The View of Ukraine from Taiwan: Get Real About Territorial Defense
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine has shocked the world, but one country is paying particularly close attention: Taiwan, another democracy threatened by a powerful, proximate, and authoritarian neighbor. To be sure, Putin’s decision to invade a neighbor may not tell us much about Xi Jinping’s willingness to do the same. Nevertheless, stomach-churning images from Ukraine make clear that wars of conquest are not an artifact of the past.
Thankfully, Taiwan is taking notice. Lawmakers and military officials are considering a return to conscription, and even a two-year term of obligated service. Public opinion polls continue to suggest an uptick in the Taiwanese people’s willingness to fight. Most important of all, some citizens are starting to vote with their feet, volunteering to join grassroots civil defense organizations. These are unquestionably positive developments. Just as the Russian military and political leadership are learning the high cost of conquering an unwilling nation, deterrence is enhanced to the degree that the Taiwanese people show the world they are willing to fight.
Unfortunately, as the ongoing tragedy in Ukraine suggests, resolve is not enough. Ukraine’s willingness to provide for its own defense was not — and is not — in question. Indeed, it is offering a master class on how even the most vulnerable democracies can resist aggression. Yet Russia was undeterred, at least in part, because capability matters too. Deterrence rests on the strongest possible foundations when a people’s willingness to fight is matched by its ability to do so in a way that credibly threatens a would-be invader with unacceptable costs and pain.
Too much ink has already been spilled making the case that Taiwan can and should find ways to make its regular military forces more capable. There is no need to rehash those debates here. Our purpose is to call for the creation of a standing, all-volunteer, Taiwanese territorial defense force.
We come at this with unique perspectives. One of us commanded Taiwan’s military, and the other is a close analyst of the country’s security affairs and a veteran of the invasion of Iraq. Based on our experiences, we lay out the case for such an organization, and why it can enhance deterrence, below. For now, it suffices to say that Ukraine’s experience with its young Territorial Defense Force suggests that popular resistance has merit and might be the difference between Taiwan surviving an assault from the mainland and succumbing.
It is too early to say, but unfortunately, Ukraine may have waited too long to expand its resistance forces to deter Putin meaningfully, to the extent that Putin was deterrable. Taiwan’s existing patchwork of militias and civil defense groups is even less prepared to counter a ruthless occupation. Therefore, as admirable and important as these early civil defense efforts are, they are unlikely to deter a resolute invader. A bottom-up force credibly organized, trained, and equipped to reshape Beijing’s calculus requires top-down leadership, vision, and resources.
Territorial Defense and Deterrence
The concept of training civilian volunteers to defend their homes and communities against invasion is not new. In recent years, Estonia, Poland, and Ukraine have shown renewed interest in territorial defense. The logic is straightforward. Although territorial defense cannot defeat a large-scale invasion, it can take a rapid, fait accompli victory off the table by ensuring the subsequent occupation will be violent and prolonged.
As Russian forces are likely to discover if they do manage to overwhelm Ukraine’s military defenses, a foreign invader cannot attain its ultimate goal — political control — until it pacifies the population. A properly organized, trained, and equipped territorial defense force, employed to wage a prolonged insurgency, makes establishing and exercising population control vastly harder. Hopefully, the prospect of waging a prolonged war for hearts and minds will convince a potential aggressor that an invasion is unlikely to work at a price it is willing to pay. And if deterrence fails, a territorial defense campaign can rally international support as well as buy time for outside forces to intervene.
In Taiwan’s case, a territorial defense force will also enhance deterrence by building and signaling national resolve. Analysts and pundits spend far too much time parsing public opinion polls to assess whether the Taiwanese people will fight. A credible, well-organized territorial defense force can put such debates to rest. First — and the Taiwanese are no exception in this regard — people are generally more willing to defend their homes and families, which is exactly what territorial defense forces are organized, trained, and equipped to do. We see this phenomenon playing out in Ukraine: Ordinary Ukrainian citizens are unquestionably more resolved to protect their communities and neighborhoods than Russian soldiers are to seize and occupy them. This clear-cut asymmetry of resolve has galvanized support for Ukraine at home and abroad. Second, territorial defense units that receive rigorous and realistic training, performed on the ground they will be expected to defend, will send a powerful message to the Taiwanese people that they have a role to play in providing for their own defense. Third, a territorial defense force could further reinforce a sense of national identity and resolve.
