Learning to Train: What Washington and Taipei Can Learn from Security Cooperation in Ukraine and the Baltic States
From Russia’s brutal re-invasion of Ukraine to China’s outraged response to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, 2022 had a profound impact on Taiwan’s national security. It was thus only fitting that the year would end with a consequential shift in the country’s defense policy. In a nationally televised address on Dec. 27, President Tsai Ing-wen increased mandatory military service for all Taiwanese men from four months to one year, and directed her defense officials to copy the training methods used by the United States.
It was a welcome decision. American experts and officials — as well as Taiwanese legislators and even Taiwan’s current minister of national defense — have long considered the four-month scheme inadequate in light of Taiwan’s deteriorating security environment. Taiwanese voters also support the move. A poll conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in March shows that 76 percent favored lengthened conscription. Broad public support notwithstanding, Tsai should still be applauded for making the call so soon after her party’s drubbing in November’s 9-in-1 elections. She could have easily kicked the can down the road, and there were indications that she might.
Politics aside, conscription extension was also a militarily necessity. For years, Taiwan’s all-volunteer force has struggled to recruit enough young men and women. Year-long conscription, which takes effect in 2024, will help Taiwan to increase the size of its active military force by at least 60,000 within the next three years.
Now the real work begins. As much as extending conscription is a military necessity, Taiwan needs to overhaul how it trains its troops — conscript and regular alike. Training, especially in Taiwan’s army, is notoriously inadequate and unrealistic. Soldiers spend too much time sitting in classrooms and too little time practicing individual and small-unit combat skills. Exercises are heavily scripted. Junior leaders are expected to follow orders, not make decisions.
Thankfully, Tsai has acknowledged the problem and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has already publicly committed the American military to helping Taiwan to defend itself. American “boots” are already “on the ground” (as they have been for decades — one of us helped train Taiwanese Marines in the early 2000s). And the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act creates a clear framework and basis for helping Taiwan’s military. The real question is how the U.S. military can best “scale up” these existing efforts as quickly as possible, especially because many in Washington think that time is running out before China launches a cross-strait invasion.
We think the U.S. military’s efforts training military forces in Ukraine and the Baltic states can serve as a blueprint for helping Taiwan. The two most important takeaways from these experiences? First, that rapid transformation demands a holistic approach — one combining a bottom-up, battle-focused training methodology emphasizing tactics, techniques, and procedures with a top-down emphasis on institutional, legal, and political reform. And second, that “rapid” is a relative term when it comes to military reform. Even the Ukrainian military’s dramatic transformation took seven years to get to this point — and remains a work in progress.
Below, we identify seven key lessons learned from security cooperation efforts in eastern and central Europe. We contextualize these lessons to the unique challenges facing Taiwan before concluding with four recommendations for American policymakers.
Lessons Learned from Teaching Lessons
There is no shortage of analysis about applying lessons-learned from the conflict in Ukraine to the defense of Taiwan. In any case, most of this existing work focuses on what the war should teach Taiwan about the nature of contemporary high-intensity warfare, the need for an asymmetric defense posture, whether Russia’s attack on Ukraine will or will not make a war over Taiwan more likely, or what Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his generals might be learning from the ongoing war.
Our focus is different. We believe the lessons from how the United States, along with its NATO allies, helped Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine to transform their militaries in a matter of years are the best model for training the Taiwanese military. For the Baltic states, these changes began with the lead-up to their admission into NATO in 2004. For Ukraine, the process began after Russia’s two-pronged invasion in 2014 sent shockwaves through the Ukrainian military, which then-Chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko described as “an army literally in ruins.”
Seven lessons stand out.
Small-Unit Training Focused on Concrete Warfighting Skills
A central characteristic of U.S. and European security assistance efforts in Ukraine was their emphasis on rigorous and realistic combat training. Following the debacle of 2014, NATO members surged training missions into Ukraine that were much different to previous efforts and provided a variety of battle-focused training assistance expanding the capabilities of Ukrainian tactical formations, both in their “home-station” garrisons as well as in a maneuver training center. Mobile training teams from the United Kingdom (Operation Orbital), Canada (Operation Unifier), and Lithuania helped Ukrainian conventional units to improve individual and small-unit skills on a host of tasks, including infantry, airborne, sniper, and medical operations.
