Replicating Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force is not legally or politically feasible in Taiwan – at least for now.
Ukraine’s successful deployment of Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) has brought renewed focus to the possibility of creating a similar military reserve in Taiwan. Yet, much of this discussion has ignored the constitutionality of such a move.
A March 15 commentary in War on the Rocks by former Chief of the General Staff of the Republic of China Armed Forces Lee Hsi-Min and academic Michael Hunzeker put forward the case for a “stand-alone service under the aegis of the Ministry of National Defense (MND).” The authors state that Ukraine’s experience “suggests that popular resistance has merit and might be the difference between Taiwan surviving an assault from the mainland and succumbing.”
Because of the MND’s decision to adopt a U.S.-style operational reserve approach, Lee and Hunzeker say that incorporating TDF into the MND’s current reserve reforms will not be possible. They further observe that “Taiwan’s existing patchwork of militias and civil defense groups” will provide neither a deterrent to a Chinese invasion nor meaningful resistance to an occupation by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces.
However, in calling for the establishment of TDF under the MND, the authors – and others who have echoed their views – are ignoring a crucial point: As things stand, the MND cannot simply greenlight such a force.
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“TDF is just noise for the current government,” says T.H. Schee, a representative of Open Knowledge Taiwan, which focuses on raising awareness of the state of civil defense in Taiwan. “Because civil defense is all about the police, by law. Whereas mobilization is under the Ministry of National Defense, civil defense is totally controlled by the National Police Agency (NPA).”
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This renders all discussion of TDF in domestic and international media moot, according to Schee. “If the police don’t come out and talk about civil defense, it’s meaningless,” he says.
Lee Jyun-yi, an associate research fellow at the MND’s Institute of National Defense and Security Research, agrees. He notes that a separate TDF would require “a change of law” because the human resources would have to come from the reservist system. “Currently reservists are used as a complement for regular troops, so there’s little discussion on whether they can be used as a territorial defense unit,” says Lee. “So, there’s a legal constraint there.”
Furthermore, there are deep-rooted reasons for the NPA’s conspicuous silence on the issue. Although Taiwan’s gun laws are strict and ownership is among the lowest per capita in the world, it wasn’t all that long ago that the situation was very different.
The end of Martial Law in 1987 created a vacuum in law enforcement, which was quickly exploited by organized crime. In his seminal work on the period, “Heijin: Organized Crime, Business, and Politics in Taiwan,” Ko-Lin Chin quotes a former police chief as reflecting that “patrols of the coast became almost nonexistent and, as a result, it was easy to smuggle guns and drugs into Taiwan.”
Chin goes on to document the violence that plagued Taiwan’s cities as a result. “Gun battles among crime figures led to a dramatic increase in homicide rates in the 1980s,” he writes. “In short, the availability of handguns … enabled many desperate and daring young underworld figures to achieve their goal of making money in a society where wealth is so prized.”
Last year, a series of shootings brought the issue to the fore again, with NPA Director-General Chen Ja-chin convening a press conference to announce a “zero-tolerance policy for firearms.” If fears of a return to the dark old days are overstated, the police remain unequivocal in their stance toward arming civilians.
“The police are not happy to share gun ownership,” says Schee. “To buy a spearfishing gun, you need permission from the police station. It’s like a joke. The law for recreational devices hasn’t been modified for 50 years.”
This makes any move toward weapons and live fire training problematic. As an illustration of the obstacles, Schee refers to “a cluster of private companies” in Taiwan providing firearms and hand-to-hand combat training to police forces and private individuals. “They’re doing all sorts of defense stuff,” he says. “Israeli firms doing Krav Maga, and others who are really good with guns – much better than us, so the police need them. But for any private citizen who wants to handle guns – they usually have to train overseas – Guam, Thailand, or the U.S.”
Echoing this point, Lee notes that Taiwan’s stance on firearms means that the comparisons with countries such as Switzerland and Lithuania are inappropriate. “For us to have territorial defense units, we must receive training in peacetime, and that requires the support of infrastructure,” says Lee. “Currently, I don’t think we have that, so, most likely, if Taiwan wants to move toward that direction, it would take the form of reforming the reservist system.”
