Taiwan military holds war games amid troubles

A handout photo showing an Amphibious Armoured Personnel Carrier being loaded onto a warship in the Han Kuang 32 military drill. The five-day annual exercise began on Monday.
A handout photo showing an Amphibious Armoured Personnel Carrier being loaded onto a warship in the Han Kuang 32 military drill. The five-day annual exercise began on Monday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
A handout photo showing an Amphibious Armoured Personnel Carrier being loaded onto a warship in the Han Kuang 32 military drill. The five-day annual exercise began on Monday.
A handout photo showing an Amphibious Armoured Personnel Carrier being loaded onto a warship in the Han Kuang 32 military drill. The five-day annual exercise began on Monday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Largest live-fire exercise follows incidents highlighting training and discipline lapses

Taiwan's armed forces are staging their largest-ever live-fire war drills although there are worries of serious problems in the military after a string of incidents.

The five-day annual exercise, codenamed Han Kuang 32, began on Monday and involves conventional sea landings on Kinmen island - just 2km off the coast of China's Fujian province and 275km from the main Taiwan island - and Pingtung county on the south-eastern edge of Taiwan island.

The war games also include electronic warfare and defending the island against cyber attacks.

The drills, aimed at ensuring that Taiwan is battle-ready in the event of an invasion from mainland China, come amid a chill in cross-strait ties after the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party's leader Tsai Ing-wen took power as President in May.

Ms Tsai, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has an even bigger worry, however, as she witnesses the exercise today. Questions over deep-seated issues within the military have been highlighted by several recent incidents.

Last week, one of its tanks, while returning to camp after preparatory drills for the war games, veered off its tracks and plunged into a river, killing three of the five soldiers on board. A fourth died two days later.

  • RECENT INCIDENTS

    LAST WEEK

    While returning to camp after preparatory drills for the war games, an army tank plunged into a river (above), killing three of the five soldiers on board. A fourth died two days later.

    LAST WEEK

    There were security breaches in the military's intelligence unit and the National Defence University.

    LAST MONTH 

    A supersonic anti-ship missile was accidentally fired by a petty officer during a training drill when he switched from simulation to combat mode, hitting a Taiwanese fishing boat and killing its captain.

    JUNE 

    A dog was killed by some marines at a military base.

Also revealed last week were separate security breaches in the military's intelligence unit and the National Defence University.

And last month, an anti-ship missile was accidentally fired by a petty officer during training, hitting a Taiwanese fishing boat and killing its captain. This incident and the killing of a dog by some marines in June at a military base have raised concerns.

Ms Tsai herself last month acknowledged the need for reforms to address problems ranging from limited resources to training, morale and discipline. But pressure is also coming from the opposition. Kuomintang legislator Chiang Chi- chen has called for Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan's resignation, saying the government needs to "tighten the screws" in the military.

Dr Alexander Huang, chairman of the think-tank Council on Strategic and War Gaming Studies, said the longstanding problems of manpower shortage and limited resources have put a strain on the troops, who are expected do more with less. "With fewer people to fill the same number of combat roles, troops are overstretched and can't cope with the workload. The additional stress may then inadvertently cause lapses."

Indeed, the manpower shortage - with few people willing to sign up for the military - has meant a postponement of a transition to an all-volunteer force.

Dr Huang, who is also a professor at Tamkang University, added that the road to reform will be a difficult one, "no matter who is in power".

He said the priority would be to relook all procedures to streamline work processes to reduce the burden on military personnel.

The Ministry of National Defence will also have to find ways to better fund the military to boost its firepower and recruit more people. But that will prove difficult as the military competes for funds with other government agencies.

The government-run Central News Agency reported that the island's defence expenditure would expand to NT$321.7 billion (S$13.7 billion) next year, a NT$1.6 billion or 0.5 per cent increase over actual expenditure this year.

There is also a perception among the Taiwanese that their island is safe from war. Nearly 60 per cent of its young people said in a 2012 poll that they did not see themselves fighting a war with China.

Professor William Sharp, a visiting scholar at Taiwan's top think- tank Academia Sinica, attributes this to a "false sense of security" given that the US-Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 provides for Washington to come to Taiwan's aid if it is attacked. "Many of them think that the United States will come to Taiwan's defence, which may not be true," he said in a recent article.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline 'Taiwan military holds war games amid troubles'. Print Edition | Subscribe