In dire need of a security upgrade

The scandal started with the appearance on Facebook of pictures showing entertainer Janet Lee posing in front and in the cockpit of an Apache helicopter at an Army base in Longtan, Taoyuan City.
The visit was not an effort sponsored by the Ministry of National Defense in order to brush up its image with the public, but the initiative of one officer, Lieutenant Colonel Lao Nai-cheng of the 601st Air Cavalry Brigade.
A total of 26 people, including foreign caregivers and children, visited the base on March 29. However, later reports revealed that the group was not the only one, with allegations surfacing of earlier visits by outsiders and of other officers than Lao and even other units also inviting friends and families for tours.
While condemnation of all those involved has been swift and strong, it must be said that it is Lao in the first place who should bear the responsibility, because the celebrity and her friends and relatives did not charge into the base on their own. They visited the Army and climbed into the cockpit of the Apache because it was Lao who had invited them and made it look as if it was completely normal. It was no surprise that parallels were drawn between the base and a private amusement park where officers could entertain their high-society friends.
While a brazen breach of regulations, it must also be acknowledged that the presence of foreigners, while going against the rules, in this case did most likely not present a special risk.
The Japanese man and the five caregivers from three Southeast Asian nations were highly unlikely to want to engage in spying activities more than any Taiwanese citizens might.
In most recent cases, spying on local secrets has been the preserve of Taiwanese officers passing on data to China in return for money and other benefits, so the nationality of the Apache visitors hardly matters.
A more pertinent question would be to ask if it is so easy for celebrities to enter bases, what could happen with visitors who really hold ulterior motives. If the military is unable to even stop entertainers from breaking the rules, how can it expect to stop motivated infiltrators from seeing and recording sensitive information?
Indeed, the Apache case was followed by reports of an Air Force officer school having received a “visit” from Chinese spies, with prosecutors launching an investigation Thursday.
If the military wants to polish its reputation, it needs to do more than announce a series of demerits and personnel moves. What needs to change is not the name list of the officers in charge, but the overall mentality and readiness of the armed forces.
Predictably, the resignation of the defense minister has also been demanded. Minister Kao Kuang-chi seems to have obliged by tendering his resignation to President Ma Ying-jeou Wednesday, but the latter rejected the offer.
Whether or not he will survive any further revelations, it is clear that scandals do not stop because a different minister is in charge. Since the death of conscript Hung Chung-chiu after bringing a smartphone into a military base, defense ministers seem to have been sworn in and left in a rapid succession. The never-ending parade of defense ministers is unlikely to stop the bleeding, because there is a need to look beyond the officers in charge and change the behavior prevalent, which is the lackadaisical spirit of regarding military installations as seemingly no different from department stores or common office buildings.
Security directives can be simple and clear: do not allow anybody to enter a military installation who is not a military person qualified to be present. Outsiders should only be allowed in if they have applied for a visit, and if they can present the proper credentials, which need to be checked thoroughly.
Just last year, movie director Doze Niu managed to have a cameraman from the People’s Republic of China enter the Zuoying naval base because the latter posed as a Taiwanese citizen. The incident showed how easy it was for somebody to assume a false identity and how negligent the military were in checking the identity of the visitors.
In addition to reforms in basic security, the Apache uproar could have some repercussions for Taiwan’s already less-than-enviable international position. Whether or not the incident will affect relations with the United States, the supplier of the Apache helicopters and of most of Taiwan’s crucial military hardware, the country’s military is showing a poor image of itself.
As Taiwan is the only country outside the US to use the AH-64E version of the attack helicopter, the case is certain to receive special attention in Washington. The military have been hovering between confirming and denying that the cockpit of the Apache is a secret or not, but whatever it is, the Pentagon must be wondering whether the sophisticated weapons systems it sells to Taiwan will not end up on Facebook and Instagram or be turned into toys for the country’s numerous entertainers and bored playboys.
The problem would have been bad enough if it had occurred in any other country, but Taiwan has to bear in mind that it is a frontline state, a country with a very real enemy right on its doorstep. Military security is not just a routine, it is a vital element of daily life that must be taken seriously. It is hard to imagine incidents like the Apache visit occurring in South Korea or Israel, countries which also live under the shadow of aggressive neighbors.
President Ma Ying-jeou has taken the initiative to increase the levels of punishment against very senior military leaders but again it is the system and the way of doing things that need change, not the number of demerits and transfers.
Under his administration since 2008, military morale has sunk low because his precipitous rapprochement with China has left many military officers unsure whether Beijing is still an enemy. With about 2,000 missiles pointed at the island, there should be no doubt about the reality of Taiwan’s defense situation.