A related stumbling block is the existing Civil Defense Act (CDA) and its associated office and force, which also fall under the NPA’s remit. Although Lee and Hunzeker’s article makes passing reference to these as part of the aforementioned “patchwork,” there is no suggestion that they are a barrier to a new TDF.
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“What people don’t recognize is that we already have civil defense forces in Taiwan,” says Schee. “Sure, most of them are between the ages of 50 and 70, and the annual four-hour training is more like a karaoke session,” he adds. “But they exist.”
It’s unsurprising that much of the public remains in the dark. A quick look through the minutiae of the Civil Defense Act on the Ministry of Justice website makes it obvious that few of the provisions are being properly implemented.
Article 4, which calls for the formation of civil defense teams by municipal and county governments, railways, schools, and factories, among other institutions, makes for startling reading. Anyone familiar with these areas of society could be forgiven for wondering what they’ve missed.
“Drills are practiced,” says Schee. “But the provisions on the private sector and schools are not enforced.”
Yet the law is there and, regardless of the age and lack of training, the head count is far from negligible. “There are 50,000 of these guys,” says Schee. “You can’t just wipe this figure out. They are certified personnel controlled by the police.”
Finally, there is the Taiwan Military and Police Tactical Research and Development Association (TTRDA). Established as a nongovernmental organization in 2015, this group comprises former, reservists and active military elements, as well as members of Taiwan’s police SWAT teams. A 2019 article in The National Interest referred to the TTRDA as a “paramilitary option,” established, in part, to pressure the MND into upping its game.
While Schee says the TTRDA is “pretty far from a paramilitary group,” he believes President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration is missing a trick by largely ignoring what such elements have to offer.
“There are several groups not being leveraged by the current government and reformists in the military, police, and coastguard,” says Schee, noting that, having studied and worked abroad, members of these groups have been exposed to “modern, novel approaches.”
He mentions ham radio and cybersecurity groups that he believes have also been left out in the cold. “Even though they might not be the ones pitching a handy solution to the problem addressed, they should be taken seriously,” he says.
One of the untapped options could be the relative popularity of airsoft in Taiwan. Richard Limon, a retired U.S. marine who works as a product advisor for VFC, an airsoft gun manufacturer in Taiwan, says training with airsoft is a legitimate alternative. “Handgun wise, it’ll do the job, because statistically most handgun battles happen within seven meters,” says Limon. “So, you can at least get the basics down on how to fight and have a clue.”
Facilities such as CQB, an indoor airsoft kill house in New Taipei City, could be invaluable resources in replicating the kind of close-combat, urban warfare conditions a TDF would be needed for, says Limon. “In terms of how to make tactics work, how to go down a hole without getting yourself killed, how to stand properly when you’re shooting – you sure as hell could use it,” he says. “All those small factors alone might not seem that important. Add them all together, and it’s a big issue.”
Unfortunately, government interest has thus far been “negligible,” says Limon. “It seems like they’re just expecting someone to do the work for them,” he says. “It’s like, you do realize that stuff takes time and money to develop and build up, and you can’t just do it overnight?”
Like Schee, Limon also cites resistance from the police, based on misguided concerns that the airsoft models are ripe for repurposing. “Some people think you can turn them into real guns,” says Limon. “The metal used in these airsoft guns is not designed to take 5,000, let alone 20,000 PSI – depending on the caliber of rounds. I can make a zip gun with a nail and a phone book or a plastic pipe. Doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.”
In the end, any immediate move toward meaningful reform on TDF will likely be stymied by a lack of political will on the part of the outgoing government. “Because Tsai has less than two years left of her second term, nobody wants to touch this,” says Schee.
As for whether a new administration would tackle the issues, Schee remains ambivalent. “I wouldn’t say the idea is bad in itself,” he says. “I would just say there are limitations.”