Indeed, Taiwan can buy all the American weapons it wants. But nothing projects a more powerful signal that the Taiwanese people are ready to “pay any price and bear any burden” to protect themselves than a standing territorial defense force.
Bottom-Up Warfare Requires Top-Down Leadership
As heartening as it is to see ad hoc militia and civil defense initiatives sprouting up around Taiwan, the fact is that a patchwork of grassroots (and currently unarmed) part-time citizen-soldiers is unlikely to affect Beijing’s calculus. Insurgencies are rarely spontaneous. Tough training and clear organization are essential to overcome the collective action problems — and the raw fear — that will deter civilians who might otherwise be willing to fight. There is also a risk that a poorly trained civilian force will squander itself attacking frontline invasion troops, instead of patiently waiting for more vulnerable support units and occupation forces.
Insurgents also need access to arms and ammunition. Taiwan is no Texas. It is not a country that is flush with weapons, ammunition, and people with high levels of experience handling either. Getting weapons and rounds into the hands of the people, ensuring the people know how to use them, and making sure there are enough of both to hold out despite China’s inevitable attempts to isolate the island from the rest of the world are all essential. Access to satellite communications and training on propaganda, social media, and information operations will also prove useful. Mao himself reminds us that the printing press is the guerrilla’s most important weapon.
Creating a territorial defense force out of whole cloth is, therefore, a massive undertaking. Only Taiwan’s government has the authority and resources to accomplish such an ambitious enterprise in time to shape Chinese — and American — perceptions. And only the government can also ensure that Taiwan’s territorial defense efforts are fully integrated into a holistic, multi-layered, denial-centered defensive scheme.
A Blueprint for Taiwanese Territorial Defense
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.
A Taiwanese territorial defense force should be built around volunteers. It should focus on recruiting young men and women who are patriotic and want to serve, but who are either reluctant to do so full time, or who harbor negative views of the regular military. Joining the territorial defense force could even count as an alternative to active military service if Taiwan decides to return to a longer term of conscription. Volunteers should be organized into geographically based units. The goal must be to ensure that territorial defense troops can train (and fight) close to home. In this way, a Taiwanese territorial defense force would be organized akin to the geographically oriented U.S. Army National Guard. Unlike the U.S. Army National Guard, however, territorial defense units should not be trained and equipped to conduct conventional combat operations alongside — or as part of — active-duty units. Although the bulk of this force will be comprised of citizen-soldiers, each unit should be built around a cadre of current and former special operations forces personnel. Building units around elite (perhaps even American-trained) warriors will lend territorial defense credibility, if not an element of glamour. In practical terms, this practice will also increase the odds that territorial defense volunteers will receive meaningful, rigorous, and realistic military training. And, because of how special operations personnel are themselves trained to fight, it ensures that territorial defense units will be ready to conduct independent, small unit operations on the battlefield.
Along these lines, territorial defense units should be trained and equipped to conduct fire team, squad, and platoon-sized combat operations. Units should have access to, and volunteers should have training on the use of, small arms, “technicals” (non-standard tactical vehicles), anti-armor rockets (e.g., Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapons and Javelins), improvised explosive devices, portable air defense systems (e.g., Stingers), and field medical care kits. Given the success that Ukrainian units have had using relatively inexpensive loitering drones against Russian convoys, Taiwan should also consider equipping territorial defense units with similarly capable small and cheap remotely piloted vehicles. Generators and satellite communications assets are also essential, as China is unlikely to leave the power on. Territorial defense units will need to communicate with one another, regular military units, and potentially even coalition forces. Territorial defense units should also be able to broadcast their operations — and Chinese atrocities — even after the island has been occupied. Here too, Ukraine’s experience is instructive. It was imperative for Ukraine to win the narrative early in the conflict to both rally support around the world and stiffen resolve at home. An appropriately trained and equipped territorial defense force can help Taiwan ensure it is ready to do the same. To ensure ready access to all these things, the government will need to build armories, which can double as mobilization and training centers, all around the country. Building as many armories as possible also reduces the impact of losing some to first strikes and/or insider threats.
