Preparing Taiwan’s Military to Fight the Right War

Taiwan should use its resources carefully and develop the right strategies, tactics, training, and organizations to prepare for a war of attrition alone against a much stronger invader
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan

The Taiwanese military is in need of serious reform and restructuring. There hasn’t been much good news surrounding its military lately. The attempted transition to an all-volunteer force has run into serious difficulties. From the military’s handling of a hazing death incident to the latest AH-64 Apache tour group debacle, Taiwan’s military seems to be a source of endless scandals for the media. To reform and restructure Taiwan’s military seems like a hopeless cause for many people in Taiwan. However, given Taiwan’s geo-political status, it must be done. There are many tough challenges for sure. The good news is that it is far from impossible. To accomplish this change, it requires not only support from Taiwan’s political and military leaders, but also the general public.

The military’s primary mission is to defend Taiwan against an invasion by China. It is no secret that China’s military budget is growing at a rate impossible for Taiwan to match. Many in Taiwan are convinced that in case of war, military intervention from abroad, rather than Taiwan’s military, is the only effective defense. The same people assume that international pressure and the military might of the U.S., perhaps even assistance from Japan, is Taiwan’s best insurance.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is the U.S. is Taiwan’s only defense partner, and it is not capable of providing unconditional support. Although other democratic industrialized nations pay lip service to supporting democracy, the truth is that nobody wants to offend China. With China a permanent member of the United Nation Security Council, it is highly unlikely that the UN would lift a finger in a crisis over Taiwan. The UN’s dismal military record in recent conflicts speaks for itself, some examples being Bosnia and Somalia. Although a friendly nation bound by security “guarantees” included in documents such as the Taiwan Relations Act, there are many reasons why the U.S. may not come to Taiwan’s aid if war should break out. The U.S. military is shrinking while the world is becoming a more dangerous place. The average American often does not know Taiwan from Thailand. With an ongoing war against international terrorists, the American people are not eager to confront China directly over a small island nation. Under these circumstances, Taiwan must be ready to stand alone in case of war.

To many people in Taiwan, the idea of resisting a Chinese invasion seems like suicide. They reason that Taiwan is simply too weak to stand up to the Chinese military. Furthermore, trying to build up military power might further provoke China into aggressive military action. However, this position is ultimately false. History is full of examples of smaller and weaker nations resisting larger and stronger invaders. History also shows that a position of appeasement does not work. German strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously said that war is an extension of diplomacy. Nobody ever started a war if he/she was not confident of winning. In fact, usually they start wars because they think they have great advantages and they can win easily. By not building a strong military, Taiwan will in fact invite an invasion.

On the other hand, an effective defensive force in a high state of readiness will not provoke, but will actually deter, aggression. With China’s military power growing at a rate impossible to match by Taiwan, it is extremely important for Taiwan to develop a concise and effective national defense strategy, as well as train and equip its forces to carry out that strategy. Although China is strong, it has many weaknesses. Politically it is not capable of sustaining a long war. If a war with Taiwan does not end within weeks, China could become politically unstable. Ethnic minorities resentful of Han dominated Communist rule might decide that it would be the right time to establish an independent East Turkmenistan and Tibet. With a war-ravaged economy and mounting casualties, the Chinese Communist Party might even have a problem counting on the loyalty of the majority Han people.

Like a major corporation, a major change requires a vision. Although on paper Taiwan’s military would be easily defeated, by having a well thought out strategy for a prolonged war of attrition, Taiwan in fact enjoys a great chance of winning — even when fighting alone. In order to fight a war of attrition, the war has to be fought in phases. Taiwan’s air force and navy enjoy the best equipment that the current international geo-political situation allows. They serve as the first line of defense. However, once this line is breached, Taiwan’s Army in its current state and organization is not prepared to fight a war of attrition. It is organized conventionally. The active force is too small, yet too expensive to maintain in peacetime. The reserve force, in its current state, will be ineffective in time of war. During the 1995 missile crisis, the Taiwanese government did not order a mobilization, as the U.S. did during the Cuban missile crisis. Had the 1995 crisis turned into a real war, the reservists would have had to run through the chaos of battle to their mobilization sites, draw the weapons they hadn’t yet zeroed in with (adjust the sights according to the point of aim of individual shooters), obtain uniforms and equipment, and be organized into actual units. If, by some miracle, they had actually succeeded in doing all this, the individual reservists would have been expected to become an integrated fighting unit without training collectively as a team.

This is why Taiwan’s current system would fail in a time of war. Every nation has limited resources. Given Taiwan’s limitations, a smaller and more professional active army with a reserve force capable of rapid mobilization is the answer. Israel and Switzerland both possess this kind of army. In fact, the Swiss Army only has 2,000 professional officers and non-commissioned officers. Like Taiwan, every male Swiss citizen is expected to perform military service. However, unlike Taiwan, after the Swiss citizen-soldier completed his/her conscript service, he belongs in an active reserve unit. He maintains his uniforms, equipment, rifle, and basic load of ammunition at home, so he can be mobilized quickly. He knows his fellow citizen-soldiers from his unit well, since they meet often during their regularly scheduled training. As he ages, his unit trains less often and the unit’s readiness level decreases. But by using conscripts and a staggered training schedule for reservists, Switzerland is able to maintain several combat ready divisions with only 2,000 professional soldiers. Although Taiwan’s needs are different, countries like Switzerland show there are better ways to fight a war of attrition. Taiwan should have an army suitable for a defensive war of attrition, not a smaller version of the U.S. Army.

