Tue, Aug 25, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Hard lessons for Taiwan’s military

By Liang Wen-chieh 梁文傑

The 921 Earthquake and the disastrous flooding caused by Typhoon Morakot prove the point: In the face of a major disaster, the military is a necessary — possibly the only — major organization in relief operations. However, the Taiwanese military has always treated disaster relief as a sudden and temporary matter. The Ministry of National Defense’s recently released Quadrennial Defense Review, for example, does not list disaster relief as one of its tasks.

This has two consequences. First, no training for troops at any level has ever included disaster relief or disaster prevention, nor have any joint disaster relief exercises been held by the military, police and fire departments. In addition, military procurements do not include disaster relief equipment such as large helicopters. When troops back at base have nothing to do, it seems their officers would rather tell them to sweep floors and do physical exercises than organize disaster relief drills.

Second, because the military does not consider disaster relief to be one of its responsibilities, they adopt a passive approach to disasters and will do nothing unless they are told. Both the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act (災害防救法) and the Regulations for Applying for Military Disaster Support (申請國軍支援災害處理辦法) stipulate that local governments can only apply for military support if they are unable to cope with disaster relief themselves, but that such applications must not extend beyond the scope of the military’s support capability. In addition, local officials must submit a written explanation of the situation and specify how many troops and pieces of equipment and machinery are required.

This means that local military commanders do not need to actively form an understanding of the disaster or actively draw up plans for support efficiency. This is why, when flooding in Pingtung County reached the second floor of local buildings, the military incomprehensibly sent unusable armored personnel carriers rather than inflatable boats, and then, in a strange turn of events, went on to blame the county government for not specifying what it wanted.

Why is the Ministry of National Defense so passive in the face of disaster? Because, according to traditional military thinking, disaster relief is unrelated to military exercises. Former chief of the general staff Tang Yao-ming (湯曜明) once said at an internal meeting that the military focuses on war exercises, and that “unless it is really necessary, disaster relief should be handled by local governments.”

After Typhoon Toraji hit Taiwan in 2001, Tang expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the military had been forced to interrupt a military exercise to participate in disaster relief.

In times of war, the military is involved not only in combat but must also maintain social order and handle casualties and panic among civilians. If the military lacks the experience and the capability to cooperate with police and fire administrations in disaster relief in times of peace, presumably it would simply let civilians fend for themselves in times of war.

Disaster relief training and military exercises have a high degree of overlap. Participation in peacetime disaster relief can prepare forces for an adverse wartime environment, including the destruction of equipment, communications failures, water and electricity shortages and severed lines of transportation. It could also test the military’s capability to move and restore communications quickly and to swiftly overcome an adverse topography through rebuilding infrastructure.

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