Meanwhile, the United States established the Joint Multinational Training Group Ukraine in Ukraine’s Yavoriv Training Center under the U.S. Army’s 7th Army Training Command in Germany. There, rotational units from the U.S. Army and Army National Guard organized challenging combined arms training for Ukrainian brigades, while simultaneously mentoring Ukrainian observer/controllers to take the lead in training their own units. NATO special operations forces from multiple countries also organized mobile training teams and combat training center assistance for their Ukrainian counterparts.
Our conversations with U.S. security cooperation personnel and Ukrainian armed forces officers suggest that these efforts were critical to developing the small-unit capabilities that gave Ukrainian forces a tactical edge over Russian units.
Joint and Multinational Exercises Facilitated Learning Among Senior Leaders and Staffs
Of course, the most effective small-unit tactics in the world are useless without a commensurate ability to control higher formations, combine arms, and integrate joint forces in large-scale combat operations. Developing these sorts of senior officer and staff skills is often much harder and takes longer to accomplish than improving tactical skills, something both of us have experienced personally. After all, in peacetime junior officers often have the luxury of focusing on training with their units. In contrast, staff and senior officers spend the vast majority of their time consumed with administrative and bureaucratic matters — tasks that are radically different from those they must master to succeed in combat. Moreover, getting senior officers and their staffs to embrace a new training system or doctrine requires teaching them techniques, skills, and practices that are often radically different from those that got them promoted to those senior levels in the first place.
Interestingly, according to an interview with a retired U.S. Army special operations officer who had worked closely with the Baltic states, this issue was less of a challenge when working with the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian armed forces because all of their senior leaders were new — former Soviet field-grade and above officers were prevented from joining the post-Soviet military. In contrast, other security cooperation officials observed that the Ukrainian military had no such prohibition, and its military was still adhering to a Soviet-style system as late as 2015. Transitioning to Western military practices proved hardest for those officers who were most familiar with the “old way” of doing business — and who also, not coincidentally, held the most power and authority.
In both cases, senior officers benefited from multinational exercises that allowed their commanders and staffs from tactical to strategic level to practice their wartime command and control tasks while simultaneously exposing them to the techniques and best practices of partnered American and NATO forces. For the Baltic states, annual NATO exercises tested the rapid deployment of U.S. and other NATO ground and air forces to reinforce the region and then conduct high-intensity combined training with both Baltic and NATO forces. The NATO-facilitated multinational enhanced forward presence battlegroups established in all three Baltic states (along with Poland) have also proven helpful in this regard. For Ukraine, the Rapid Trident series of annual Ukraine-NATO exercises brought a brigade-sized force together for joint training. The Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade, a military brigade-level organization under Polish command, brought battalion staffs from these countries together for annual battle staff training, battalion staff courses, and multinational exercises at Joint Multinational Training Group Ukraine.
Eventually, new Ukrainian senior leadership acquiesced and more large-scale Ukrainian exercises benefited from NATO mentors. Just prior to the invasion, the summer 2021 Joint Endeavor exercise brought embedded NATO observers for the first time into Ukrainian commands above the brigade level — both their operational commands and Joint Force Headquarters. A security cooperation official interviewed saw this as a major change in the Ukrainian armed forces’ approach to transformation and as indicative of their increased trajectory towards the goal of NATO interoperability.
The State Partnership Program Built Relationships … When It Had Time to Take Root
The U.S. Army National Guard’s State Partnership Program relationships reinforced these lines of effort by building long-term partnerships between Ukraine and the Baltic states and U.S. Army National Guard units from California (Ukraine), Pennsylvania (Lithuania), Michigan (Latvia), and Maryland (Estonia). The program helps to create a pool of American subject-matter experts who can rotate forward to provide valuable training as needed by their partners, or host them for training in the United States. It is an effective, if lower-profile, program. Most National Guard personnel stay within the same state as they are promoted up the ranks. This consistency allows for stable relationship-building, as the same individuals are continuing to interact as they advance from lieutenant to colonel, and sergeant to sergeant major. Such long-term relationships help to build a level of trust that is otherwise impossible.
Pennsylvania Army National Guard officers we interviewed described how their close partner relationship led to a Lithuanian mechanized company deploying to the U.S. Army’s National Training Center in 2018 embedded within a Pennsylvania National Guard battalion. Conversely, Pennsylvanian officers have served on the staffs of Lithuanian units during multiple NATO exercises in their own country, as have officers from active-duty security force assistance brigades.
Crucially, the State Partnership Program works best when it has time to take root. As a result, the reinvigorated partnership between Californian units and Ukraine really only had time to focus on individual tactical skills. The longer-running pairings with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania however, have allowed American and partnered military officers to work on everything from developing non-commissioned officer corps, rehearsing combat air controller techniques, to improving command and control techniques at the battalion and brigade levels.
