The Ministry of National Defense last week took a group of reporters on a tour of the nation’s three military services, an event meant to highlight their ability to defend the nation from foreign aggression.
The visits, which included stops at an air defense base in Chiayi, an Army base in Penghu and a Navy base in Zuoying, Kaohsiung, drove home a few points about the state of the nation’s military: While the services are filled with dedicated men and women, and although every effort was made to showcase their high morale, there is no denying that the equipment they use is aging — fast.
This situation would not be so alarming if Taiwan did not face a strong adversary or was not facing the all-too-real threat of invasion. Nor would it make one apprehensive if the enemy had maintained a pace of modernization similar to that of Taiwan. However, the reality is that the frontline systems presented during the media tour — battle tanks, mine hunters, fighter aircraft — seem increasingly antiquated when compared with the weapons fielded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in recent years. Some are, in fact, museum pieces kept operational for lack of newer equipment.
From the German-built minehunter ship boarded by reporters and the lone submarine submerging in the distance at Zuoying, to the M60A3 main battle tanks rumbling by on Penghu and the F-16A/Bs firing flares during a simulated air attack in Chiayi, it is becoming clear that despite the impeccable maintenance of those platforms, Taiwan is fast losing its edge in the Taiwan Strait. Even non-military experts could see that.
Despite the scarcity of modern systems acquired by Taiwan in recent years, such as Patriot air defense systems and Apache attack helicopters, which in qualitative terms may still keep up with Chinese equivalents, the balance quickly evaporates when the orders of battle are weighed in quantitative terms. In other words, with few exceptions, both qualitatively and quantitatively, Taiwan is running out of gas while the PLA is rushing ahead at breakneck speed.
Furthermore, since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office, the defense ministry has been ordered to cut back on live fire drills, the utility of which in ensuring military preparedness cannot be compensated for no matter how many computer simulations are held. For three years in a row, the nation’s defense budget as a share of GDP has also fallen and will be just 2.6 percent of GDP next year — this amid very expensive efforts to create a fully professional military by 2015, a goal that increasingly looks like a pipe dream.
The Ma administration has staked its defense posture on the premise that its diplomatic overtures to Beijing will succeed. Though a peaceful approach to conflict resolution is commendable, doing so with China carries far too many unknowns for Taipei to forsake a robust defense. In fact, investment in the military is not antithetical to a diplomatic approach to longstanding tensions in the Taiwan Strait; it is, rather, responsible planning for various — by no means impossible — scenarios.
For the sake of the dedicated men and women, career soldiers and conscripts alike, who every day put their lives on the line to ensure that Taiwan’s way of life continues unthreatened, the Ma administration should get serious about defense and stop pretending that, a mere two years into cross-strait rapprochement, peace in the Taiwan Strait is upon us, or that today’s relative calm will inevitably extend into the future. Our men and women deserve systems and resources that are equal to the immense challenge they would face should confrontation replace diplomacy in a future scenario.
Though for the moment Beijing’s “peaceful” approach appears to be paying dividends, we should be in no doubt that it is equally prepared for a non-peaceful outcome.
This editorial, based on my two-day tour with the Ministry of National Defense last week, appeared in the Taipei Times on Tuesday.