A plan to establish a local version of the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) at the Ministry of National Defense was criticized yesterday during a legislative review, as lawmakers from across party lines said the plan would overlap with existing defense ministry functions and increase the risk of data leaks.
The ministry plans to establish a “defense science department” next year, which would be expanded to a “Taiwanese DARPA” one year later if the department operates smoothly, Department of Resources Planning Director Chen Cheng-chi (陳正棋) said during a question-and-answer session at the legislature’s Foreign and National Defense Committee.
The “Taiwanese DARPA” would direct the research, development and application of military technology by recruiting and partnering with professionals from non-military sectors in a bid to commercialize defense technology as part of the government’s goal to produce domestic aircraft and combat vessels, Chen said.
The ministry plans to request an annual budget of NT$3 billion (US$94.7 million) for the new agency to develop fighter jet and submarine technologies.
Lawmakers from across party lines questioned whether the proposed agency would overlap with existing ones, such as the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology, the Armaments Bureau and other research bodies under the ministry.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Ma Wen-chun (馬文君) questioned whether any planned responsibilities of the “Taiwanese DARPA” could not be performed by the institute, a research facility formerly under the direction of the Armaments Bureau.
Institute president Chang Guan-chung (張冠群) said the “Taiwanese DARPA” would not have functions that the institute does not already have, but there would be personnel from non-military backgrounds to participate in the program.
“Is not the privatization of the institute meant to attract talent from the private sector? Why has the ministry asked for a NT$3 billion budget to establish the ‘Taiwanese DARPA’ to do what existing agencies are doing?” Ma said.
Minister of National Defense Feng Shih-kuan (馮世寬) said the plan is of “an experimental nature” and its feasibility needs to be evaluated before it can be officially launched, adding that the ministry would also evaluate the need to restructure existing agencies.
“What concerns us is whether the ‘Taiwanese DARPA’ is in fact a plan to merge different agencies. If that is the case, only the National Development Council is needed,” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Chiu Chih-wei (邱志偉) said.
DPP Legislator Liu Shih-fang (劉世芳) questioned if the involvement of non-military personnel in research projects would increase the risk of espionage, as Chinese spying activities in Taiwan have increased over the past five years.
The ministry has counterespionage measures in place and people suspected of espionage would be removed from their posts and put under surveillance, Feng said, adding that he would “kill himself” if he was abducted by Chinese agents.
Meanwhile, in response to the suicides of a sergeant at Penghu Defense Command on Thursday last week and a marine private on Sunday, Feng said their deaths were not caused by management issues.
The ministry has improved welfare and training procedures, so the suicides could not be blamed on officers’ leadership, Feng said, amid allegations that the deaths were caused by their supervisors’ overly strict management style.
Feng also reaffirmed the navy’s ability to escort Taiwanese fishing boats on long-distance trips, in response to KMT Central Policy Committee director Alex Tsai’s (蔡正元) remark that the ministry refused to dispatch vessels to rescue Taiwanese and other Asian hostages held by Somalian pirates.
“I do not know that the military ever refused [such a request], but it has the ability to escort fishing boats on a global scale,” he said.
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