Defense Institution Building Was Essential
The discussion thus far has focused on tactical training efforts at the brigade level and lower. Yet bottom-up transformation also required top-down change. To make lower-level changes permanent required organizational and ministry-level reform. Legislative approval was also essential to ensure that the military has both the necessary legal authorization and financial resources to undertake doctrinal change.
The Ukrainian experience is especially instructive in this respect. The U.S. embassy put a concerted effort into pushing for high-level bureaucratic and legal reform within the government. Their efforts appear to have paid large dividends. U.S. security cooperation personnel and a small number of embedded U.S. and other NATO advisors in the Ministry of Defense provided sustained engagement, supported by key engagements by the ambassadors and other State Department personnel. A Multinational Joint Committee of NATO general officers travelled to Kyiv every six months, providing yet another opportunity for key leaders to remain engaged on both sides of the relationship. Together, these helped to produce the hard but necessary systemic changes necessary for defense transformation.
Warzone Learning Labs
Both Ukraine and the Baltic states benefited from deploying and fighting. First-hand combat experience gave their leaders and soldiers alike a chance to hone their warfighting skills in a real-world combat environment. For the Baltic states, this experience came in the form of deployments to Afghanistan (largely, but not exclusively, undertaken by special operations forces). Fighting alongside other NATO forces also gave these units an unparalleled opportunity to practice coordination and combined operations in combat environment.
For Ukraine, seven years of fighting in the Donbas provided combat experience for thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and officers. U.S. security cooperation officials observed that the static but violent fighting gave some Ukrainian brigades the chance to employ recently acquired Western tactics, techniques, and procedures. Overall, however, the static nature of most of this combat did not lend itself to furthering greater use of the mission command concept and the greater reliance on empowering non-commissioned officers being pushed by NATO partners.
Professional Military Education
The Baltic states made attendance at professional military education programs in the United States and other NATO countries a key element in the development of their officer corps, according to a former U.S. special operations officer who works closely with these militaries. Professional military education, particularly for the more senior ranks, provides the opportunity for extended exposure to NATO standard practices and a network of Western military peers. Most of the senior leadership ranks of Baltic state militaries are filled with graduates of U.S. senior service colleges, demonstrating a significant return on investment from America’s International Military Education and Training Program.
Although this program’s funding has also paid for the education of Ukrainian officers at U.S. senior service colleges, these graduates to date have not been selected for senior leadership positions. Former U.S. security assistance personnel have indicated the need for conditionality in future assistance to Ukraine requiring that senior service college graduates be placed in designated positions in the Ukrainian military to justify the cost of their schooling. This is important, as we contend that it is the utilization of these personnel in positions where their militaries can best take advantage of their education that is most important, not simply sending officers to these schools.
Rapid Change Demanded a Comprehensive Approach
Our conversations with security cooperation officials suggest that before February 2022, Ukrainian command and control above the brigade level was significantly improving, but still a work in progress. Defense transformation takes time. Many officials describe how it took time to develop momentum for change within the Ukrainian armed forces as all of these factors — particularly defense institution building and opening higher-level exercises to NATO advisors — gradually took hold.
Importantly, there is a synergistic effect, and each line of effort amplified the effect of the others. For example, units that had received training from NATO militaries (or whose commanders had been educated in U.S. or NATO staff colleges) were more receptive and open to further engagement and mentoring during subsequent Ukrainian training exercises, while others were still reluctant to allow NATO mentors access. Similarly, doctrine changes had to be authorized by the Ukrainian parliament before they could be implemented large-scale across the Ukrainian armed forces.
Are These Lessons Relevant for Taiwan?
It goes without saying that Taiwan is not Ukraine. Nor is it Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. The differences are important, especially as American and Taiwanese decision-makers consider which aspects of previous security cooperation efforts to emulate, and which to discard. Thankfully, some of the most obvious differences offset one another, which is why we consider lessons learned from both Ukraine and the Baltic states. For example, the Baltic states enjoy a formal defense commitment from the United States. Taiwan does not. But neither does Ukraine. Ukraine has strategic depth, which Taiwan — like the Baltic states — lacks. Both Ukraine and the Baltic states share a land border with NATO, while Taiwan is hundreds of miles away from its closest potential military partner.