To develop the right force structure, Taiwan needs help. Luckily, with so many nations participating in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no shortage of international consultants with experience fighting an enemy that has engaged in wars of attrition against the coalitions led by the U.S. The American-led coalitions had deployed over a million troops on rotations to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots in the Middle East and Africa in the past 12 years. During the height of the Iraq War, the U.S. spent an average of US$1 billion a week on military operations alone, not to mention counting the cost of civil reconstruction. If Taiwan’s military wants to learn how to fight a war of attrition, it can learn from these veterans who fought many poorly equipped but determined enemies. It is true that for decades Taiwan sent its officers to the U.S. for training. However, in the U.S., military training schools are very different from how real units operate. In the U.S. Army, training centers such as the Army’s National Training Center (NTC) is where real combat units prepare for war. Taiwan’s military does not observe exercises in these training centers. In fact, Taiwan’s military leaders generally do a poor job keeping up with the world’s latest trends in their profession. The lessons learned by the U.S. in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have not been incorporated into Taiwan’s military strategy or tactics. Taiwan’s military exercises continue to show a peacetime military that has no experience in actual combat, and engaged in exercises that are more show than substance. The annual Han Kuang exercises resemble Europe’s Kaisermanöver from the turn of the last century, rather than a modern combined arms exercise. To conduct assessments and formulate an unbiased plan for reform, Taiwan needs to hire not only foreign consultants with combat experience, but also competent former senior staff officers to help develop a suitable national defense strategy and build a force capable of carrying out that vision.

Taiwan’s military reform is a matter of national survival, and must be above all partisan politics. Staying in its current course, it is heading for a disaster in case a war breaks out. Imagine 20 years from now, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) defeats Taiwan’s air and sea defenses, and lands in Taiwan. The AH-64 Apaches cause some serious damage, but are too few to stop the invasion. The newly acquired M1A2 tanks cannot reach their objectives, because the 72-ton tanks are unable to cross several bridges on the route. The drivers manage to maneuver around the obstacles and find alternate routes, despite the heavily damaged and narrow roads. However, the unit’s eight-wheeled HEMTT refueling vehicles and the ammunition trucks lack the cross-country capabilities to travel the same heavily damaged narrow roads, and they are unable to accompany the tanks. Within hours, the tanks exhaust their 500-gallon fuel tanks and basic loads of ammunition. They are either destroyed by enemy fire, or by their own crews to prevent them from being captured.

Is this a possible scenario? Absolutely. Yet there is another scenario. After defeating Taiwan’s navy and air force, a PLA force lands in Taiwan. At first the resistance looks moderate, so the PLA commander decides to move inland toward his objective. Suddenly, the vehicle in front of him blows up. A land mine is the culprit. Unknown to the PLA commander, the local Taiwanese population has been observing his unit’s movements and they gave the local Taiwanese reserve unit commander updates through their cell phones. A second explosion takes out the last vehicle of the PLA convoy. As the PLA commander tries to react to the situation, he sees enemies in scooters firing portable anti-tank weapons at his convoy. Trapped in the narrow street with the lead and tail vehicles in flames, the PLA vehicles become sitting ducks. Several more vehicles explode. As the PLA soldiers dismount to counter attack, the Taiwanese soldiers take off in their scooters, leaving the Chinese invaders hurt, angry, and frustrated.

These are fictional, yet possible scenarios. The moral of this fictional account is not that Taiwan should forgo expensive advanced American weapons and adopt the weaponry of Somali warlords. Rather, Taiwan should use its resources carefully, and develop the right strategies, tactics, training, and organizations to prepare for a war of attrition alone against a much stronger invader. Taiwan’s military can be much more effective if it has the right strategy, and equips and trains its troops accordingly.

Nobody wants to fight a war. A war in a densely populated island like Taiwan would be costly in so many ways. However, weakness will not appease a bully. A bully takes what he can by force, because he can with very little cost to himself. A famous American quote says, “Freedom is not free.” A nation pays for its freedom through the sweat of its soldiers during peacetime training, in hope that payments in sweat will prevent or reduce the price paid in blood in time of war. Benjamin Franklin once said “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The Taiwanese people’s liberty was won after many long struggles. To maintain their liberty and security, the people of Taiwan must be willing to defend them, and continue to fight for them if necessary. An effective defensive capability is Taiwan’s best insurance for peace.


Gun Runner 6 is a recently retired officer of the United States Army, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was an adviser to the Afghan National Army, who trained Afghan Army leaders in topics such as leadership, military decision-making processes, operational planning, human resources, and logistics management. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. military.

One Response to “Preparing Taiwan’s Military to Fight the Right War”

September 15, 2015 at 12:43 pm, Mike Fagan said:

Very good article, and this is the most important bit:

“Under these circumstances, Taiwan must be ready to stand alone in case of war.”

This is important for several additional reasons that go unstated in the article.

It would be especially unwise to place any trust in U.S. leadership given (a) their own recent political difficulties in long, drawn-out wars of attrition, (b) the decline in the American valuation of freedom and limited government, and (c) the hovering presence of Der Rodham and other questionable characters buzzing around the prospective presidential elections.

American help should be welcomed, were it provided, but it should should never ever be simply assumed, or taken for granted. The reverse assumption is so much more sensible.


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.