Of course, citizen-soldiers only have a fraction as much time to train as their regular counterparts. Training time must therefore be treated as sacrosanct, with every moment devoted to getting volunteers hands-on experience with weapons and tactics. Conversely, territorial defense units should not waste a second on marching, ceremonies, uniform inspections, and the countless other mundane tasks active-duty forces all-too-often waste time on. Volunteers will also need to specialize. It is unrealistic to expect a part-time citizen to master the use of all the capabilities listed above. Instead, the goal should be to organize each territorial defense unit along the lines of a U.S. Army Special Forces “A-Team,” such that any one unit has enough specially trained volunteers to fight as an “all arms” team.
How should a Taiwanese territorial defense force be employed? In peacetime, units can exercise their capabilities by supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, of which there are many due to the number of typhoons and earthquakes that strike Taiwan. They should also be incorporated into the military’s exercises and maneuvers. In wartime, the force should focus on social denial. Territorial defense troops should not be used against frontline combat units given their lack of training and insufficient gear to engage in direct combat against armored formations and assault troops. From the Viet Cong in 1968 to the Fedayeen in 2003 to the Islamic State in 2017, insurgents and guerrillas often fare poorly when going toe-to-toe with conventional forces. Such missions should remain in the hands of active duty and operational reserve units.
Instead, at the first sign of invasion, territorial defense force troops should report to their assigned muster stations, collect their gear, and go home. 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.
Critics of territorial defense often point to issues of cost and feasibility. Neither concern should be a barrier to action. In terms of cost, although territorial defense will not be cheap in an absolute sense, it will almost certainly be a bargain compared to some of the things Taiwan is already more than willing to pay for. 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. There are also creative ways to control costs. Take the Estonian Defense League as an example. Estonian volunteers serve without pay, effectively doubling the size of Estonia’s ground force for a fraction of the price tag.
In terms of feasibility, the surprising success of Ukraine’s territorial defense forces should put to rest any notion that part-time citizen-soldiers have no role to play in modern warfare. Beyond their value in rallying international support for Ukraine’s plight, these troops have helped slow Russia’s advance. It is worth considering how much more effective such a force could have been had it been expanded years ago. Beyond Ukraine, there is also preliminary evidence suggesting that volunteer forces can improve deterrence. And it is important to remember that a territorial defense force need not be massive to be effective. After all, it only took a “mere” 20,000 fighters to effectively undermine the U.S. occupation of Iraq during the first year of that conflict.
Not a Moment to Lose
The time to act is now. It will take Taiwan years to build a viable territorial defense capability from the ground up. Russia’s invasion, tragic though it is, has created a rare window of opportunity to jump-start the process. The visceral images of Russian tanks pouring across Ukrainian borders and Russian rockets slamming into Ukrainian cities show that the threat is real, while the surprising efficacy of Ukraine’s territorial defense forces proves that resistance is possible.
The Taiwanese people are taking note. Many are eager to play an active role in providing for their own defense. What they need now are leadership and resources. We offer one blueprint for moving forward. There are surely others. Any plan will do. The only wrong choice is to squander the moment and momentum which the war in Ukraine has created at an unimaginable price.
Adm. Lee Hsi-Min (Ret.) is a senior research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. He previously served as the 26th chief of the General Staff of the Republic of China Armed Forces.
Michael A. Hunzeker (@MichaelHunzeker) is an assistant professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where he is also associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies. He served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2006.