In the face of the increasingly assertive Chinese threat, the Ministry of National Defense held its 36th annual Han Kuang exercises from July 13 to 17. This year’s iteration highlighted some noteworthy distinctions from previous exercises. Taken together, these innovations appear to support one of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) goals stated in her second inaugural speech: developing asymmetric warfare capabilities to counter China’s increasingly menacing military and paramilitary forces.
The most notable innovations are, first, the newly formed Combined Arms Battalion; second, the joint “anti-decapitation forces” of the Military Police Special Services Company, the Coast Guard Administration Special Task Force and the National Police Agency Special Operations Group; third, a battery-sized, mobilized, reserve artillery unit operating howitzers in live-fire training alongside active-duty troops; and fourth, the first submarine-launched torpedo live-fire exercise in 13 years.
These capabilities reflect incremental, meaningful improvements in Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities and a more subtle change in the nation’s mindset to counter China’s military threat.
The Combined Arms Battalion is a significant achievement. It is similar to the US Marine Air-Ground Task Force and is a combined arms force large enough to fight independently. The battalion is composed of infantry and armored companies, as well as naval gunfire and a close air support liaison section — similar to the US Marines’ Air, Naval Gunfire Liaison Company — as well as an army aviation liaison section.
The battalion utilizes uncrewed aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and surveillance, Stinger air defense missiles and sniper teams. It is a highly mobile combat unit, utilizing the indigenous eight-wheeled armored vehicle developed by the ministry’s Armaments Bureau.
With its unified command and control element, and its ground forces combined with the maritime and air liaison team assigned to fire support operations, this battalion is a potentially powerful force.
During the exercise, the ministry was able to display the battalion’s capabilities, but presumably had operationally tested and evaluated its command, control, communications, and firepower prior to this demonstration.
This evaluation should have addressed that this type of independent battalion requires regional service support to provide flexible and swift logistics during combat and combat maneuvering.
For example, if a combined, Taipei-based arms battalion was ordered to Taichung, the regional service support command in the Taichung theater would be responsible for supporting that battalion.
Testing and evaluation leading up to last month’s exercise likely provided important lessons on this combat service support function, but the exercise was likely too short to sufficiently demonstrate that capability.
Another issue is whether these battalions would be “standing” organizations, with a team that works, trains, and — ideally — lives together. Unit manning and realistic training must be paramount concerns if the combined arms battalion concept is to be successful.
The exercise was the first time army special operations forces were combined with elements of the coast guard and the National Police Agency for a joint “anti-decapitation operation.”
A “decapitation strike” refers to eliminating the highest command of an enemy army and its political system by targeting a country’s top leadership in the opening hours of a war, thereby paralyzing the national response to the attack. Such an attack could be carried out against Taiwan by Chinese special operations forces, sleeper intelligence agents, or airborne troops.
The mission of the new joint force is to counter a strike against the nation’s senior leadership, the Presidential Office and the presidential residence in Taipei’s Boai Special District (博愛特區).
This joint capability should warrant closer attention for several reasons. First, it should signal to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the Chinese Communist Party leadership that there will be no easy victories if they are foolish enough to try to capture Taiwan through a quick decapitation strike.
Second, the joint capability aligns with Tsai’s mandate of developing asymmetric warfare capabilities to counter China’s relatively more powerful military capabilities. In the past few years, the US military has engaged with Taiwan in the development of this asymmetrical military capability.
To this end, senior US officials have recommended that Taiwan establish a joint special operations command and integrate branch special forces into a unified command system.
However, when it comes to jointness, there is a long history of interservice rivalry in Taiwan, with each service maintaining a stand-alone posture. Such rivalries and an attitude of “our service can do it all” are a recipe for potential strategic defeat.
As a result, the armed forces are belatedly learning to swiftly adapt to a joint mindset, integrate, and study special operations requirements and techniques to ensure interoperability and equipment standardization.
The exercise helped the ministry and the National Security Council, among others, assess how well the armed forces’ ability to plan and conduct special operations exercises and training — and to develop truly joint special operations integration — is progressing.
The mobilization of artillery reservists to fire alongside active duty forces is reportedly another “first.” This symbolically important display of reservists standing side by side with active duty troops, firing in defense of the nation, underpins the military reform that Tsai called for as recently as on July 15.
These mobilized reserves come from all walks of life, and most have been out of the military, a mostly conscription-based service, for many years. They are no longer familiar with military life and frankly, have often lost taste of it. That is a major challenge Taiwan must overcome.
Worse, for unsatisfactory and mostly political reasons, the reservists’ training module is not threat-oriented, and is not intense enough to adequately prepare the reservists physically, psychologically and professionally to defend the nation.
Nevertheless, from the tightly supervised training officers’ perspectives, as long as there are no accidents, violations of law, or serious disciplinary issues, the reservist training mission is considered “successful.”
Perhaps Taiwan needs to learn from Singapore. The strict standards set by the Singapore Armed Forces are admirable and could be emulated. Every Singaporean reservist maintains the same high standards as active duty members: regulated haircuts, well-maintained personally owned equipment, and a desire to study and work hard. Such high standards are rarely practiced in Taiwan’s reserves. These issues might seem small, but if Taiwan’s military does not — or is not allowed to — enforce such small disciplinary rules, its reservists will fail when confronted with the life-and-death challenges presented by a Chinese attack.
The failed reserve system is a problem that must be taken up at the presidential and Legislative Yuan levels, as the ministry cannot fix it on its own. That is why it is significant that Tsai highlighted this integrated reserve-active duty live-fire drill.
During the exercise, a submarine tested live-firing a torpedo. What might seem like a small training success again represents a larger change of mindset. While some analysts argue that China’s military is among the most powerful in the world, Taiwan can potentially counter its attack through asymmetric warfare, in which submarines might play a major role.
At the groundbreaking ceremony for the submarine manufacturing plant in Kaohsiung last year, Tsai said: “These submarines will not only enhance the navy’s asymmetric combat effectiveness, but can also be deployed to the southwestern and northeastern waters of our island, allowing us to more effectively deter the enemy around Taiwan.”
In light of the difficult historic context, the launching of a German-built surface and underwater target heavyweight torpedo by the aging Sea Tiger 794 was momentous. The launch was the first of its kind in 13 years, and the torpedo hit its target.
This clearly demonstrates the navy’s determination to defend the country under austere conditions. Furthermore, this launch does not appear to be a “one-off.” Last month, the US Department of State approved the sale of 18 MK 48 Mod6 advanced technology heavyweight torpedoes and related equipment to Taiwan at an estimated cost of US$180 million. It is a start, but more is needed.
Taiwan is also advancing an indigenous submarine program to build eight attack submarines. According to ministry sources, as there would be a total of 10 submarines equipped with Mk 48 torpedoes and UGM-84L sub-launched Harpoon Block II missiles, China must think twice about invading Taiwan.
Overall, it is clear that the armed forces have made significant progress in the past few years to adapt their asymmetric defense posture to the growing military and security threats China poses.
Brian Sung is a security analyst, a former visiting senior military fellow at the Atlantic Council and a retired Republic of China Marine Corps officer who taught at the National Defense University from 2017 to last year. This article was first published by Global Taiwan Institute.
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