is that operatives in the bureau ostensibly refuse to risk their lives for the current ruling party — the Democratic Progressive Party — as it aims to demote Chinese nationalism.

Another reason is that China has effectively recruited turncoats in Taiwan’s intelligence community, and they, in turn, exposed Taiwan’s spies in China. As offensive intelligence operations are the best counterintelligence tactics, Taiwan’s lack of counterintelligence initiative corroborates the conjecture.

Reconstituting Taiwan’s intelligence and counterintelligence apparatus is more urgent than ever. The United States has installed listening antennae on Taiwan’s west coast to gather signal intelligence, electronic intelligence and communications intelligence. In recent years, U.S. surveillance in Asia has uncovered a few Chinese moles in Taiwan’s security apparatus. Washington could further help Taiwan rebuild its human intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities.

Taiwan must reclaim the intelligence battleground with U.S. assistance before it is too late.

Unprofessionalism, defeatism and Chinese nationalism are but a few deep-rooted problems in Taiwan’s armed forces. Acutely aware of the difficulties, the ruling party — despite having been in power cumulatively for almost 16 years — dares not reform the military, presumably due to formidable, intertwined challenges and the associated political risks.

Procrastination is not a solution, however. Political elites must call for U.S. assistance to embark on the fundamental reform to cultivate a professional officer corps and non-commissioned officers. With preliminary success, more young people with intellectual prowess and loyal to Taiwan will join the military to become well-versed in military science and technologies and befit to build a professional Taiwanese fighting force.

Time may not be on Taiwan’s side for the complicated, long-term endeavor. The challenges are formidable, and the solution will be tantamount to shock therapy for the fundamental transformation. But moral courage from its political leadership to institute the reform will instill hope in the Taiwan Strait and, in time, alleviate the burden on the United States for sending its brave men and women into harm’s way. 

Holmes Liao previously served as a distinguished adjunct lecturer at Taiwan’s War College. He has worked in the U.S. aerospace and defense industries for more than 30 years.

Topics: Global Defense Market

Comments (1)

Re: Taiwan’s Intangible, Potentially Disastrous Defense Problems

I am truly scare after reading this article. I thought that Taiwan military is a willing and capable corp of soldiers. It's even more concerning when Congress has passed a bill with a $10 billion of assistance to Taiwan.

Cecile Pham at 11:59 AM
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