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Taiwan must prioritize civil defense preparations now

The resistance in Ukraine has shown how important an organized and trained civil defense force is

  2048
Ukrainian servicemen help a woman carrying a small dog across the Irpin River on an improvised path while assisting people fleeing the town of Irpin, ...

Ukrainian servicemen help a woman carrying a small dog across the Irpin River on an improvised path while assisting people fleeing the town of Irpin, ...

In the face of a brutal and merciless invasion from one of the world’s strongest militaries, the resolute determination of the Ukrainian people to stand up to the invaders and defend their homes and freedom has won plaudits around the world.

Rightly so. The Ukrainian people deserve our admiration for their stoicism and indefatigability.

We have seen images of elderly, wheelchair-bound citizens making Molotov cocktails, professionals manning barricades armed with guns, and (perhaps most entertainingly) farmers using their tractors to tow multi-million dollar weapons systems away from hapless Russian soldiers.

It would be easy to dismiss this type of story as anecdotal and even criticize news outlets for producing what appear to be light-hearted stories from the midst of a brutal war.

But the importance of the strong, united response of the Ukrainian people to the Russian invasion cannot be overstated.

Military imbalance

In a straight fight between the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, there could be only one winner.

Russia has around 900,000 active troops compared to Ukraine’s 196,600. There are over 15,000 Russian armoured vehicles to Ukraine’s 3,300 and 1,172 Russian military planes to Ukraine’s 124.

The list goes on and on. It is best summarised by looking at overall military budgets, where Russia’s US$45.8 billion annual spending vastly overshadows Ukraine’s US$4.2 billion.

But Russia has not just been fighting the Ukrainian military. Instead, it has been fighting the entire country, and there are plenty of Ukrainians well-placed to put up a strong resistance.

Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces

The invasion has not come out of the blue for Ukraine. Russia annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine in 2014 and has been stirring up a serious civil conflict in the Donbass region in the east of the country in the intervening years.

After the popular uprising of 2014, in which Ukraine’s pro-Russian government was overthrown, the Ukrainian military needed to be rebuilt from the ground up.

This happened remarkably fast and successfully, but with an ongoing conflict in the east of the country and the constant threat of a hostile Russian government just across the border, Ukraine knew it needed more.

That is when the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) was first established. These units are made up primarily of civil volunteers alongside a number of military veterans. These volunteers, who came from all parts of Ukrainian society, had regular jobs and lives but spent some weekends and evenings training and learning military skills.

While it is still vastly outnumbered by Russia, this volunteer army includes thousands of people across Ukraine with relevant military and organisational skills to mount a resistance and help other untrained volunteers be effective.

Combined with local knowledge and the donations that have poured into Ukraine from around the world, the TDF is now on the front lines and has played a central role in helping Ukraine mount a far more effective resistance against Russia than almost any observer expected.

Taiwan already reacting

The effectiveness of Ukraine’s civil defense capabilities has not been lost here in Taiwan. With the invasion of Ukraine barely a fortnight old, we are already seeing moves in Taiwan to replicate this approach.

Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) has confirmed that the Ministry of National Defense has been drawing up a civil defense handbook

Members of the Legislative Yuan have begun pushing for increased training in anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons training for reserves. They have also begun to call for the Taiwanese military to offer courses to members of the public eager to learn how to use guns.

In January, the Ministry of National Defense created the All-out Defense Mobilization Agency to bring in much needed reforms to Taiwan’s reservist system. Reservists have now been called up for the first time under a new 14-day call-up system to undergo training in a simulated defense of the Linkou coastline in New Taipei City.

But there is still a lot more that needs to be done. Taiwan Militia Association Secretary-General Tan Le-I told the Financial Times that “In our society, everyone expects the government to act, so there is very little bottom-up community organization, and mobilization will be very slow.”

That assessment was probably right as recently as last month. But events in Ukraine have been eye-opening for the Taiwanese public, and there is renewed public demand for opportunities to train and prepare to defend their country in the same way.

A recent survey conducted by the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society and the Taiwan International Studies Association at the end of last year found that if China did launch a military assault on Taiwan, 77.6% of respondents were willing to fight for their country. In light of the response of regular people in Ukraine to their own invasion, and the vital role they have played, this number is likely to have gone up.

The need to go further

This is an opportunity that the Taiwanese government needs to seize with both hands. It has made a good start, but there is much more that needs to be done.

The Ministry of National Defense needs to create training courses to teach all Taiwanese citizens the basic skills needed to defend their cities and towns from invading forces. These courses should be made available for free and be optional at first, but there might be a case for making attendance mandatory if voluntary take-up is not sufficiently high.

There is scope to create a grassroots civil defense force using ex-military servicemen and enthusiastic locals. Those in these forces should have specific training on equipment, such as anti-tank missiles, as well as develop an enhanced knowledge of urban guerrilla warfare, which is what any invasion of Taiwan is likely to quickly descend into.

Taiwan’s unique local political structure should make the establishment of such an organization easier. This structure can also be used to create information pathways that will enable the government to communicate with local forces in the event of an invasion.

Supplies and logistical plans should also be well developed to ensure people on the streets are able to access the military equipment, food, and water that they need.

There need to be plans in place to disrupt key infrastructure to slow the progress of an invading force. In Ukraine, we have seen street signs being taken down, but Taiwan has the time to put in place a far more comprehensive plan.

And lastly, there needs to be a plan to drag out any invasion for as long as possible. China would want an invasion to be over quickly, so Taiwan needs to be prepared with guerrilla warfare tactics that can work both in an urban setting and in mountainous regions as well.

Civil defense has proved critical in the defense of Ukraine against a hostile foreign invasion. It would be just as important here in Taiwan if the worst were to happen.

Taiwan has the opportunity to ensure it is well prepared. It is vital to seize the chance now while the majority of the Taiwanese public is onside.