A Taiwan Militia Could Help Deter Mainland China

The nation of Taiwan faces the increasing likelihood of invasion by Mainland China and may have to face it alone.  Taiwan must therefore take steps on its own to deter an invasion and to demonstrate the intention to resist it as long as possible if it comes. 

In 2019, demonstrators in Hong Kong carried American and British flags as well as at least one poster reading, "We need the Second Amendment."  Beijing long ago foreclosed that option for Hong Kong, but Taiwan may still have time to adopt a firearms policy acceptable to its people and government, while contributing to its overall defense.  It could develop a capability common to small nations facing larger enemies -- a government-supported citizens' militia.  A numerous, well-equipped militia would demonstrate that any invasion will involve the whole population in the nation's defense, and that such an attack would be a costly endeavor.

President Biden still has not stated clearly that the United States will defend Taiwan if the island is attacked.  The deterrent value of the policy of "strategic ambiguity" is of little value when Beijing's policy is increasingly unambiguous and there is the possibility that American forces might not be able to intervene effectively even if they tried to do so.  War games conducted by the U.S. military have indicated that China might prevail in a regional contest against the United States if it happens in the next few years, and Admiral Phillip Davidson has warned that war could come as soon as six to ten years from now.  Plans to revise U.S. military doctrine and tactics offer some hope, but the proposed changes are unlikely to be in place within the time-frame envisioned by Admiral Davidson.

Taiwan must be prepared to stand alone. Its regular military and reserve forces appear strong on paper, but many shortcomings in their equipment and training have been identified.  As their principal arms supplier, the U.S. continues to sell advanced weapons to Taipei in furtherance of the "Fortress Taiwan" concept popular in the Pentagon.  But expensive, advanced weapons may not be available in sufficient numbers to make a difference in the defense of  the island.  Recognizing this, former Taiwan Armed Forces Chief of Staff Admiral Lee Hsi-Ming developed an "Overall Defense Plan" (ODP) to maximize the nation's defensive capability.  He advocated a defense based on "a large number of small things" -- relatively inexpensive arms, purchased in quantity, dispersed, and protected from rapid destruction in a sudden attack.  The ODP should include plans for a militia beyond the currently available reserves, potentially a very large number of "small things" -- trained guerrilla fighters.

A conventional military attack on Taiwan could be costly for Beijing even if it succeeded, and extensive fighting on the island could destroy a large part of the island's coveted industrial infrastructure, especially its microchip production facilities.  This possibility has some deterrent value in itself, but Taiwan also faces the threat of an unconventional "hybrid" or "grey area" military operation such as that conducted by Russia's "little green men" against the Ukraine in 2014.  Retired Admiral James Stavridis and others caution that China could employ its numerous Naval Militia as "little blue men" at sea or against Taiwan itself.  Seizure of many key military facilities and high-value civilian targets simultaneously via hybrid operations, using Naval Militia, infiltration by Special Operations troops, and fifth-column agents, might present Taipei with a fait accompli, discouraging further resistance.  A cease-fire under these circumstances could make U.S. intervention unlikely.  Such a hybrid operation could be made more difficult and might be deterred by use of  a citizens' militia, deployed to reinforce existing security personnel around potential targets.  In times of increased tension short of war, a portion of the militia could be mobilized and posted alongside full-time security forces both to strengthen defenses and to demonstrate national resolve.  While the militia alone would not be intended to fight pitched battles against regular military forces, its presence in large numbers would complicate an invader's planning and make it hard to seize many objectives simultaneously. 

As suggested by writers such as Michael Hunzeker and Brian Davis, part of Taiwan's organized reserves should be converted to "Territorial" forces, armed and equipped similar to regular troops but organized for local defense in their home areas.  Poland provides a contemporary model.  "Territorials" could be strengthened further by a well-organized civilian militia.  If invasion occurs or appears imminent, the militia would be alerted and organized under the leadership of Territorial officers.  Conventional military units which are defeated by invaders would disperse and join the militia to organize an extended guerrilla campaign.

Historically, some nations' militia members have furnished their own arms, and others have kept their government-provided weapons at home.  With significant limits on private firearms ownership in place already, Taiwan's government and people may not accept the presence of military-grade weapons in private homes.  However, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies could be stored in numerous, scattered locations all over the country, in relatively secure facilities such as local police stations.  Using government-supplied weapons would ensure that militia fighters have the same arms and ammunition as the regular forces, avoiding the logistical problems often encountered by militias using their personal arms in historical examples, such as our own Revolution. 

Non-lethal equipment could be kept at members' homes.  Upon alert, militia members would report to a local arsenal to receive weapons and ammunition, then report for duty at pre-assigned posts.  Once mobilized, all components of the defense forces would be supported by the widely dispersed infrastructure of arsenals, with stores of ammunition and other supplies. These scattered storage sites would also mean that even if a large part of Taiwan were occupied by invaders, there would be many facilities remaining to support an insurgency.

Taiwan's conventional forces have about 170,000 personnel, and the organized reserves are variously estimated at about 2.5 million members available for service.  With a population of over 23 million, Taiwan might easily build a citizens' militia of a million or more -- about one-twentieth of its population -- relatively quickly and at low cost.  An invading force would suffer significant losses at the hands of Taiwan's conventional forces even if Taipei's allies are held at bay, and then would face a nation organized for defense.  The invaders would have to plan for a costly occupation.  While the Chinese Communists are presumably capable of extreme ruthlessness in rooting out an insurgency, they would also realize that extended fighting would greatly reduce Taiwan's prize value.  

To help deter China, Taiwan needs an effective militia in addition to improved regular forces. The United States should commit publicly to the defense of Taiwan against invasion and to the long-term support of its resistance to occupation.  Military sales to Taiwan should include arms and other equipment appropriate to extended resistance.  The prospect of a long, hard fight might make Beijing reconsider its options.

Rex Crigger is a retired officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, and of the US Army Reserve. He currently keeps bees and practices rifle marksmanship in the mountains of Tennessee.

Image: Alan Wu

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