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Towards a truly terrifying Taiwan Territorial Defense Force

Forget the reserves, a territorial defense force is needed to prepare for a civilian insurgency

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U.S. Marines training with Stinger missiles in Romania in 2017.

U.S. Marines training with Stinger missiles in Romania in 2017. (AP photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — The horrors unfolding in Ukraine have focused attention on how to defend Taiwan, both from an international perspective and a domestic one.

Heroic scenes of everyday Ukrainians doing their part to defend their homes, cities, and nation against the Russian military machine have captured the public's imagination.

Inspired by their example, there has been a surge in the number of Taiwanese willing to fight. A broad consensus has formed that the military conscription period needs to be increased well beyond the current four months to a year or more, and a majority support including women. Children came out waving flags to show support for the first batch of reservists undergoing their newly extended training.

The Chinese Communist Party-led (CCP) regime in Beijing is one of the most brutal and murderous in history. There should be no illusions that Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are unwilling to or incapable of unleashing their horrors on Taiwan.

The priority of Xi and the CCP is, first and foremost, to remain in power. That means Xi’s designs on Taiwan can potentially be deterred.

Asymmetric warfare capabilities can make Taiwan extremely costly in blood and treasure to take, and a determined, well-trained, and well-armed resistance can make the country almost impossible to digest — causing PLA casualties to further spiral out of control. As the costs increasingly impact the Chinese economy and the body bags mount, the CCP and their domestic control very likely will come under serious pressure.

Of course, this deterrence assumes Xi is thinking rationally; the longer he is in power, the less certain we can be that this is actually the case. What we can be fairly certain of, however, is that Xi remains intently focused on retaining power and that the Russian example in Ukraine almost certainly has caught his attention, regardless of what sycophants around him may say.

This has led to a sharp increase in focus on the role of Taiwan’s reserve forces and how to bolster their abilities and preparedness going forward. Surely this is what the citizen resistance should be organized around, right?

Not so, says retired Admiral and former Chief of the General Staff of the Republic of China Armed Forces Lee Hsi-Min (李喜明).

In a thought-provoking piece in War on the Rocks, Lee and scholar Michael A. Honecker lay out a case for Taiwan to create a separate territorial defense force as the Ukrainians have done. They make the case that it can’t be done within the current reserve structure:

“In a perfect world, it would make sense to incorporate territorial defense into the Ministry of National Defense’s ongoing reserve reforms. Unfortunately, because the ministry has already decided to remake Taiwan’s reserve force in the image of America’s so-called operational reserve, that approach is no longer viable.”

“We therefore instead suggest creating a permanent territorial defense force that will operate as a stand-alone service under the aegis of the Ministry of National Defense. This force should have an equivalent status to the army, navy, and air force, along with an equivalently ranked commanding general.”

In summary, the authors propose an all-volunteer force of young men and women trained and prepared to defend the locales they live in. They suggest “each unit should be built around a cadre of current and former special operations forces personnel” in order to “increase the odds that territorial defense volunteers will receive meaningful, rigorous, and realistic military training” so they will ultimately “will be ready to conduct independent, small unit operations on the battlefield.”

The article lays out the types of arms they would have access to and be trained on, many of which are those being used so effectively in Ukraine. “At the first sign of invasion, territorial defense force troops should report to their assigned muster stations, collect their gear, and go home.”

It goes on to underscore that these individuals aren’t regular soldiers or suited for the front lines:

“As the invasion unfolds, territorial defense units should allow the attacker’s leading assault units to pass before conducting mobile, hit-and-run missions to wreak havoc on logistics convoys, supply depots, command posts, and early follow-on forces, especially those that arrive in lumbering cargo jets. If units of the People’s Liberation Army succeed at taking one or more urban areas, territorial defense units transition to form the backbone of a prolonged insurgency.”

These forces would, like their Ukrainian counterparts, make life a terrifying living hell for the invading forces. The authors note that while this may or may not play a role in eventually defeating the invasion force, it would at the very least play a key role in flooding social media with the truth on the ground, inspire the world with citizen resistance, and buy time for foreign forces to mobilize and come to Taiwan’s aid.

The authors are clear that it would be a massive, time-consuming, and expensive effort, but as they note, “It will almost certainly be a bargain compared to some of the things Taiwan is already more than willing to pay for.” Indeed, they point out: “there is no question that tens of thousands of trained volunteers will give Taiwan more deterrence bang for its buck than a few dozen M109 Paladins or a handful of diesel submarines.”

The article is focused on the “young men and women” and their role in taking up arms. There is much more than can be, and probably should be, done to support such a plan.

But why stop there?

A Taiwan Territorial Defense Force (TTDF) would need considerable support from the civilian population to be effective. Armed civilians heroically fighting invaders unsurprisingly grab attention, but it is basic logistics that will keep them fighting — no amount of courage and heroics makes up for a lack of food, water, and medical care.

With this in mind, a TTDF will need much more than just these trained, ready, and armed “young men and women.” Cadres or auxiliary units to handle a wide range of key tasks will also need to be ready to step in.

That subject will be explored in more detail in the next column.


Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.