More relevant to the question of training reform is the fact that all five of these militaries faced — or, in Taiwan’s case, continue to face — the same basic organizational challenge: To cope with an increasingly real security threat, each needed to transform from hierarchical, hollow organizations overly reliant on outdated weapons into far more decentralized and combat-credible fighting forces. All five needed an external “shock” to overcome institutional inertia and jump-start the reform process. For Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the fear of Russian revanchism and the hope of NATO membership provided the necessary impetus from the moment they gained independence. For Ukraine, the shock came from Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and destabilization of the Donbas. For Taiwan, Russia’s renewed attack on Ukraine in 2022 seems to have finally set the necessary alarm bells off.
At the same time, any future security cooperation effort in Taiwan should deal with three important differences between the challenges facing Kyiv, Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius and those facing Taipei.
First and foremost, Taiwanese forces should be trained and ready to “fight tonight” to a far greater degree. Ukraine’s strategic depth and shared border with NATO make it relatively easy for the two to work together, even as the fighting rages. Although Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are far smaller than Ukraine (or Taiwan), even in the face of a (highly unlikely) overwhelming Russian onslaught their forces could conceivably fall back on allied territory to regroup, refit, and retrain. Unfortunately, hundreds of miles of water separate Taiwan from its closest potential security partner, and 7,000 miles of water separate it from the continental United States. It stands to reason that Beijing will do everything it can to isolate Taiwan before invading it, thereby eliminating meaningful opportunities for training once hostilities begin.
Second, Ukrainian forces had the chance to learn from fighting in the Donbas between 2014 and 2022. Seven years of war created combat-experienced units and leaders, generating critical lessons. Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian soldiers had the opportunity to serve in Afghanistan, and of course have a front-row view of the fighting in Ukraine. It seems safe to say that Beijing is unlikely to give Taiwan a similar opportunity. If Chinese war planners have their way, the Taiwanese military’s baptism by fire will also be its funeral.
Finally, Chinese red lines complicate the provision of military training to a much greater degree than has been the case for Ukraine and the Baltic states. To be sure, U.S. and NATO policymakers had to engineer around Russian paranoia and the NATO-Russia Founding Act when designing training programs for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Moscow’s mistrust toward Ukraine’s westward tilt placed similar limitations on Western efforts in that country after 2014. But those constraints pale in comparison to the ones facing prospective security training efforts in Taiwan. Specifically, it has been long understood that Beijing considers the presence of foreign troops on Taiwan to be a justification for war. This concern is a key reason why Washington has long gone out of its way to minimize or otherwise maintain plausible deniability over the servicemen and women it has routinely sent to Taiwan over the past four decades. Thus, sending large numbers of small-unit trainers to, or organizing large-scale exercises on, Taiwan are likely non-starters as options.
Recommendations for Washington and Taipei
How, then, should Washington proceed? We offer three recommendations.
Training, Not Arms Sales, Should Be the New Priority
Arms sales dominate the Taiwan debate in Washington. But having the best weapons in the world will not matter if Taiwanese troops lack the training — and the realistic doctrinal concepts — to use them. Furthermore, many of the most high-profile weapons will not make it to Taiwan for years. For example, the 100 AIM-9X Block II Sidewinders approved for sale in September 2022 will make it to Taiwan in 2030. And even if the United States finds a way to expedite the delivery of already-sold weapons, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense will struggle to absorb such an influx. It admitted as much when Washington began exploring ways to speed up the delivery of 66 F-16s — authorized for sale in 2019 — last January.
History is littered with failed militaries (Iraq and Afghanistan serve as recent examples) that proved unable to make effective use of the high-tech weaponry given or sold to them by the United States. We, like most American defense commentators and Taiwan’s former Chief of the General Staff, hope that Taiwan’s military will embrace asymmetric doctrinal concepts as part of this process. But regardless of how the Ministry of National Defense plans on countering a Chinese invasion force, as long as Washington leaves open the possibility that it will come to Taiwan’s aid, it should do what it can to make Taiwanese units as effective as possible.
Authorize and Fund a Comprehensive, Bottom-Up Security Cooperation Program
The Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian examples illustrate that transformation requires change from the bottom up. Congress should therefore authorize and appropriate funding to enact a holistic security cooperation program with Taiwan. Existing efforts, such as the recently approved State Partnership Program, the decision to let Taiwan participate in the International Military Education and Training program, and the authority to maintain an enduring rotational training presence on Taiwan as stipulated in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, are all good starts. So too is the push to incorporate Taiwanese observers into large, high-profile multinational exercises like the Rim of the Pacific (better known as RIMPAC).
Washington can build on this foundation in three ways. First, although concerns over how Beijing might react to the presence of foreign troops will likely keep the American footprint on Taiwan relatively small, there are ways to maximize the impact of even a small presence. In particular, the Biden administration should push Taipei to embed American advisors in Taiwanese training commands and units and can encourage allies to do the same. Ukraine’s 2021 Joint Endeavor exercise shows how this was finally starting to occur and bear fruit at senior levels in the Ukrainian military. Although Washington may be inclined to leverage private military contractors to keep its profile low, the track record of such efforts has a checkered history. Any contracted advisory support needs to be embedded within U.S. military organizations rather than in place of them.
Second, the Department of Defense should integrate Taiwanese officers and staffs into joint U.S. exercises. Transformation efforts in Ukraine and the Baltic states suggest that such efforts pay tremendous dividends in terms of training senior staffs and officers in partner militaries, and in terms of improving coordination and familiarity on both sides of the relationship. Although the priority is to put Taiwanese observers and liaison officers on U.S. staffs, the eventual goal should be to also integrate American officers into Taiwanese staffs during exercises. Washington’s ability to coordinate with Taiwanese forces in a war could turn on these sorts of efforts.
Finally, Congress should let the Department of Defense train Taiwanese units in the United States. The fact is that while the National Defense Authorization Act lets the department maintain an enduring, rotational training presence in Taiwan, wholesale, bottom-up transformation of how Taiwan’s military trains demands an approach far larger in scale. One option is to rotate Taiwanese companies and eventually battalions through training cycles at U.S. facilities, particularly combat training centers. The U.S. Army’s new Joint Pacific Multinational Training Center in Hawaii is a logical destination. But the U.S. Army’s National and Joint Readiness Training Centers in Fort Irwin, California and Fort Polk, Louisiana, as well as the Air Force’s Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force Base, make sense as well.
Reinforce Bottom-Up Change with a Concerted Push for Top-Down Reform
Reform efforts in Ukraine and the Baltic states make it clear that changing how an army trains at the bottom requires changing the way it does business at the top. It is no secret that Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has long resisted change. Tsai has struggled to overcome opposition from her senior generals and officers, at least in part because she lacks an effective bureaucratic mechanism for maintaining civilian oversight, supervision, and control. Specifically, she has no equivalent to the Office of the Secretary of Defense to which she can turn when implementing an unpopular decision.
Creating something similar to the Office of the Secretary of Defense within the Ministry of National Defense is obviously a monumental undertaking and something that Taiwan must decide to do for itself. However, Washington can help Taipei to lay the groundwork. Biden administration officials — particularly those working within the Office of the Secretary of Defense — can provide their Taiwanese counterparts with a blueprint and roadmap. The Department of Defense can ensure that every mid-career and senior Taiwanese officer sent to the United States for professional military education spends time in the Office of the Secretary of Defense to see how it works. Congress also has a role to play. It can create and fund tailored programs to educate young politicians from across the Taiwanese political spectrum on the finer points of civilian oversight of the military, to include meetings with senior American defense officials, conversations with staff from the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, and opportunities to meet and work alongside defense analysts at D.C. think tanks. Congressional members traveling to Taiwan can ensure that this issue is one of their main talking points when meeting with Taiwanese officials and legislators behind closed doors. Most important, Congress should consider adding conditions and strings to the billions of dollars in Foreign Military Financing grants authorized by the most recent National Defense Act.
Time is running out for Taiwan’s military to adapt to the not-so-new threat environment. Of course, no one knows if war is imminent, because no one knows what is going on inside of Xi’s mind. But as long as Xi keeps the use of force on the table, Taipei and Washington should do everything in their power to convince him that the costs of making that choice will vastly exceed the benefits.
The decision to extend conscription can go a long way toward reshaping Xi’s calculus, especially if it is paired with a dramatic improvement in training quality. But it takes time to change an army. Even the Ukrainian military’s rapid modernization, which remains a work in progress, took seven years — the equivalent of a blink of an eye in bureaucratic terms. The road ahead could be even longer for Taiwan’s military in light of the constraints that it must navigate.
Thankfully, Washington can help to expedite the process. Our experience assisting Ukraine and the Baltic states offers a combat-tested model showing how.
Jerad I. Harper, Ph.D., is an active-duty U.S. Army colonel and an assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College. These views are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Michael A. Hunzeker (@MichaelHunzeker) is an associate 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.